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Over 14 million Texans are still without safe water as officials grapple with crisis

Biden approves disaster declaration in Texas
Biden approves major disaster declaration in Texas 07:30

Water is slowly returning to Texans nearly a week after an unprecedented winter storm led to widespread power outages and created water issues for millions. More than 14 million people are still without water or are under boil water notices. 

"We've seen the total population being impacted by that go down to about 14.3 million, where it was about 14.9 million yesterday," said Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, at a press conference Saturday. Residents with no water dropped from 350,000 to about 156,000 overnight, he said.

Public water systems in Texas are any system that has more than 15 connections — in all about 7,000 systems — which makes returning water to residents primarily a local responsibility, according to Baker. "These aren't necessarily the size of Houston, or the size of Austin, these are rural connections and rural water systems as well," he explained. 

Through mobile labs and partnerships with labs from the EPA, neighboring states, and large municipalities, Texas has now identified enough facilities to test samples from the more than 1,000 systems still left under a boil water notice, according to Baker. 

"Right now we have the capacity in those labs to handle the samples that are required to lift the boil water notices," Baker said. 

"My hope is...  that we've hit sort of the worst and we've stabilized, and now it's just sort of getting out of the hole that we're in." 

As of Saturday morning, the storm had been linked to at least 27 deaths in the state, and food and safe drinking water were in short supply for many. 

Baker said the state has never seen a winter weather event of this magnitude. "We're not the northeast, we're not Minnesota," he said, calling the storm a "huge learning experience." 

"If this happens again in our lifetime we will be prepared for it," Baker said. 

A "full review" of the regulations that allowed millions to go without power for days has been called for. Governor Greg Abbott has issued an executive order which added emergency items to the state's legislative session asking the legislature to investigate ERCOT's preparation and response to the storm.

Texas Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd criticized the state's lack of reserved drinking water. "There need to be more locations across the state, at the local level and the state level, of where resources are staged or stored before the event," Kidd said.

"Bluntly, we have very limited supply at the local government level of cities that just have warehouses full of bottled water that are owned by the city, or that have meals ready to eat that are owned by the local government — they usually don't exist," he said. We rely on the private sector for our everyday needs."  

President Joe Biden has declared that Texas is experiencing a major disaster. People in 77 of the state's 254 counties will be eligible for federal funding to help with recovery efforts. The assistance includes grants for temporary housing and home repairs, as well as "low-cost loans" to cover uninsured property losses, the White House said Saturday in a statement

Li Cohen contributed reporting.

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