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Deep freeze seizes Texas: Some reasons why the storm has been so disruptive

Wednesday, February 17th 2021, 4:01 pm - Differences in Canadian infrastructure versus Texas infrastructure have contributed to widespread shutdowns in the Lone Star state.

A rare deep freeze settled into Texas and parts of neighbouring Mexico over the long weekend, with temperatures dipping as low as -22C in some places.

At one point, nearly five million Texans lost power, an ordeal that continues into today. While some have seen the lights flicker back on, millions remain in the dark.

As Texans wait out a deep chill they aren't accustomed to, state power grid operators said Tuesday they "can’t predict" when power will be restored, Dallas News reports, sparking a debate about operators failing to adequately plan for the cold in the “name of deregulation and free markets,” The Washington Post writes.

On Saturday, U.S. President Joe Biden approved the state's request to declare a federal emergency. Temperatures are expected to remain around the freezing mark for the next few days, a full 16 degrees Celsius below seasonal.


On top of outages some have lost water, forcing residents to haul in snow to flush their toilets. As of Tuesday night, officials had received more than 685 calls about broken water pipes in the city of Austin alone.

On Wednesday Houston officials issued a boil water notice for the city's more than 2 million residents as frigid temperatures sent water pressure plummeting below the required minimum of 20 PSI, triggering a mandatory response.

It joins an advisory issued for the broader Harris County the day before.

"This will not improve until more power is restored," a county statement said via the Houston Chronicle.

Residents are being advised to use bottled or boiled water for drinking, food preparation, and cleaning, as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and avoid using water from appliances like fridges and freezers.

A boil water notice was also issued in nearby Galveston County, due to frozen and bursting pipes.


Another winter storm will impact 100 million people in the southern and eastern U.S. in the coming days, including the areas of Texas currently battling power outages.

Icy roads have created treacherous driving conditions and contributed to several accidents, including a horrific 133-car pileup last Thursday that left at least six people dead and dozens injured.


In most parts of Canada, spells around the -20 mark aren't out of the ordinary, and we have developed tactics to navigate the cold.

Canadian winter tires are mandatory in some provinces and recommended nationwide. Each year officials remind Canadians to plan ahead for winter driving conditions, including topping up on washer fluid, keeping a phone charger and snow scraper onboard, and packing blankets in the trunk.

And even with years of experience and safety guards in place, unusually large storms can be disruptive in Canada as well. Heavy snowfall closed schools in Quebec and Ontario this week, and a high-impact storm is expected to hit Atlantic Canada in a few days, creating the potential for traffic slowdowns and closures.

Other points about Canadian cars versus those in Texas: Some cars in Canada have engine block heaters installed to prevent the battery from dying and additives are added to our gas to prevent fuel lines from freezing.


And then there's the matter of building codes.

Canadian homes are built differently than those in Texas. Here, they are constructed with the cold in mind.

Insulation provides our homes and pipes with an added bit of warmth and can prevent freezing. Homes are insulated in Texas as well, but requirements are different.


Home insulation is measured by R-value, which classifies how well materials can resist heat. The higher the R-value, the more effective it is at maintaining a steady temperature.

Insulation with a lower R-value allows for more air to transfer through a structure's walls, floor, and ceiling.

Historically, Texas doesn't get as cold as Canada during the winter and especially not for an extended period, like what we're seeing now. Builders construct homes in Texas with local, historical climate trends in mind and, because of that, insulation in Texas tends to allow for more air to flow through when compared to the insulation found in many Canadian homes.

"It's definitely true that building codes are developed with natural disasters in mind," says Weather Network meteorologist Michael Carter.

"Whether it's earthquakes in California or hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, the landscape around us and its hazards play a major role in how we design the structures we live in."

But when disasters occur that fall outside of historical conditions, homes aren't always equipped to handle those situations.

"In cases like this week's extreme cold outbreak in Texas, homes that are built to cope with summer heat are in many cases not providing adequate shelter against the bitter temperatures," Carter says.

"These are some of the coldest temperatures that Texas has endured," adds Weather Network meteorologist Matt Grinter.

"Many places broke daily temperature records over the past few days."


San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood told CNN his office has been "inundated with calls" of carbon monoxide poisoning with people in powerless homes using stoves, grills, or gas generators to keep warm, all of which are a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

In Harris County, more than a dozen residents were taken to the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning, seven of them children. In Houston, a mother and one of her children died Monday after starting the car in the garage in an attempt to stay warm.

There has also been an uptick in fires, some due to the use of unconventional heating devices and open flames.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colourless, odourless, and tasteless gas that is a byproduct of burning gas, wood, propane, charcoal, or other fuels, the Mayo Clinic says.

When too much builds up in the bloodstream, it can cause serious tissue damage or death.


Tips from the Center for Disease Control in the U.S. on avoiding carbon monoxide poisoning include:

  • Keeping your heating system, water heater, and any other gas, oil, or coal-burning appliances regularly serviced.
  • Installing a CO detector in your home and replacing the batteries each fall.
  • Seeking prompt medical attention if you suspect CO poisoning. Symptoms include dizziness as well as feeling light-headed and nauseous.
  • Never running a vehicle inside a garage, even if the door is open.
  • Never burning anything in a stove or fireplace that isn't properly vented.
  • Never heating your home with a gas oven.
  • Never using generators, charcoal grills, camp stoves, or other gasoline or charcoal-burning devices indoors unless they are directly beside an open window, door, or vent.

With files from Matt Grinter.

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