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(Recasts with Harris County and governor's Abbott pressconferences)
By Go Nakamura and Brad Brooks
HOUSTON, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Texas officials warned of"disasters within the disaster" of historic cold weather thatleft millions without heat for a third day on Wednesday, tellingresidents to prepare for energy to not return until the weekend.
Residents in over 100 counties in Texas have been told toboil their drinking water as treatment plants continue to sufferfrom energy blackouts, officials said. Upward of 12 millionpeople in the state -- the country's second largest with apopulation of roughly 29 million -- have either have no drinkingwater on tap in their homes or have drinking water availableonly intermittently.
Energy remains out for 2.7 million households, officialssaid. With freezing temperatures expected through the weekend,getting the lights back on will be a slow process, as the statehas lost 40% of its generating capacity, with natural gas wellsand pipelines, along with wind turbines, frozen shut.
Hospitals in Houston, the state's largest city, andelsewhere in Texas have reported they have no water. Nearly twodozens deaths have been attributed to the cold snap. Officialssay they suspect many more people have died - but their bodieshave not been discovered yet.
On Wednesday evening, officials told residents in the mostpopulous parts of the state to brace for another round offreezing rain and snow in the next 24 hours.
The cold forced some residents to choose between staying indark and cold homes, some with frozen or broken water pipes, orface possible COVID-19 exposure at local relief centers.
"This is in many ways disasters within the disaster," saidJudge Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County,which encompasses Houston. "The cascading effects are not goingto go away."
COLD AND SILENCE
Governor Greg Abbott told a news conference that he expecteda nuclear plant in south Texas to come back online Wednesdaynight, which along with coal-fired plants' returning tooperations should provide enough power for 400,000 homes.
Abbott, a Republican, has demanded an investigation into themanagement of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas(ERCOT), a cooperative responsible for 90% of the state'selectricity.
Critics say ERCOT did not heed federal warnings after asimilar cold-weather meltdown in 2011 to ensure that Texas'energy infrastructure, which relies primarily on natural gas,was winterized.
"Every source of power the state of Texas has access to hasbeen compromised because of the cold temperature or because ofequipment failures," Abbott said.
Laura Nowell, a 45-year-old mother of four in Waco, said herfamily has been without electricity since before dawn on Mondayand has tried to keep warm by bundling up and sitting in theircar for short stints.
"We've never had this much cold. There is ice everywhere,"Nowell said, adding that she was frustrated by the lack ofcommunication about rolling blackouts to conserve the powergrid. "Tell me what's going on. It's silence."
Texas' deregulated energy market gives few financialincentives for operators to prepare for the rare bout ofintensely cold weather, an issue critics have been pointing outfor years.
ERCOT, which instituted blackouts to cope with the surge indemand, asked that people focus on fixing the problem firstbefore assigning blame. It said it hoped that soon customerswould have to cope only with short rolling blackouts.
"The best case at this point is that today or tomorrow we'reable to at least get back down to the point where all theconsumers are experiencing outages that are no longer than 30minutes to an hour at a time," Dan Woodfin, ERCOT's seniordirector of system operations, told a briefing.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat, blamed the powerfailures on a lack of preparedness and also called for reforms.
"We need to start taking a look at extreme weather. It's notas unusual as it used to be," Adler told MSNBC.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has supplied Texaswith generators and is preparing to provide diesel fuel to helpensure availability of backup power, White House spokeswoman JenPsaki told reporters on Wednesday. President Joe Biden approvedan emergency declaration for the state on Sunday.
People were coping the best they could.
Trilby Landry, a 57-year-old homeless man, was escaping thecold at the Gallery Furniture store in Houston, which opened itsdoors as a warming center, joining people who had fled homeswith busted heating systems and water pipes.
"We're makeshifting," Landry said in an phone interview."Everybody's in a whirlwind right now. They are letting peoplesleep on couches and chairs. People just want to go home."(Reporting by Go Nakamura and Erwin Seba in Houston, BradBrooks in Lubbock, Texas, Susan Heavey in Washington, BarbaraGoldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Peter Szekely in New York,Nandita Bose in Washington and Nathan Layne in Wilton,Connecticut; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Leslie Adler)