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Federal, local aid in the works for Greater Waco victims of freeze

Greater Waco is still sizing up the aftermath of last week’s record freeze, including broken pipes, damaged buildings, and a need for food and drinking water, and local leaders are pointing needy residents to federal disaster relief.

Local officials and nonprofits are still trying to determine how much immediate assistance Waco needs and how much damage has occurred as a result of winter storms last week. McLennan County is one of 108 counties in Texas under a federal disaster declaration allowing individuals and businesses to apply for recovery money.

“We’re working to procure every dollar that we can and are prepared to respond to the restoration and repair process excellently,” Waco Mayor Dillon Meek said.

Waco-McLennan County Emergency Operations Coordinator Elizabeth Thomas said the federal assistance programs are meant as a last resort, after people with insurance have filed their storm-related claims. To apply, go to www.disasterassistance.gov or call 1-800-621-3362.

She said the two assessments the city issued, one asking people to list what their needs are and one asking people to list what they can donate, will help officials get a sense of how many people are in need. The surveys can be found online at waco-texas.com/recovery.

“Documenting all those damages and associated costs is going to directly impact our federal reimbursement rate,” Thomas said.

Thomas said cities that accept federal help have to cover at least 25% of the cost, and FEMA covers the rest.

In Waco, 215 households were still without water as of 2:45 p.m. Monday. Water department spokesman Jonathan Echols said the water system is using around 30 million gallons per day, lower than previous days but still higher than the 18 to 20 million it would normally use on a winter day.

Echols said the city repaired 80 of the more than 100 leaks that have sprung up since the storm. Fresh leaks will continue to form over the next two days or so as pipes warm, officials said.

The damage has reached homes, businesses and institutions, including Baylor Scott & White’s McClinton Cancer Center on Hillcrest Medical Blvd. The center is temporarily closed after the building took significant storm damage, a spokeswoman told the Tribune-Herald in an email. She said the center is rescheduling clients, giving treatments at alternate locations and making transportation arrangements for patients who need it.

Rod Aydelotte, Tribune-Herald 

A water leak at River Square Center in downtown Waco forced stores to close over the weekend.

The Waco Foundation has partnered with the city of Waco to form an emergency fund, which will focus on collecting donations and distributing them to nonprofits that focus on immediate needs like food and home repair. As of Monday, the Waco Foundation had accrued a $25,000 gift to seed the fund.

“We’re still working out the programming for the home repair piece,” said Natalie Kelinske, the foundation’s communications director. “That’s kind of the last piece. We’ll be able to announce, hopefully tomorrow, who the new nonprofits are that we’re going to be working with and what the eligibility is for home repairs and things like that.”

Meek said people should feel free to donate directly to specific nonprofits they want to support, but Waco Foundation is best-equipped to manage the overall relief fund.

“Waco Foundation is best set up to administrate a fund like this, more so than the city” Meek said. “People were calling, saying ‘What’s the best way for us to give?’”

Meek said the city does not plan to contribute to the fund directly at this time. He said the city has already incurred “exorbitant costs” during the disaster: opening emergency warming shelters, repairing damage to the water system and treatment plants, distributing water, and taking emergency measures such as sanding roadways. He said city staff is still working on an itemized list of the costs so far to request aid from the federal and state government.

“I’m really proud our EOC has come together around this coordinated, strategic effort, to begin to assess the data to move forward” Meek said.

The foundation created similar community funds for the city of West after the 2013 chemical plant explosion and for Waco’s COVID-19 response. Kelinske said city was interested in creating a single fund where people could donate for storm relief, something other Texas cities are doing.

“When West happened, there were donations coming in from all over the United States and really the world, because it was something that just happened there,” Kelinske said. “In this case, it was all over Texas. I think what we’ll see are businesses and families who were not as severely impacted wanting to give back to those who were.”

Caritas of Waco will serve as a partner, receiving funding and distributing immediate resources like clothing and help with utility payments.

“If they see a spike in the number of people accessing resources because of Winter Storm Uri, this fund would support those individuals and families,” Kelinske said.

Anne Owen, co-executive director of Caritas of Waco, said that spike started on Monday morning. The Caritas food distribution center at 300 S. 15th Street in Waco served about 125 families before 11 a.m. Monday, as many as it would normally serve in a whole day. Owen said bottled water, which is supplied by Central Texas Food Bank, was in high demand.

“Since it’s the first day it’s hard to say, but it is comparable to the first days of the COVID-19 shutdown,” Owen said.

She said as the weather warms up her staff expects to see more people coming to the center, and Caritas needs more volunteers than usual. More people than usual are calling in to ask about assistance with utilities, especially gas and electric bills, and asking for help with home repairs.

“If someone has a $5,000 electric bill, we probably can’t help them with all of that,” Owen said. “But we will hopefully be able to help them with a portion of it.”


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Marlin gets its water back a week after winter storm left it bone dry

Recovery is finally beginning for Marlin, one of the places hardest-hit by last week’s Texas winter weather disaster.

The Falls County town of 5,607 spent most of last week without water amid widespread power outages and subfreezing temperatures. Stores quickly ran out of bottled water early last week, and icy roads thwarted efforts to haul drinking water in until Friday, when help came from the city of Waco.

Rod Aydelotte, Tribune-Herald 

A work crew works on a break in a 6-inch water line off Fortune Street in Marlin.

Marlin began pumping water again Monday from its water treatment plant, which had been knocked out by a power outage Feb. 14, but at the rate of 1,300 gallons per minute it took hours to get pressure in the system. In the meantime, residents lined up for nonpotable water provided by a tanker truck from H-E-B.

By day’s end, most residents had running water again, City Manager Cedric Davis said.

“The towers are filling pretty good,” said Davis, whose own water had been out from last week through Monday morning. “I’d say probably 85% of the city is back up. … My biggest concern is all the leaks around town.”

Rod Aydelotte, Tribune-Herald 

City of Marlin officials said their water towers were finally filling up Monday afternoon.

Davis is hoping the federal disaster declaration that President Joe Biden signed Saturday for Falls and 107 other Texas counties will help the city and its residents pay for the damage to water infrastructure, which is still being calculated.

He said on a call with state officials Monday, he learned that cities were instructed to document what they spend on receipts and submit them to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will reimburse 75% of the repair costs.

Individuals can also file with FEMA to reimburse disaster-related damages not covered by insurance, and Davis said the city will be reaching out to residents to help them apply.

Davis said it appears that Oncor, the electric delivery company, will pay for the damage caused the night of Feb. 14, when an outage followed by a surge destroyed air compressors at the plant.

Oriana Martinez, cashier at El Charro Mexican Restaurant in downtown Marlin, said the restaurant reopened to hungry customers Monday after a week of staying closed and keeping food on ice.

“We’re just doing to-go orders, due to us not having so much water pressure to keep washing dishes,” she said. “We’re giving out food on paper.”

Roger Nutt, owner of Williams Feed Store, said his store also got water service back Monday, but he had a bigger problem on his hands.

“My concern is that we’ve been out of feed for the last week,” he said, adding that Purina and other manufacturers halted production because of natural gas shortages.

The prolonged water outage would be familiar to any longtime Marlin resident. The city opened a modern water treatment plant using a state grant in 2009 after years of water outages and quality problems. On Thanksgiving Day 2015, the city lost water service due to clogged filters at the new plant, and service was not restored for a week.

Four years later the city got another state infrastructure grant that included $6.33 million for refurbishing the water plant and building 7 miles of water line.

Mayor Carolyn Lofton said she has relied on bottled water for years, and she had several cases when cold weather hit Feb. 11. She said the city also called the Texas Department of Emergency Management about that time and asked for resources ahead of the storm. H-E-B and Walmart ran out of water that weekend, and icy roads set back deliveries during the week, she said.

“I think people realized they might want to get some supply,” she said. “I noticed the stores were full of people buying supplies. A lot of people bought food to cook, but it didn’t do them much good if they had electric stoves.”

She had enough water to share Monday when she had 24 people taking shelter in her home, which didn’t lose power.

In the meantime, she was preoccupied with getting the water plant repaired and getting drinking water to residents, both goals blocked by icy roads. When the city manager and fire chief drove to Hillsboro on Thursday to pick up a part for the water plant, she urged them to stop at convenience stores to buy cases of water, which yielded 41 cases.

Later in the week, she called Sam’s Club in Bellmead and reserved a pallet of water to distribute. On Friday, she saw in her online news feed that Coca-Cola Bottling Co. had donated 100 pallets to Waco, which had about 300 customers without water.

She contacted Mayor Dillon Meek and asked if Waco would share some its supply. By day’s end, Lofton announced that Waco had agreed to spare 10 pallets of its water for residents to pick up, and she thanked Meek.

“People were without water, which is why we specifically requested that if you have water, please allow those who have none to go first,” she said. She said the week without water was “emotion and trying.”

Still, Lofton said she doesn’t think anyone was left dehydrated.

“We take care of our community,” she said. “There were gentlemen riding around on the most treacherous days giving people a ride to shelter or taking meals to people.”


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DC judge releases Central Texas vineyard owner held in Capitol riot

Central Texas vineyard owner Christopher Grider, detained for a month for his role in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, was released Monday after his lawyer convinced a federal judge he is not dangerous.

U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, of Washington, D.C., reversed the detention order from U.S. Magistrate Susan Hightower, of Austin, after a two-hour hearing Monday held via teleconference.

Grider

Grider, 39, of Chilton, co-owner of Kissing Tree Vineyards in Bruceville-Eddy, has been in federal custody since he surrendered to FBI agents Jan. 21 in Austin. He is charged in a seven-count indictment in Washington and faces a maximum of 33½ years in federal prison if convicted on the two felony and five misdemeanor counts.

Grider’s attorney, Brent Mayr, of Houston, said Grider’s wife, mother and stepfather were on their way Monday evening to pick up Grider in Chickasha, Okla., where he was being held in the Grady County Jail. Grider previously was held in the Limestone County Detention Center and was being transferred to Washington when last week’s ice storm hit, Mayr said.

Judge Brown released Grider on an unsecured bond and required him to wear a GPS ankle monitor, gave him a curfew and required him to report to the U.S. Pretrial Services Office in Waco once a week. The judge also prohibited Grider from traveling to Washington, except for court appearances.

The judge did not set a trial date but ordered a status hearing in his case for April 6.

“We are very pleased with the judge’s decision,” Mayr said. “And more importantly, that she followed the law. As we have always maintained, Christopher Grider did not go to Washington, D.C., to cause any harm or do any violence. We are thankful that the judge reconsidered that he is not a danger to the community and can remain free while awaiting trial on this case.”

After the detention hearing, the judge arraigned Grider, who pleaded not guilty to each count.

The indictment against Grider, issued in Washington, D.C., charges him with committing an act of physical violence in the Capitol grounds or buildings; impeding passage through Capitol grounds; disorderly conduct in a Capitol building; obstruction of an official proceeding and aiding and abetting; disorderly or disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds; entering and remaining in a restricted building; and destruction of government property and aiding and abetting.

Hightower, who twice refused to reconsider her detention order, determined “there is extremely strong evidence that Mr. Grider participated at the forefront in the events that led to the fatal shooting” of Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt outside the Speaker’s Lobby leading to the House chamber. She also said “no condition or combination of conditions of release would reasonably ensure the safety of the community.”

Mayr said Grider did not force his way into the Capitol, but simply walked through an entrance on the west side with hundreds of others that day. In video of Grider walking up to the entrance of the Speaker’s Lobby, he was not yelling, making threatening comments or further inciting the riot, Mayr said.

Video shows Grider handing a hard hat to another man who was trying to break a window in the Capitol and motioning for him to use that, which the man did.

Grider captured video on his cell phone of men carrying Babbitt from the Capitol after she was shot by a Capitol police officer.


Watch video

Warning: Some coarse language and violence. The full video, which shows graphic images of a fatal shooting, can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfiS8MsfSF4


Local
Waco COVID-19 hospitalizations lower as testing, vaccines return

Local COVID-19 testing and reporting resumed Monday after a week disrupted by severe cold, with 267 new cases and three deaths reported by the Waco-McLennan County Health District.

Nearly 4,000 doses of vaccine were expected to arrive this week for local vaccination clinics, as state data showed 25,315 people already receiving their vaccines in McLennan County.

Meanwhile, dropping hospitalization rates for the five-county Trauma Service Area M will see bars reopen, elective surgeries resume and capacity for some businesses and restaurants to expand to 75% in McLennan County.

Of the 267 new cases, 200 were previously unreported cases added to last week’s total of 67 cases. Those who died from COVID-19 were a 56-year-old white male, a 56-year-old Hispanic male and a 70-year-old white female, bringing the total number of county residents who have died from the disease over the last 11 months to 395. No other McLennan County deaths were reported in the previous six days.

The nation saw a somber milestone realized on Monday as the COVID-19 death toll surpassed 500,000, about twice the population of McLennan County.

In McLennan County, the case tally reached 24,747 total cases, 224 of which are estimated as active and another 24,128 reported recovered. Waco hospitals reported 65 COVID-19 patients, 40 of whom are McLennan County residents. Nine COVID-19 patients were on ventilators.

With testing down last week due to frigid temperatures and icy roads, the seven-day positivity rate of COVID-19 tests crept up to 17% after dipping to 9% early last week. The positivity rate reflects the proportion of COVID-19 tests that come back positive, and the rate tends to go down with widespread testing.

Last week saw COVID-19 hospitalizations in the five-county Trauma Service Area M, which includes McLennan County, decline to 9%, prompting McLennan County Judge Scott Felton to request the State Department of Health Services to allow bars and similar businesses to reopen. DSHS Commissioner John Hellerstedt approved his request, which will allow local bars to reopen and businesses to expand to 75% capacity. Hellerstedt’s order also allows hospitals to resume elective surgeries.

Bad weather put a pause to some testing last week, but COVID-19 testing through the public health district will resume its regular schedule this week with testing sites at McLennan Community College and the Waco Multipurpose Center. Both centers will conduct testing from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and people can register for testing at covidwaco.com. The MCC testing site is a drive-through clinic while the multipurpose center site is a walk-up one.

Those being tested are asked not to eat, drink or brush their teeth for 30 minutes before testing.

The health district will hold a drive-through vaccination clinic from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at McLane Stadium. The district administered 1,881 shots last week at the Waco Convention Center and will receive 1,500 doses of the Moderna vaccine from the state this week, said district spokesperson Kelly Craine.

Ascension Providence, another leading vaccination provider in the county, is expecting 2,340 doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week.


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