What a Texas Plumber Faces Now: A State Full of Burst Pipes

HOUSTON – Randy Calazans is one of the hottest products in Texas right now. He’s a plumber.

The nightmare of winter weather that swept the state last week cut off power and heat to millions of homes never designed for cold temperatures. Up and down the state, people were driven from their homes or returned to find them badly damaged, by pipes, valves and tanks frozen and burst.

So when the snow started to thaw and the sun made a coveted return, plumbers were suddenly like roofers after a hurricane: Everyone seemed to need one at once.

At One Call Plumbing, the plumbing company where Mr. Calazans works, employees have answered the phones non-stop in a small office with sprawling maps of Houston on the walls. The owner, Edgar Connery, said he had been in the business for nearly 40 years and had never experienced a crush like this after other natural disasters. Some other companies had become so inundated that they stopped answering the phone at all.

Mr Calazans went back to work in the field on Thursday, moving from one customer’s home to another, mainly to assess the damage. He repairs simple problems on the spot if he can. But some houses will require hard work and may even have to be rebuilt from scratch; they must be left in the coming weeks.

Getting the materials to do even the simple jobs is a growing problem, says Mr Calazans: if he waited in line at a supply house he could tie up for hours, but when he tried to pick up a few things from Home Depot, the shelves were bare.

“I’m just burning through supplies,” he said.

With the power largely restored and temperatures returning to the more seasonal 60s and 70s, Texans continued to grapple with the state’s ongoing water crisis on Sunday. Some of the reservoirs in the state were refilled after being nearly emptied due to all the burst water pipes, leaking pipes, and faucets running to keep them from freezing.

Austin was still under the boiling water warning when the pressure gradually returned to normal in the water system, which was turned off by the power outage. Austin Water said in a statement Sunday that once the pressure is restored, the water should be tested before it is considered safe to drink, which could take several days.

Houston had restored pressure to his system on Sunday morning and lifted his warning against boiling water in the afternoon.

The full extent of the damage left by the cold snap is still on the rise, but the state already knows it needs more plumbers in a hurry. Governor Greg Abbott’s office has said the state will issue provisional permits to out-of-state plumbers and will waive fees and certain other requirements for plumbers with expired permits who wish to renew them.

Mr. Calazans, 35, stressed the importance of repair work by a qualified professional, even in the aftermath of a disaster. He remembered with horror some of the dodgy work he’d encountered over the years.

“You don’t just want anyone to do plumbing,” he said.

He has more experience with harsh winter weather than many Texans. He and his wife moved from Long Island to Houston last June in search of more opportunities than they saw in New York’s gated suburbs.

But Mr. Calazans didn’t escape his own damage in Texas: A waterline broke in his garage, he said, virtually submerging the space and damaging his fitness equipment.

When he arrived at Jared Coyle’s house in the Cinco Ranch area of ​​Houston around noon on Friday, debris and insulation lay in a compact pile near the garage. Pipes had burst in the house and damaged several areas, including his daughter’s room and laundry room.

To Mr. Coyle, Mr. Calazan represented salvation. The plumber, who had visited the house for the first time on Thursday, returned with more supplies in hand to complete the repair.

“These houses here weren’t built for the cold, and things weren’t prepared for the extreme cold,” said Mr. Coyle, who moved to Houston about 17 years ago. “There’s only so much you can do before you just say, ‘It is what it is, we’ll just handle what happens and we’ll move on.’ That’s all you can do. “

After major storm systems hit Texas, most of the damage is usually concentrated in urban areas like Houston and Dallas, according to Chris Pilcic, a Texas State Farm Insurance spokesperson. But this time, he said, it’s everywhere.

On Friday, State Farm had received about 18,900 title claims from customers in Texas, most of which involved frozen and broken water pipes, he said.

“With this we hear from customers all over the state,” said Mr. Pilcic. “There is not one area that has not been affected.”

And it’s not just Texas: More than 2,100 claims had come in from Louisiana, he said, and hundreds more from other states in the storm’s path, such as Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Lisa Gochman, another Houston resident on Mr. Calazans’ list for Friday, said the portable electric lanterns she bought for hurricane season came in handy when the power went out last week in her two-bedroom apartment – that is, until a water leak collapsed part of the ceiling in her guest bedroom, completely covering the bed with debris.

“It’s a hot mess,” she said. “It’s unlivable.”

There were also leaks in her bathroom and kitchen, she said, and the apartment had no electricity or water. So she resorted to couch-surfing for shelter, hoping to eventually move to a hotel or a short-term rental.

“I’m just trying to go in,” said Ms. Gochman, who has lived in the apartment for nearly 11 years. “I cried a few times.”

Before reaching One Call Plumbing, she said the earliest availability she could find online for a plumber was on April 22.

After climbing through Mrs. Gochman’s closet to look into the attic, Mr. Calazans said there might be more leaks, but he wouldn’t be able to see it until her water was turned back on. It would require re-bending the entire place at night, he said, at a cost of about $ 10,000.

Ms. Gochman said she expected such an amount, but was unsure how much her insurance would cover.

“That’s not even to fix up my house,” Mrs. Gochman said. ‘I still have to make a carpet, fix the wall. It’s probably going to be $ 20,000 to $ 30,000 put together. “

Mr Calazans said it was not uncommon to arrive at a job expecting to tackle a minor problem, but found that much more was wrong. That’s what happened in a house in the Bellaire section on Friday afternoon: a cracked pipe revealed another and then more leaks in a pipe encased in a stuck column. After all, he couldn’t do all of that in that one visit; he should come back another day.

He said he expected life for him to be like this for the next several weeks: one long 10-hour workday after another, filled with repairs on top of repairs and repairs.

“It’s the nature of the business,” he said.

Lucy Tompkins contributed reporting.

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