Lawsuits pile up two years after Texas’ devastating winter storm

Cherrilyn Nedd, whose home was damaged during the 2021 winter storm, poses for a portrait in Houston on Feb. 10. Lawyers expect thousands of cases will be filed against power companies, transmission and distribution utilities and ERCOT as the two-year statute of limitations on winter storm-related cases approaches. (Callaghan O'Hare For The Texas Tribune, Callaghan O'Hare For The Texas Tribune)

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HOUSTON — When Cherrilyn Nedd left her uncomfortably cold Summerwood home during the February 2021 winter storm to stay with her in-laws — who had a generator — she never expected that she would return to find the house ruined. She left the faucets dripping and her cabinets open. Hurricanes worried her, not freezes.

But a hissing noise greeted Nedd, 53, when she and her husband came back the next day to check on their house. Water spewed from a broken pipe in the collapsed ceiling, flooding every room on the first floor — their bedroom, the kitchen, the dining room and the living room.

“What is going on?” Nedd asked herself, in shock, stepping through the water.

The couple shut off the water to the house and swept out as much as they could. They would spend nearly a year and some $90,000 fixing the home, but they would never get back the ruined photos of a family cruise and their nephew as a baby; the computer equipment Nedd used for her consulting work was destroyed.

Lawyers representing storm victims like Nedd are working to file the final lawsuits related to the disaster as its two-year anniversary arrives this week — and the two-year statute of limitations for filing suit begins to expire. Thousands are accusing power companies, distribution companies, electric grid operators and others of failing to prepare properly for it, creating a catastrophe that caused property damage, countless injuries and hundreds of deaths. One expert estimated the cost of the freeze was as high as $300 billion.

A car moves through a neighborhood in West Austin that is without power on Feb 18, 2021.

A car drives through a darkened West Austin neighborhood that lost power on Feb 18, 2021. The devastating winter storm that struck the state two years ago left millions of Texans without power and caused hundreds of deaths. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

“This should not have happened,” Nedd said. “We are not living in a Third World country. This is America. And you mean to tell me that y’all cannot prepare better? It’s out of greed that you did this.

“And let me just be humble: We didn’t die,” she added. “You have people that died from it. So I have property loss and inconveniences, so I’m grateful. … At the same time, all of that could have been prevented.”

When the storm struck just before Valentine’s Day, sending temperatures plunging across Texas, electric grid operators had to order power cuts to millions as demand for electricity rose while people tried to keep their homes warm. Power generators failed to keep up with the need. Some power plants went offline altogether as production of the natural gas that fuels power plants faltered due to the frigid temperatures or power outages.

The disaster prompted calls to reform the system. Legislators required power generators and natural gas producers to prepare their infrastructure better for the extreme cold, among other fixes. And lawmakers are now looking at whether to allow a major change to the way the state’s electricity market works, which involves a controversial attempt to send money to the types of power generators — such as those powered by natural gas, coal and nuclear — that can come on no matter the weather (unlike wind and solar energy).

Nedd and others see the lawsuits as another way to force change. The defendants would likely need to see that it costs more to fail than to do what’s needed to keep the power on, said Greg Cox, a plaintiffs’ liaison counsel. The various lawsuits are being directed to one judge in Harris County who will handle all of them.

The plaintiffs include a person whose house caught fire when power was restored, another who had both feet amputated after getting frostbite and a disabled person whose ceiling collapsed on him while he was in bed, Cox said.

“This catastrophe was not caused by an act of God, but instead was caused by intentional decisions by individual Defendants made both before and during Winter Storm Uri that were known to other Defendants and caused multiple operational failures which combined to cause the failure of the ERCOT grid,” one lawsuit states.

Meanwhile, the Texas Supreme Court is weighing whether the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state power grid, should be immune from lawsuits. The outcome of that case, which is expected this year, could allow ERCOT to remain a defendant in the lawsuits.

For now, the district judge in Harris County has decided ERCOT is not liable. A spokesperson for ERCOT declined to comment.

Following the disaster, Nedd said she and her husband struggled to find a plumber, then had to wait until the summer for a contractor to begin fixing the house where they had lived since 2003. She and her husband stored their downstairs belongings in a pod. When construction started, they couldn’t cook or do laundry for months.

Nedd said she went through a phase of asking herself what they could have done differently. She said she didn’t know they could turn off the water to the house. The couple now owns a generator and worries about the next freeze.

“Obviously you understand the occasional outage,” said the couple’s attorney, Danae Benton. “It’s the breadth and depth of the failure in this scenario that rise to the level of gross negligence.”

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