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Texas became the center of a plumbing crisis when record-shattering Winter Storm Uri crossed the Southern and Central U.S in February. The state’s electric power supply couldn’t keep pace with demand as Texans tried to heat their homes. To make matters worse, no power left an estimated 14.4 millions Texans with burst pipes, flooded homes and no water.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, we picked up plenty of stories featuring local plumbers working virtually around the clock as call rates shot up 10 times the normal volume.
“I worked about 14 or 15 days in a row before I got a day off,” Alex Shoopman, City Wide Services told the Austin CBS affiliate. “We’re trying to work 10 to 12 hours a day starting at 8 and ending at 8, so it’s been pretty hectic. I basically just had to sit down and say you know what, I am going to do as many as I can in a day and that’s going to have to be good enough.
Randy Calazans, an employee with One Call Plumbing, Houston, told The New York Times that he's been running around from one house to the next sizing up the damage. He said the damage to some homes was so bad they may need to be completely repiped.
However, he said it's difficult to get the necessary tools and products to even make simple fixes.
"I'm literally just burning through supplies," Calazans said.
“The last person you want to hear say ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’ is a plumber,” Troy Watts, a plumber with John Moore, told the Washington Post after the end of another long day. “Yeah, it’s been really wild around here for a week. This has been historic . . . nothing like I’ve seen in Texas.”
Meanwhile, Abraham Burkat, CMH Plumbing Solutions, Dallas/Fort Worth, told his crew to go out and make as many quick repairs as they could at no charge.
"We didn't charge anyone because we felt like it was the right thing to do," Burkat told the local NBC affiliate. "People were in need. It wasn't a situation where we were trying to make money. It was we were trying to get people's water back on."
There are about 35,000 licensed plumbers in the state. With a backlog quickly adding up to months, that’s not nearly enough.
Chris Taylor, a field manager for Radiant Plumbing in Austin, told the Texas Tribune demand for plumbers has far outpaced the number of available technicians. Radiant is currently receiving triple its normal number of calls per day, and the company has more than 2,500 customers awaiting service.
“It’s heartbreaking, really,” Taylor added. “You’ve got a lot of people, thousands of people, that need help, that are desperate. And there’s nothing you can do for a lot of them because of the reality there’s not enough people out there to do the work.”
In response, Gov. Greg Abbott has waived some fees and examination requirements for Texas plumbers with expired licenses. By mid-February, more than 320 plumbers had already renewed their licenses.
In addition, other waivers allow apprentices to temporarily perform plumbing repairs without direct supervision by a licensed plumber so long as the qualified apprentice works under the general supervision of a responsible master plumber.
Out of state
Finally, the governor started giving out provisional permits to out-of-state plumbers. Soon, we read plenty of news stories that featured plumbers from around the country heading to Texas to help out.
For example, we posted a CNN article on our LinkedIn page about two plumbers who drove 22 hours straight from New Jersey. So far, our post has received more than 34,000 views and a thousand reactions. Chances are, you’ve heard about the dynamic duo since they’ve been featured in local press on up to People magazine, NBC Nightly News and Fox News.
Andrew Mitchell, who runs Mitchell’s Plumbing & Heating in Morristown, New Jersey, decided to lend a hand after learning of the grave conditions from his sister-in-law who lives in Houston.
“I really love doing plumbing, it's a passion,” Mitchell texted us. “And I wanted to give back to the community. I feel as though this is the perfect outlet.”
Although he’s been in the field for the last 15 years, Mitchell just started his own company last summer. He graduated from a plumbing apprenticeship program in 2018 and passed the New Jersey Master Plumbing Exam the year after.
Mitchell grabbed his tools and packed about $2,000 worth of plumbing supplies in his GMC pickup. Along for the long drive was his wife, Kisha Pinnock, their 2-year-old son, Blake, and Isaiah Pinnock, Kisha’s brother and Andrew’s apprentice.
In the meantime, Kisha’s sister in Houston lined up some jobs. In their first week in Texas, the two handled about 50 jobs, with as many as 18 in one day. From there, the referrals never stopped rolling in.
“It turned into, ‘I have a coworker who has a friend, who has a sister, who has a principal who needs water,’ ” Isaiah told one reporter.
While Mitchell and Pinnock originally thought they would stay a week in Texas, based on their Facebook posts, they are still in Texas and have received donations of plumbing supplies from local construction companies and online distributor supplyhouse.com to continue their work.
“It’s kind of like if you tell a chef you’re hungry, then they’re going to make you a plate of food,” Kisha told the Morristown Daily Record. “If you tell a plumber you don’t have water, they are going to get you some water.”
More plumbers help out
While Mitchell and Pinnock earned a lot of headlines, they weren’t the only plumbers we read about.
Brothers Bob and David Silberstein, who run American Professional Plumbing Services, Leesburg, Virginia, raised about $30,000 to pay for plumbing supplies and drove two service vehicles to Houston to offer their service at no charge.
“Getting loaded up to leave for a drive to Texas about 24 to 25 hours of driving and then we will be there to help those people in need,” according to a company Facebook post. “The crew plans to work seven days a week, 14-to-15-hour days for the next four weeks straight.”
We also read about plumber Paul Mitchell who was part of the first team of volunteer plumbers put together by Water Mission, with the help of Plumbers Without Borders.
"It doesn't matter what amenities you have,” Mitchell told the CBS affiliate in Austin. “If you don't have water, you don't have life. You can't sustain life. You can't sustain sanitation. When I heard that I could be involved, I just thought, 'I want to come.'"
Mitchell, 73, drove from Cedarville, Ohio. Technically retired, Mitchell headed to Austin hauling a trailer that contained $5,000 worth of supplies donated by his local Ohio community.
Water Mission is a nonprofit Christian charity based in Charleston, South Carolina, typically works internationally in developing countries to install water systems and provide access to clean drinking water.
Our readers will know more about the work done by Plumbers without Borders, a Seattle-based group run by Domenico and Carm DiGregorio, who work to connect volunteer licensed plumbers with organizations committed to increasing access to safe water and sanitation.
The DiGregorios put out a call for help and got volunteer offers from plumber as far away as Norway.
The two groups got a big boost from American Standard in the beginning of March after the manufacturer made a donation to help cover food, lodging and other expenses for plumbers who “generously lend their time and skillset to assist Plumbers Without Borders and Water Mission recovery efforts in Texas.”
Anyone interested in volunteering through Plumbers Without Borders can log ond to www.plumberswithoutborders.org/volunteer.
This feature is part of our Plumbers Giving Back series, sponsored by the the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO).