SEALY, Texas - As scarce supplies of natural gas were a critical part of the massive power outage in Texas during the Big Freeze, they've also become an expensive headache for others who depend on the vital fuel. In some small towns, like Sealy, where local utilities provide the gas, the storm left behind a crushing bill.
Sealy resident Maryann Ramirez knew her gas bill would be high, because of the winter storm.
"We're moderate income people, so we can absolutely not afford to have our bill increase by 20-fold," laments Ramirez.
Last month, during seasonal temperatures, natural gas made up about $55 of her utility bill to the city of Sealy. Now, she anticipates she'll owe $1,500.
Many of the homes in the Austin county community are older and less efficient.
During the arctic blast, gas furnaces worked overtime to keep the cold out. Now, a warning from the city says the cost of that comfort was astronomical: more than $2 million dollars, due by the end of the week.
"Obviously, it's a gut-check for the city, but it's also a guy-check for our 1,300 customers," says Sealy Mayor Carolyn Bilski.
Normally, the city utility bills between $70,000 and $100,000, for natural gas use. With no option to shop around, amid limited gas supplies, they are stuck with the $2 million dollar price tag. That means borrowing from other city programs that can ill-afford it, while customers find a way to pay their share.
"It's going to affect all of us and they know that we're going to do our very, very best to find good solutions that don't provide extreme hardship on anyone," says Bilski.
Maryann Ramirez knows she's been warned.
"It's going to be a big one," she says, "We really don't have a choice."
In Austin, lawmakers are debating legislation that could force electricity regulators to adjust astronomical power prices. Mayor Bilski says she's hopeful a similar conversation can address natural gas prices, too.
Meantime, in Sealy, before those bills from the Big Freeze appear in the mail, city leaders are still working on plans for customers to pay what they owe, or pay what they can.