HOUSTON — Lora Ratcliff opened the front door of her home and let out a pent-up squeal of joy. "My hero!"

Her knight in shining armor with a wrench was plumber Troy Watts, one of the most popular faces in the pipe-burst, water-drenched, ceiling-collapsed metropolis of Houston.

Since a hard, icy freeze descended on Valentine’s Day night, holding firm for more than 72 awful hours, thousands of people in the nation’s fourth-largest city have been waiting for a plumber to fix their broken pipes and get their water turned back on. It’s become a common greeting of shared misery: “How many days did you go without water?”

While the deadly winter storm knocked out power, not just in Houston but statewide as the Texas grid seized up in the Arctic cold, electricity was restored to most homes and businesses within several days. Water service, however, remains a problem for tens of thousands — a number that is only slowly ebbing.

Watts has been a licensed journeyman plumber for nearly three decades, starting in Las Vegas and Colorado and then working the past 14 years with John Moore Services, the largest plumbing company in Houston. He is tall, lanky and driven, with 104,000 miles on his company truck since mid-2019. He wears an American flag mask and two IDs clipped to his shirt — one his Texas state plumbing license, the other his work badge.

“The last person you want to hear say ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’ is a plumber,” he allowed during another long day of service calls. There was a grandmother with a potentially disastrous leak in her attic, a police officer and his wife who were returning home after just having a baby.

“Yeah, it’s been really wild around here for a week,” Watts said. “This has been historic . . . nothing like I’ve seen in Texas.”

He typically sets off for work at 7 a.m. and doesn’t quit until 8 p.m. or later some days. His stops since the storm have ranged from devastated houses that resemble wetlands with sodden carpets to those that simply need a screw turned to unlock the water flow. Customer after customer has greeted him with peals of happiness and exhales of relief.

His first assignment Monday was Willie and Dianne Hunt’s home in the Greenwood Forest area of northwest Houston. It reeked of mildew and mold. The air whirred with overmatched industrial dryers in each room.

“We left the house a week ago Monday because we lost power, and it got really cold here. We went to stay with my daughter,” Dianne Hunt recounted. “I came back Wednesday to check on things, and the pipes had burst, and water was gushing from the attic. The entire first floor was flooded, and water was pouring out of the house onto the front lawn. We lost everything — photo albums, books, furniture, my homemade porcelain dolls. I just sat down and cried.”

In the kitchen, Watts pulled back a square of soggy ceiling drywall and found “a whole mess of cracked pipes.” Over the next two hours, he replaced the most critical ones, cranked the main valve and restored the Hunts’ water and a measure of normalcy. He then arranged for a John Moore plumbing crew to follow up with them. Theirs will be a big project, requiring total pipe replacement. The earliest appointment available? March 15. Even so, the retired couple was grateful.

“That’s why I love my job — I’m helping people. I know that people are upset and think their home will never be the same,” he said in between stops. “I reassure them that their house will be fixed, and life will return to normal. If the house is damaged, there’s nothing I can do, that’s for remediation companies and contractors to handle. But I can get their water back so they can take a hot shower and wash their dishes. There’s a lot of relief in just taking a shower in your own home.”

The 49-year-old Watts originally planned to be a massage therapist, until “a couple of old guys in Las Vegas told me to learn to become a plumber. I came to Houston because of the economy, to make money. There’s more work here.”

How popular is he these days? People flag down his truck and plead with him to come work on their houses. Or they offer to buy parts out of the back of his truck. He tells them sorry, that’s against the rules. Besides, Watts needs those parts for his jobs. Then there are old acquaintances who suddenly remember what he does for a living and blow up his phone.

“I get calls from people I barely know asking if I can come to their homes and fix their broken pipes,” he said. “I tell them: ‘Dude, I haven’t heard from you in years. Call the office and get on the list.’ That’s what I tell everybody, get on the list.”

Ah, the plumber’s waiting list. Licensed plumbers currently have waiting lists thousands deep for their service, meaning it may be weeks, if not a month, before one pulls up to the curb. Watts urges people not to hire anyone who knocks on their door claiming to be a plumber who can start work that day. His other advice: “Never pay in cash, and never pay the whole bill in advance.”

“There are plenty of fly-by-night so-called plumbers swarming into Houston,” he said.

Most of the state’s broken-pipe crisis was caused by insufficiently insulated homes with exposed pipes. Once the power went out, those pipes were at the mercy of arctic-like temperatures from the outside with no heat protecting them from the inside. Watts estimates that properly winterizing a home in Houston would cost about $5,000 — “that’s a safe number.”

Especially in times like these, he tries to be reassuring when he arrives. “While it’s sometimes heartbreaking to enter a home and see really bad destruction and people who think their world is ending, I try not to get emotionally involved. I can’t let them see me like that. I’m there to help them feel better,” he said. “Most of what I do is repairing plumbing stuff, but there’s a lot of me being their shoulder to cry on.”

Perhaps the easiest job of Watts’s Monday was for Rinda Patton. A neighbor had shut her outside valve early last week as temperatures plunged, and the elderly widow needed the plumber just to reverse that.

Patton was ecstatic at the prospect of showering at home instead of at the neighbor’s and excitedly took to explaining the photos in her living room. “This is my sister and me with Meredith Vieira when we visited the ‘Today’ show in New York,” she said. “Here’s a photo of my brother-in-law Gene Cernan. He was the last man to walk on the moon. This is my granddaughter who plays beach volleyball.” She let Watts leave only after thanking him effusively.

He took his tools back to his truck and checked his tablet for the address and instructions on his next appointment.

“Yeah, these days are busy, but there is satisfaction in knowing that I saved people from fear about their lives. I make it so they can stay in their homes,” he said. “The thing that does bother me — no matter how many homes I reach, there are so many people struggling who I can’t get to. All I can tell them is to get on the list. It will be a while, but I will get to you.”