I sit looking out onto my snow-covered yard, drinking lukewarm coffee, and trying to unpack this latest crisis to hit the state of Texas. This has been the longest week, out of a very long year, and we don’t yet have an end in sight.
On Monday, Feb. 8, Texas had a high temperature of 67 degrees. Within just a few days the weather had dropped to freezing. Texans were in for a rough ride. We just didn’t know how bad.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, Feb. 11, temperatures plunged. Some schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including ours, closed for the day, citing potentially dangerous conditions. While some people called this decision unnecessary, a mass-fatality, multiple-car pileup on Interstate 35 in Fort Worth proved otherwise. The highway had not been properly salted or sanded the night before, and semi-trucks and small passenger cars alike slid helplessly on the black ice invisible on the roads. At least six Texans lost their lives that morning, with dozens more seriously injured.
As awful as that was, that day would mark only the start of a deadly and dangerous week of failed infrastructure and a disastrous lack of leadership in our state.
Winter continued to descend on Texas over the next several days. For the first time, every one of our 254 counties were at or below freezing temperatures. In a state where you can drive for more than 12 straight hours and still not cross a border, that’s a remarkable feat, of the worst order. Texans prepared in a typical Texas way for some snow and chilly temperatures, buying bread and milk and digging out the kids’ thin mittens, rarely used and more decorative than protective. I don’t believe any of us had an idea of what was ahead.
Sunday, Valentine’s Day, was frigid and snowy, and tricky driving conditions kept most folks home. We ventured to my sister’s, about a mile away, to let the kids play together in the snow. As we drove home that afternoon the fluffy snow began to turn to sleet and temperatures dipped.
At some point that night, the power outages began. I woke to a warm house, but the text messages awaiting me told me not everyone had been so lucky, like my sister, whose home was rapidly cooling. Power outages are nothing terribly strange here and tend to work themselves out quickly. I told her not to use her phone too much until power was restored, just in case.
A few hours later, when I checked in with my sister, her home was colder still. Our fear began to grow and information was nowhere to be found. This was significantly worse than the normal rolling blackout to conserve our overworked power grid. My sister was still able to safely navigate the roads so she and her daughter came to my house, and after a hot meal, we began to reach out to friends and neighbors to gauge the seriousness of the situation.
At this point, I cannot say I recall hearing a single word from our leaders in Texas. All our information came from social media posts or text exchanges. As we waited, hoping for some reassurance from our state government, the outside temperatures lingered in the single digits. Inside our homes, which are built to reflect the scorching summer heat, not contain warmth, temperatures fell quickly: 60 degrees, then 50, 40. My sister and niece (and their four-legged family members) would stay with us until power was restored and they could safely return home.
This in itself was no small decision, after all, the rapidly spreading (and now mutating) plague that has been stealing Texans’ lives for nearly a year was still out there. COVID-19 wasn’t taking a snow day, and inviting anyone into our home, even family, was a risk. It was a risk we were willing to take for my sister, but filling our house with other people just wasn’t an option. Between a rock and a hard place, indeed.
By Monday evening people were fully panicking. Controlled power outages don’t last this long. What were they not telling us?
The roads became even more dangerous to navigate, and temperatures dropped to 15 below with the wind chill factor. Not knowing what else to do, we opened sink cabinets and drip faucets. Our kids tried to run out and play in the yard in pajama pants and nylon knit hats purchased from Target, more for the novelty of such an item than the intention to use it for warmth.
In the driveway, my car was covered in snow and ice. We don’t own snow shovels or gear, let alone an ice scraper. People are Googling and sharing information rapidly now. How do I know if a pipe has frozen? How long can my pets last in a house below 40 degrees? Should we open our curtains for sunlight or keep them shut for warmth?
Tuesday morning we awoke to a still warm house (cause for celebration, indeed!). We cooked breakfast and decided to check on my sister’s house. The inside temperature had now dipped below 40 degrees. Many friends also were in the same situation and had no safe place to go for warmth. Hotels were either sold out or without power. Warming stations were hastily set up by cities, but who can drive over the icy, unsalted roads? And even if they could, what of the COVID-19 risk? Putting dozens of strangers in a library or school gymnasium to avoid hypothermia just to return home with a deadly virus on board is hardly a choice at all.
Texas, how are we here? How many failures can we suffer at once?
Tuesday came to an end bringing our coldest temperatures yet. Even with power, our heater struggled. Everyone received an extra blanket before bed, and we watched helplessly on Facebook and group texts as our friends dealt with the cold. If it wasn’t for COVID-19, I would have had this house packed to the rafters with friends seeking refuge. My neighbors will suffer if left in their homes, but we may all suffer more by inviting them in.
A man on the radio said his fish tank had begun to freeze. A friend who is fostering a newborn litter of puppies needed to leave her freezing house and seek refuge somewhere with heat. Dozens of pools began to freeze over. Something horrible happened to one neighbor who lost her dog after he mistook the ice and snow-covered pool for a walking path. They couldn’t get him out in time.
Wednesday morning I awoke to a chill in the air. It has finally happened – we lost power as well. We reached out to family a few towns over and learned they still have heat. If our power wasn’t restored soon, we would have to make the ten-mile trek to bunk up.
Again I worried, if we stay with family will we bring COVID-19 to my children’s grandparents? Will they be giving it to us? We haven’t combined households in more than 10 months, doing everything we can to keep each other safe. I haven’t slept much in days because of the stress. How were friends and neighbors, still without heat, sleeping at all?
Homes that have been without heat for days were now being advised to turn off their water at the main cutoff valve on the street. One problem: our city keeps our water supply boxes locked to prevent tampering. People found creative ways to break in and turn off their own water before frozen pipes burst, flooding their houses. Many ultimately found this step to have been futile. The flooding and bursting came anyway.
Inexplicably, my power returned within mere hours while most were experiencing day three and a half with no heat.
At this point, the best explanation our governor gave for the disaster is that the Green New Deal and renewables (and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, oddly enough) have failed us, and the wind turbines froze. For a multitude of remarkably obvious reasons, this information isn’t just lacking, it is an outright lie.
With nothing else to do as they sit huddled under blankets in their 35 degree living rooms, Texans have been using their dying cell phones to seek answers on their own.
We learn that wind turbines and solar, first of all, make up less than 20 percent of the energy supply in our state. Additionally, functioning windmills can be found in the far northern states and even farther north still, in Scandinavia. Even Antarctica can keep their wind turbines running. Why can’t we?
We learned that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, intentionally chose to run our power grid cut off from the rest of the country to avoid federal rules and regulations. Texans are freezing, literally to death, and deregulation may very well be to blame.
We learned that while the great state of Texas is an energy-producing leader, we don’t have a terribly efficient nor well-maintained manner of supplying energy to our own folks here.
We learned that no one in any position of power or authority wants to talk about climate change, still.
We learned that while the rest of us are sharing propane tanks from our grills and generators and bottled water, Sen. Ted Cruz hopped on a plane with his family headed for Cancun, Mexico.
We learned that we are stranded, alone, with no one to help us. We learned that when COVID-19 hit, too. We seem to keep suffering that same lesson, repeatedly.
We are so alone that one Texas mayor even penned a letter telling his constituents that the government does not owe its citizens things like running water or heat. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” model of advice from our GOP leaders is killing us, and yet they show not an ounce of remorse.
We have been doing what we can to take care of one another. Local leadership has stepped up when our governor or senators have not. My city councilman, Dan Cogan, even took to social media to offer up his own home to cold and hungry citizens. Neighbors have rallied to bring hot food to those who still, as I write this on Thursday evening, have no heat or running water. Roads are beginning to thaw and businesses are trying their best to reopen.
Flooding businesses, impassable roads, freezing temperatures, and a senator on a plane heading to a tropical vacation. Texas, what are we doing?
I like to believe that the experience of just one neighbor, who we’ll call Mr. B, tells the story of the Texas blizzard. A 93-year-old widower who lives alone, he didn’t feel comfortable leaving his home and staying overnight in one of the pop-up warming centers, and instead was attempting to stick it out for the duration of the outage in his cold, dark house. There was no city or state task force to check in on folks like Mr. B. No information was getting to him at all. He has two landline phones but no social media, so he was effectively cut off from the world entirely. He had no way to cook food or run a heater, with temperatures diving well below zero and snow and sleet coming down all around him. Not for an hour or a day, but for multiple days on end. Temperatures like that, for a sustained period of time, can be deadly. Without any heat, pipes begin to freeze, and running water dwindles. Dehydration, hypothermia, lack of sleep (due to extreme cold) are all exceptionally dangerous to any human, but especially to the elderly.
As soon as neighbors began to fully grasp the severity and longevity of the situation, we did the thing Texans really do best: we worked together to care for our fellow man. Although power was still running at my house, roughly a mile from Mr. B’s, he didn’t feel comfortable leaving to come stay with strangers. The next best thing, then, was to bring the warmth to him. While we heated some homemade stew (on our miraculously still functional stove) and brought it over to him as quickly as the unsalted, icy roads would safely allow, another neighbor was coordinating efforts to bring Mr. B. a generator. Yet another found a space heater to help Mr. B thaw out a bit. He was incredibly grateful for it all, and after three bitterly cold days, power was finally restored to his home.
As happy as we were to provide momentary comfort and respite for this particular Texan, it left us to wonder about all of the Texans suffering alone, in the cold and dark, with no one to turn to for help. What about all the folks in more rural areas? As unpassable as our city streets seemed, many county roads in Texas can barely be considered real roads at all. Physically separated by miles from the closest neighbor, and many more miles still to the nearest grocery store or gas station, how are Texans in the most isolated parts of the state surviving?
This is the real crux of our issue, here. Without any shred of coordinated leadership, Texas spent multiple terrifying days in the dark, both figuratively and literally. How did this happen? And will anyone take the steps needed to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
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