Texans in the Midst of Another Avoidable Catastrophe
By Bryan WashingtonFebruary 18, 2021
Out in Houston on Sunday morning, at the precipice of a statewide freeze in Texas and blackouts throughout the city, I passed two different women, each handling several cartfuls of groceries, who, speaking into their phones, noted that they “may have gone overboard.” I’d popped into Lee’s Sandwiches for a few gallons of coffee, and then into H Mart for other odds and ends. As the morning progressed, the traffic across Bellaire Boulevard worsened from a slight crawl to an impasse. Folks were stocking up in a way that’s become commonplace over the past year in the city, although the debacle to come had few precedents.
The storm that hit the state on Sunday left more than four million Texas residents without electricity, and many without water. The city of Galveston lost much of its power on Monday morning, and as of Wednesday afternoon it had yet to be restored. The city of Abilene lost both power and water and was given no sense of when either would return. On Tuesday evening, Houston’s Clear Lake area was issued a boil-water notice. Photos of cul-de-sacs blanketed in snow proliferated on social feeds, with residents “skiing” on highways and folks sledding down hills of snow in baskets—somewhat pleasant at the beginning of the week, until the power stayed out. Now parts of Dallas are so cold that water bottles are freezing next to people’s bedsides and appliances are heavy with icicles. These are some of the lowest temperatures that the state has seen in nearly thirty years.
Faced with an untenable surge in demand, power providers tried to signal that they had a plan (“rolling blackouts”), but then segued to a blackout of information itself, until Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, stated, early Monday morning, that the outages were statewide. Officials avoided providing timelines as they issued recommendations on how to conserve energy and stay warm. Residents measured the temperatures in their homes, covering windows with blankets and wrapping pipes and wedging towels into the spaces beneath doors to retain heat in individual rooms. The city’s unhoused population was sheltered in hubs throughout the area (if they could reach them), and some of those places eventually lost power, too. Health-care workers scrambled to distribute the covid-19 vaccines that they had on hand before they went bad in the outage. Local community organizations like Austin Mutual Aid and Mutual Aid Houston began to circulate resources and guidelines across their communities.
Houston, on a good day, is not a city overflowing with spacious third places. The city’s residents were faced with several bad options: stay at home and freeze, or chance the already uncertain roads and flee to friends or relatives who’d managed to retain their power by chance or by means of a spare generator—although the latter option involved congregating amid the spectre of covid-19. The elderly, the very young, and the otherwise vulnerable were left in an especially nightmarish scenario. After the city’s businesses were asked to turn off their lights to conserve energy, much of downtown continued to shine with lights from skyscrapers and high-rise offices (many of which only powered down when they were publicly called out for it). As of Wednesday morning, at least twelve weather-related deaths had been reported across the Houston area.
Whereas much of the country is powered by regional energy systems—which are able to pull and pool resources in times of duress—Texas’s power is largely under the control of ercot, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages nearly ninety per cent of the state’s electricity load. The state’s independent network of utilities was devised with the goal of avoiding federal regulation; by not crossing state lines, Texas’s power grid could sidestep national utility guidelines—and energy companies could profit under the guise of individualism and “self-reliance.” State leaders, sacrificing long-term, communal safety for immediate profit, have shaken their heads at the idea of reform or collaboration and said, But we don’t need it. Then it got very cold, very fast, and the system (particularly, it seems, the parts that rely on natural gas) proved vulnerable—and, sure enough, the onus fell on the individual. ercot has stated that it has no idea when the power situation will resume any semblance of regularity. The state’s governor and myriad other elected officials have been quick to pass the blame.
At home on Monday, my boyfriend and I spent our time insulating the apartment and entertaining the dog. When we did venture outside—on two slipping and skittering walks across the neighborhood, and then a pitch-dark drive to pick up more water—we were met with barren roads. That night, we cordoned ourselves in the living room, arranging candles and ring lights collected from our yearlong Zoom hell, and ate a dinner of Lunar New Year leftovers, including braised pork with eggs and kimchi (a reminder that, as ghoulish as things were, they could be worse). Not long after midnight, our power returned, then went in and out in fits and starts into the next morning.
On Tuesday, we made it a point to set out for gas, and along the way we stopped by a Randalls. Folks wandered the dark aisles by the glow of their smartphone flashlights. The frozen-food section was cordoned off with masking tape, and meat displays were covered with cardboard, retaining whatever cold they could. The gas stations nearby were deserted, so we continued to drive until we ended up at another open grocery store, a Fiesta beside the highway. The electricity was working there, and everything was in stock. A woman stood beside the bakery, doling out loaves by the order. A butcher hacked at piles of beef behind a counter, and the fishmonger handed out numbers to folks assembled in line. A dude manning the front door apologized that customers couldn’t all be let in simultaneously; they’d had power since eight that morning, he said. On the drive back, we passed several car accidents as we continued searching for gas. Parking lots were full of folks driving in loops and warming themselves, as others congregated in their cars with their children and their pets. We waited in line for an hour across three stations before we found one beside NRG Stadium that, eventually, provided a full tank. But we’d only just barely left the parking lot before it became clear that this gas station had run dry, too.
A shared characteristic of Houstonians, one could argue, is a tendency to fall prey to disaster unprepared—but only exactly once. Whether facing the ravages of climate change, the state, or some other man-made calamity, the city’s residents learn very harsh lessons, and we tend not to make the same mistakes again. But it’s one of the great shames that this city—and this country, and the individuals who govern it—requires its residents to weather these things at all. The collapse of ercot is one of the many signs that Texas has failed, and continues to fail, to adapt its infrastructure to meet the inevitability of climate change. In a new year already absurdly filled with crisis—an insurrection one month, bungled vaccine distribution the next, in the midst of a pandemic that has ravaged the nation in ways almost beyond comprehensibility—yet another disaster doesn’t feel entirely out of place. But the exacerbation of one emergency doesn’t eliminate the likelihood of another—and we can be sure that this storm, like every other once-in-a-generation weather event that Houstonians have experienced in the past few years, will not be the last. Like all of our other travails, it will require an expansion of the imagination, and our leaders’ inability to rise to the task won’t eliminate the necessity of doing so.
When we arrived back at our place, with gas in hand, the power was out again—but we still had running water. The Internet had begun to black out. Our cell service had grown spotty, and most businesses in the city had begun to power down indefinitely. Walking the dog before the sun set, we ran into a handful of neighbors: teens huddled and vaping in the garage, folks extracting symphonies of portable chargers from their parked cars. The parents of a toddler who’s always attacking my garden—all of the plants are now likely dying or dead, anyway—passed us, and we stood, shivering, at a distance from one another, masked and in four layers of clothing. We waved and noted that the year was off to a wild start. We asked how everyone was doing and agreed that we were fine, considering, for now. But we were, frankly, just a handful of the luckier ones.