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Climate Change

Texas Is a Failed State

What it's like to live through the hellish cold-weather crisis.

Billy Tweedie, a priest, walks through a group of tents surrounded by snow under an overpass in Austin to see if anyone is left staying out in the cold.
Billy Tweedie, a priest, walks through a group of tents under an overpass in Austin to see if anyone is left staying out in the cold.
Screenshot via KXAN/YouTube

Texas has frozen over. The state is in the midst of an unprecedented cold-weather crisis, with temperatures dropping below zero. The resulting energy demands have completely crippled the state’s electricity supply; as of Monday night, more than 4 million people across Texas were without electricity and likely freezing in their homes or outside, a potentially fatal result of the state’s lack of preparation.

While people began losing power Thursday, statewide outages spiked early Monday morning, after the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the entity that controls the power grid for almost the entire state, announced a “rolling blackout,” estimating outages around 40 minutes long in order to keep the grid from being overwhelmed. (The ERCOT, for what it’s worth, was borne out of Texas’ brainless reflex to buck federal regulation.) But by that time, it was likely too late, for a variety of reasons. 40 minutes turned into hours, and then days, with no real sign of when things will get better. After the power went out, so did the water, with several cities issuing boil water notices, or asking residents not to drip their faucets despite their pipes freezing, or even shutting off the water.

The state has virtually shut down. On Sunday, restaurants and stores across Austin closed early, and many workplaces and universities have closed Monday through Thursday, anticipating more frozen streets, road closures, and power outages. Early Monday morning, I saw friends in Austin tweeting that they had gone without power most of the night. A friend north of Austin with a toddler and elderly parents had her power out for 12 hours, then went without power overnight after it briefly returned. Other friends and parents of friends went to sleep on Monday night without electricity, with their apartments and homes chilling amid freezing temperatures.

I’m lucky to still have electricity and running water, but we’re still days from being clear of the freezing temperatures and icy roads. I haven’t left my house in three days. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to. My parents are safe, too, possibly because they live next to the largest indoor water park in the world, and might be on the same electrical grid as a result.

It would be an understatement to say that ERCOT was unprepared for a cold weather crisis of this scale. So too were Republican politicians.

But even more alarming was watching mutual aid and political action groups scramble to resource and house people, who were facing below-freezing temperatures without robust city assistance. Though cities opened warming centers and shelters, facilities quickly reached capacity and weren’t safe to travel to in the harsh weather conditions.

On Instagram, Austin Mutual Aid, one of several groups who have been housing people since this weekend, called upon people with experience driving on ice to pick up and bring houseless people to hotels, or deliver supplies to the people who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave their tents. According to the account, about 40 volunteers had transported 200 people to hotels by Sunday night. (You can donate to their efforts here.)

My friend Jazz, a member of the Houseless Organizing Coalition in Houston, told me that other members had stood in line for hours to get into the George R. Brown Convention Center, which had been designated as a shelter for houseless people, eventually moving to check houseless comrades into a motel instead. When the motel’s power went out, a member staying at the motel went out to get warm food for everyone. (You can donate to their efforts here.)

“We’re talking about going [out] on Tuesday or Wednesday to see if people are even alive because where we distribute is in a more secluded area with more elderly/disabled folks,” she told me via text. “We convinced some people to go to the motel or warming stations but a lot of people just didn’t want to go even when we really pressured them, and the reason is mostly because of losing their stuff. People don’t want cops to sweep their things.”

“We had one comrade with an oxygen device they just got that we had to offer to put in our storage to convince them to leave. It’s been really depressing. We had people yesterday on the street with nothing but a sleeping bag,” she continued. “And the people who were supposed to be picking them up to go in Houston was Houston Police Department, but who in their right mind wants to go anywhere with HPD?” The group also took the person with the oxygen device to a motel. This morning the power at Jazz’s apartment had gone out, too.

Occasionally, something will happen in Texas to remind the people who live here that we live in a failed state. For much of the past year, this failed state-defining moment was the pandemic, such as when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went on TV and said the seniors of Texas would be willing human sacrifices for the safety of the economy, or when Gov. Greg Abbott shut down local mask mandates in order to appease his base.

I feel it again now as Sen. John Cornyn, fresh off Trump’s impeachment hearing, thinks he has nothing better to do about ERCOT’s failures than frame New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as the culprit.

Texas, just like the rest of the country, killed so many people because our leaders thought it more important to prioritize short term gains than invest in people for a long term gain, and through this mismanaged crisis it will kill others, too — so far, two people have died. This is once again another reminder of this fucked-up reality: that the only people who can be depended on to protect vulnerable people on the margins are the people with the least amount of power to prevent these crises from happening.