When I flew home from Canada to Texas last week, I was expecting an opportunity to soak up some warm weather and sunshine after months of being buried in snow. As it turns out, I brought the winter with me. I figured I’d give you all a run-down of what it was like to live through yet another historic event and give a little perspective about why things are happening the way they have.
Texas is built different. I don’t mean that in terms of superiority — the state just has different priorities when it comes to infrastructure, like expelling heat from our roads or dealing with flooding when we get the dregs of a hurricane coming in. If we get snow, especially in Central Texas, it’s usually not enough to cause a problem for longer than a day.
If you haven’t been paying attention, Texas got about a week of cold weather, including sub-freezing temperatures, snow, and ice. As the state was faced with surges in electricity usage to heat homes, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages electricity for about 90 per cent of Texans, began to issue rolling blackouts to avoid a complete breakdown in the system. Millions of people were left without electricity for days. That snowballed into countless other problems: no Internet, no cell service, and even contaminated water.
Here are some hard numbers from The Texas Tribune:
The toll has been awful. At one point, more than 4 million households were without power, and as many as 13 million people were in places on Thursday afternoon where tap water, if it was even available, wasn’t safe until it was boiled for two minutes. Unlike a summer peak in energy demand, electrical generators were competing for natural gas with regular folks, many of whom use gas to heat their homes. And the public health effect — the number of people hurt, sickened or killed by the storm, hasn’t been measured.
I’ll be the first to tell you that the “rolling” blackouts really weren’t that at all. My brother was entirely without power and running water from February 15 through February 19. Several of my friends in Austin still don’t have reliable power. My family wasn’t hit particularly hard, but we woke up to an email saying that we’d lose power for about 10 minutes every hour, and those 10 minutes stretched into hours. If the power dipped on, it was only for about 15 minutes the first two days of the “rolling” blackout.
It’s hard for me to imagine the state my family would be in if we hadn’t prepped for the COVID-19 pandemic. When my parents first heard about it in January of 2020, they advised me to stock my apartment with at least two weeks’ worth of supplies. They bought a second refrigerator, massive jugs of water, tons of non-perishables, and extra candles and battery-powered lights. (They’re not doomsday preppers or anything; they just like to be prepared before everyone else descends into chaos.)
On Monday, we woke up to no power. By noon, we’d lost internet because Spectrum, our provider, had also been experiencing power outages. Soon after, our cell phones quit receiving a reliable signal from the towers. I still can’t hold a phone call for more than 90 seconds without it dropping. By Thursday, we were being asked to boil our water with an increasingly diminishing power supply.
We didn’t have that bad of a time, though, not compared to a lot of people. We were cold, but my whole family snuggled up on the couch to share heat. If the sun came out, our second floor would actually be comfortable. We could still flush toilets and have hot showers. My mum even made us stir fry and, later, spaghetti.
But the hardest part was knowing that I couldn’t help the people who were struggling. My mum was fine with us setting up our home as a catch-all for anyone who needed a place to stay, but the problem was, no one could get here. The roads were disastrous. Highways shut down, directing people instead to unplowed service roads that were clogged with cars that had either slid off the road or were lined up for hours at the few fast food joints or grocery that still had electricity. Right now, shelves and kitchens are stripped bare.
We only have one 4×4 vehicle in our household, and my stepdad took precedence using it because he’s an emergency room doctor that needed to get in for his shifts. His reports were harrowing. He called my mum on his way to work via Bluetooth, then gave her a play-by-play report of the crashes he saw and the conditions he encountered. It was chaotic. And things were even worse when he got to the hospital, which wasn’t exempt from the rolling blackout and where nurses had been kept for days to guarantee there would be staff.
The worst part of the whole thing, though, is that this happened before on a slightly smaller scale. Back in 2011, a freeze knocked out power to 3.2 million Texans. Nothing happened. Lawmakers didn’t take action. More pressing issues came up by the next round of elections. Now, a decade later, things got even worse.
And I think the worst part is that we still don’t know the toll. We don’t know how many people have died or how many others will struggle to simply exist after this lost week. It’s been a massive failure on the part of the Texas infrastructure, and it’s time for a reckoning.