As Texas was blanketed with snow, I was one of the lucky ones.
My fiancée Meghan and I live in a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks off Shepherd and West Alabama with our cat, Sabrina. We woke up on Monday, February 15 to find we still had electricity, which meant I was able to spend the day reporting on the nasty winter weather that had already left light bulbs and electric heaters without power in over a million Texan homes.
About ten minutes after turning in my last story of the day, in the middle of a conversation about what leftovers we’d heat up for dinner, we finally joined the ranks of the powerless right around 6:45 p.m. We lit a candle, dug up some flashlights and called our parents as we munched on cashews and potato chips in the dark.
The temperature inside started to fall from its 68 degree peak. Bundled-up in multiple layers of sweatshirts, socks and sweatpants, we crawled into bed and hoped for the best. I was optimistic enough — naive enough, really — to think our power might somehow return in the night.
That didn’t happen. The temperature dropped 10 degrees overnight and was falling fast by morning. Our typically blanket-averse cat was disconcertingly willing to stay put under the covers. We ate spoonfuls of granola and called upwards of 30 hotels to see if we could find a warm place to stay for a few days, but were met with a mix of busy signals, never-ending hold music and apologies for the lack of rooms available.
Thankfully, a friend across town told us we could stay at his still-electrified apartment, so we packed up Sabrina, all of our non-perishable foodstuffs and one H-E-B king cake (it was Fat Tuesday, after all) and cautiously drove north toward the Heights. As we rolled up, we were immediately greeted with a blaring fire alarm set off by a massive burst pipe spewing water in front of the complex. Our own apartment complex sent out an email that afternoon saying that the water had gone out, and our friend’s faucets stopped running not too long afterward.
On Thursday morning, Meghan vacuumed up the hair Sabrina shed at our friend's apartment (he is allergic to cats but still took us in, bless him) while I frantically took notes on an update from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to the public on city-sponsored water giveaways. We headed back home that afternoon after we heard that our complex’s power and water had been restored.
While it was a stressful few days for us, we know we were luckier than so many Texans. Over 40 people in the Houston area alone died from hypothermia, ice-induced car crashes, fires or carbon monoxide poisoning. Others who survived were stuck miserable in their frigid homes for days on end. Some still lacked running water at home thanks to burst pipes over a week after Houston warmed up, many of whom will be facing hefty repair bills for water damage.
Two weeks after the storm of a lifetime, whether or not there will be any real changes made to ensure that a catastrophe like this never happens again is up to the governor and the Texas Legislature, the same institutions that failed to pass measures that could have prevented all this needless suffering after a 2011 winter storm caused enough power outages to make clear just how ill-prepared Texas was — and still is — for ultra-cold weather.
How Did We Get Here?
The broad strokes of why over five million Texans lost electricity, 15 million were put under boil water notices and an untold number of pipes burst across the state are pretty well documented at this point. First, the independent power generators in Texas weren’t ready for the sub-freezing weather, so all of our energy sources (natural gas, coal, wind, solar, nuclear, you name it) fell short as many iced over for days.
Then, ERCOT (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas) ordered CenterPoint Energy and other Texas power distributors to shut off electricity for millions of Texans to keep the state’s power grid from getting overloaded (which ERCOT says could have caused months-long blackouts). All the while, the Public Utility Commission (a three-member group appointed by the governor) kept quiet, even though the group has legal authority over ERCOT.
The Texas House and Senate have already kicked-off their investigations into what the hell caused this mess, and all sorts of fingers pointed every which way during two straight days of hearings in Austin last Thursday and Friday.
Pretty much the only thing any of the players in the Texas energy infrastructure who testified could agree on was that someone else’s head should roll.
NRG Energy’s President Maurico Gutierrez swore that his company followed the winterization guidelines the Legislature recommended (but didn’t require) after 2011’s hard freeze, but said that wasn’t enough to protect power plants from 2021’s much colder weather. Vistra Energy CEO Curt Morgan blamed natural gas producers for not preparing their pipes for ultra-cold temperatures, which caused gas pressure issues that kept fuel from flowing to power plants.
Texas Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick (whose poorly-named agency regulates fossil fuels), claimed natural gas producers need power to keep pipes warm, and blamed utility companies for cutting off their electricity. She claimed new laws to force natural gas companies to do more prep for winter storms weren’t necessary.
“Companies generally do the right thing,” Craddick said.
Gov. Greg Abbott wants to focus on EROT for its failure to predict how bad things would get once the Arctic weather hit. While being grilled by state lawmakers, ERCOT’s head honcho Bill Magness pointed to the PUC, whom he claimed was responsible for overseeing ERCOT, and said the Legislature should pass laws to reform ERCOT if it isn’t happy with how the grid operator responded to the crisis; “Y’all made us. You should change us,” he said.
Then-PUC Chair and Abbott-appointee DeAnn Walker tried to shift the blame to ERCOT and initially claimed the PUC couldn’t micro-manage the power grid operator. She later admitted that her agency actually did have full authority over ERCOT after Democratic state Rep. Rafael Anchía read aloud the PUC’s responsibilities as laid out in legislation passed after the 2011 winter storm.
After Anchía asked Walker whether the PUC owed Texans an apology, she said nothing.
“The fact that you’re hesitating is astonishing… No further questions,” Anchía said.
Many state lawmakers have called for Walker and Magness to resign, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick joined the chorus on Monday morning. “I do not make this call for the resignation of the PUC Chair and the ERCOT CEO lightly,” Patrick wrote in a statement. He argued that “their failure to plan for the worst-case scenario and their failure to communicate in a timely manner dictates they are not the ones to oversee the reforms needed.”
Walker ultimately resigned on Monday afternoon. In her resignation letter, she kept on finger-pointing. “The gas companies, the Railroad Commission, the electric generators, the transmission and distribution utilities, the electric cooperatives, the municipally-owned utilities, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and finally the Legislature all had a responsibility to foresee what could have happened and failed to take the necessary steps for the past 10 years to address issues that each of them could have addressed,” Walker wrote.
Magness remains atop ERCOT, but several of the power grid operator’s out-of-state board members resigned last week after the news broke that being a Texan wasn’t a requirement to help manage the Lone Star State’s electricity system.
Fort Bend County Judge KP George called on Monday for the Texas Legislature to hold a special session to address the winter storm crisis. He’s asking for the state to use cash from the Rainy Day Fund to pay for winterizing power generators, to dictate that ERCOT board members have to live in Texas, and wants the PUC’s board to be elected by the people instead of appointed by the governor, a move he thinks will make them more accountable to Texans.
University of Houston’s Chief Energy Officer Dr. Ramanan Krishnamoorti (who said last week’s crisis made him feel like he was back in India where his family dealt with routine power outages and water issues), blames the Texas Legislature for going too far in deregulating the state’s electricity grid nearly two decades ago, and for creating an energy market that prioritizies low costs for energy consumers over being prepared for weather-induced disasters.
He also said it’s up to the Legislature to actually pass laws that require power generators to prepare for winter weather instead of only recommending those precautions be taken as they did after 2011’s storm, and to give state agencies the regulatory muscle to make sure that happens.
“You’ve got an infrastructure issue. And essentially, we’ve all taken advantage of the time that energy is inexpensive and abundant, and not bothered to make it resilient,” he explained.
“That is the crux of the issue,” Krishnamoorti said. “We’ve got a legislature that meets once every two years for four months, and their badge of honor is how few bills they pass outside of the budget that they’re so proud of. That can’t be our metric for moving forward….you need to have checks and balances, and that’s the job of the Legislature.”
The Road To Relief
President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden visited Houston last Friday to meet with Abbott, Turner, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the Texas congressional delegation to discuss the federal government’s response to the storm. The Bidens visited the Houston Food Bank and Harris County’s emergency management offices, and the president vowed that the U.S. government won’t turn its back on Texas in a speech at the local NRG Stadium COVID-19 vaccine clinic launched by the Federal Emergency Management Agency last week.
“Jill and I wanted to visit Texas today for a couple of reasons: First and foremost, to let the people of Texas know our prayers are with you in the aftermath of this winter storm,” Biden said Friday. “And secondly, to let you know what I told Governor Abbott and Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo and the congressional delegation: that we will be true partners to help you recover and rebuild from the storms and this pandemic and the economic crisis.”
“We’re in for the long haul,” Biden continued.
While many will appreciate the president’s prayers, plenty of folks are more interested in the cold-hard cash they’ll need to pay for costly home repairs after the storm. To that end, Biden has made a major disaster declaration for a large number of Texas counties, which frees up FEMA funds to help pay for uninsured storm damages.
Turner announced Monday that a joint city and Harris County storm relief fund has reached $7.1 million in donations so far. He said that the United Way of Greater Houston and the Greater Houston Community Foundation are in the process of distributing $1.65 million in emergency grants from that pot for county residents on the margins who can’t pay to fix home damage caused by burst pipes. Details for folks seeking relief can be found at the fund’s website, WinterStormReliefFund.org.
Even now, some Houstonians still lack running water at home because their landlords haven’t been able to get apartment complex pipes repaired, a situation Turner said his office is monitoring closely.
“The habitability team within Public Works has been dispatched,” Turner explained, “and is working in conjunction with the Department of Neighborhoods to really push these apartment owners and managers to take every step to repair the pipes and get the water flowing.”
In a televised speech Thursday, Abbott tried to convince Texans he knew how much they’d suffered: “No words can fix what happened, or ease the pain that you have endured. But I assure you of this: this legislative session will not end until we fix these problems, and we will ensure that the tragic events of the past week are never repeated,” he said.
“Your safety is my top concern,” Abbott continued.
When I heard that promise, I thought back to that Tuesday morning when we woke up shivering and scared in the Energy Capitol of the World, in a state whose leaders never miss an opportunity to claim Texas’ superiority over the rest of the United States.
I thought of the fear I saw in Meghan’s eyes when she wondered if we’d be able to find somewhere safe to stay, and the dread we felt when local officials told us to prepare for days on end without heat or safe water.
Here’s hoping this latest promise from the Governor’s Mansion carries a little more weight than the ones we heard after 2011.
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