Image courtesy of Ralph Lauer/EPA
By Margaret Adams
The state of Texas experienced a historic freeze last week that claimed many lives as millions went without power, water, or sufficient shelter.
The disaster started on Monday when several power plants tripped in succession and were not able to be restored until much later due to the snowstorm.
The snowstorm that left about four million Texas residents without power also left nearly 8.8 million people under boil water notices that are still in place, issued after days of record low temperatures damaged the state’s water infrastructure. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality stated that 900 public water systems in 164 counties have been affected.
FEMA has so far supplied Texas with 60 generators for critical infrastructure, 729,000 liters of water, more than 10,000 wool blankets, 50,000 cotton blankets, and 225,000 meals.
The Lone Star state was approved on Friday to allow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to apply for replacement benefits for food lost during the week-long winter storm; the recipients will be able to receive hot meals for the first time in many days.
The cause of the widespread blackout can be attributed to many factors. Many have assumed that glitching of wind farms to be the main source of the issue, blaming the problem on renewable energy. Conversely, wind only makes up 25% of the state’s energy this time of year, according to Yahoo! Finance. The main issue is natural gas; Wade Schauer, research director at Wood Mackenzie, states that about 27 gigawatts of coal, nuclear, and gas capacity are unavailable, in part because the freezing temperatures increased demand for natural gas for heating purposes.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas stated they were faced with a choice to turn off power for millions of customers or risk collapsing the entire power grid at once.
“Grid demand is so much higher than we’ve really built the system for in the wintertime,” said Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin.
Many others blamed the issue on the Texas power grid’s market design. Texas has a separate power grid, allowing freedom of federal regulations. It has been described as “an electrical island in the United States” by Bill Magness, CEO of ERCOT. Many are describing the grid’s market design as a means of valuing profit over good service.
“While other regional markets are designed to reward power plants for being on standby in case of unexpected demand peaks, Texas’s approach is fairly market-driven,” a Wall Street Journal article said.
“What has sent Texas reeling is not an engineering problem,” said Will Englund, a reporter at The Washington Post. “It is a financial structure for power generation that offers no incentives to power plant operators to prepare for winter. In the name of deregulation and free markets, critics say, Texas has created an electric grid that puts an emphasis on cheap prices over reliable service.”
The storm has killed many, including 11-year-old Cristian Pavon whose family is suing ERCOT for $100 million over gross negligence, causing the boy’s death. While the final number is still being calculated, there have been nearly 80 reported deaths due to the winter storm in Texas and other states hit by the storm. This number includes fatalities from storm-related car crashes, carbon monoxide poisonings, hypothermia, drownings, and house fires, according to The Associated Press.
The snowstorm also slowed COVID-19 vaccination efforts.
“The deteriorating conditions across the state likely hampered not only vaccine efforts, but also reporting efforts,” said Chris Van Deusen, a Department of State Health Services spokesperson.
The sheer amount of snow and freezing temperatures in Texas is so unusual that many have started to question the reality of it: a viral TikTok trend under the hashtag #governmentsnow is spreading false information that the snow from the winter storm is fake and was sent from the government. The TikTok users hold lighters and hair dryers up to the snow to attempt to prove its fraud. This theory has quickly been debunked, as a CBS affiliate in Richmond, Virginia, explained sublimation in a YouTube video that has more than 100,000 views.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott expressed disappointment in ERCOT and declared its reform an emergency item for the 2021 legislative session. He also expressed a desire for the resignation of leadership at ERCOT.
“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement.“ERCOT stands for Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and they showed that they were not reliable.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also came under fire on social media over photos of him leaving for a family vacation to Cacún, Mexico during the snowstorm.
“With school canceled for the week, our girls asked to take a trip with friends. Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon,” Cruz said in a statement. “We want our power back, our water on and homes warm. My team and I will continue using all our resources to keep Texans informed and safe.”
More information has been released about his planning of the trip with neighbors, as well as his flight information with United Airlines.
“I think the media is suffering from Trump withdrawal, where they’ve attacked Trump every day for four years,” Cruz told Hannity. “They don’t know what to do, so they obsessed over my taking my girls to the beach.”
With millions of families affected by the cold, many are perplexed and unsure of what the long-term solution is, as permanent fixes would be expensive and seemingly unnecessary for a state with little annual snowfall.
“This type of storm is clearly very rare for Texas, so I’m not sure if it would be prudent to reconstruct one’s whole way of life in order to prepare for another one,” said sophomore Texas native, Mary Boneno. “At the same time, Texas is prone to many other storms, so I hope whatever changes that will occur because of this past week can help improve government responses to hurricane relief so that the people affected receive truly sustainable aid.”
Many Texas lawmakers have been heavily involved with the relief effort. Rep. Sylvia Garcia immediately organized a tour of the storm damage in her district.
“We’re going to work hard to bring the dollars necessary to Texas and to Houston. So we all have a full recovery,” Garcia said. “Document. Take pictures. Keep track of your receipts because you can already go online to start applying for help.
Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke organized a San Antonio wellness check, checking in door-to-door with city residents to see if they were in need of food, water or other supplies.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee aided the NACC, a coalition of Christian churches, to give groceries and water to those in need in Houston on Thursday. She also worked alongside Garcia and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a local food bank. Ocasio-Cortez also helped raise $5 million for the Houston Food Bank, Family Eldercare, Feeding Texas, The Bridge Homeless Recovery Center, Corazon Ministries, North Texas Food Bank, Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, and Central Texas Food Bank.
“It’s one thing to read about what’s going on but it’s another thing entirely to see the damage for ourselves,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “The message in Washington is let’s not let people get caught up in a bunch of red tape. Let’s try to get this assistance out the door as much as people need and as quickly as we can.”