The winter storm that battered Texas earlier this week is a lot of things: an extreme weather event fueled by climate change, a failure of decades of conservative governance combined with disinvestment of weather resiliency strategies and federal regulations on energy infrastructure, and a natural disaster that’s forced millions into survival mode. On a macro level, the only response to these events is anger at the politicians who failed to protect their citizens and refuse to accept responsibility for that failure. Millions remain without power, water, heat.
People have gone to the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning because they were so desperate to be warm they sat in their garages with their cars on, others have had pipes burst and ruin their homes, have had houses set on fire. In Southern Texas, water boil notices — which is when residents have to boil water before they drink it — have gone out in places where people don’t even have running water, or electricity, or gas to boil that water with. It is a preventable crisis that was not prevented. Millions are suffering from it.
The aggregate suffering is intense, and the abdication of duty to help those folks is nearly criminal. But on an individual level, the stories coming out of Texas are just frightening. Hearing them gives one a sense of just how bad things are (and they are awful) and the lengths people are going to in order to survive when food, water, and shelter are difficult to secure throughout the state.
According to the Austin American-Statesman, between 12 p.m. on Monday and 12 p.m. on Tuesday, the Austin Fire Department received a whopping 601 calls for help with burst water pipes. The entire state is dealing with similar problems, and millions don’t have water while around seven million have water with boil warnings.
And while the water situation is bad, the loss of electrical power has arguably been worse. The vast majority of Texas (with the exception of far West Texas areas like El Paso) has its own power grid by design, which means it can’t tap into power from the rest of the country. It also left the decision to heed warnings that winter weather could crash the system up to private power companies, most of which decided not to pay for upgrades that literally could have saved lives.
The loss of power has led to rationing, with companies like Austin Energy ordered by the state to reduce the load on parts of the grid in order to ensure that hospitals and emergency services remained online. That means that millions have been left without electrical power, the most urgent effect of which is unheated homes.
Here Are The Individual Stories from Texas That You Should Know
Austin resident Smita Pande told CNN that she and her husband went to a friend’s apartment after her own lost power. When a water main break knocked out the water there, they got creative.
“We didn’t anticipate the water to be shut off, but once it did, we assumed a ‘worst-case scenario’ type of thing and just grabbed snow off the balcony and put it into kettles and pots to use for drinking water in case we don’t get water back anytime soon,” Pande said. “If the power outage is any indication of how long that’ll be, then we are going to be boiling snow for a while.”
In San Antonio, Brenda Aly is using water from a neighbor’s pool in addition to snow to fill toilet tanks and do dishes in her home. As for drinking water, she had a couple of days’ worth of bottled water left before resorting to plan B: drinking snow.
It wasn’t just frozen water mains that caused problems. Undrained fire sprinklers have burst in buildings around the state, making some living spaces uninhabitable, like how one Twitter user, Jesus Cortez of San Marcos, detailed.
so today even with freezing weather, our apartment complex didn’t drain the sprinklers so it busted in one of the rooms and our apartment flooded. We were walking in a pool of water trying to take out as much possible trying to make sense of what was happening. pic.twitter.com/W04NHX3hbt
— Jesus Cortez (@xbrxham) February 17, 2021
And then there’s the fact that Texas buildings aren’t winterized — so when one Twitter user detailed his brother’s plight in Texas, he revealed that his brother had been living in 23-degree weather inside of his own house.
This is the thermostat on the wall INSIDE my brother's house in Texas. It reads 23°F = – 5°C. The power has been off for ~36 hrs now and ALL plumbing is destroyed. The local electric co think this is an acceptable mgmt strategy while local cities still have offices lit etc #ERCOT pic.twitter.com/dUWyUdW1Ci
— Andrew Pearce Spicer (@aspiceruk) February 16, 2021
The Wilseys, a family of three in Euless, Texas, lost power for three days. They told CNN that they used their car to charge their phones, which they used to check the news and search for restaurants that might be serving food. Other than that, they’re spending their time under the covers in an apartment heated only by candles.
In Irving, Kimberly Hampton and her family of five have been stuffing towels under the doors to seal in what little heat is left in their house while bundling up and laying on top of each other to stay warm. She’s been left melting frozen breast milk in room temperature water to feed her baby, but said she was likely to switch to formula as the remaining milk she had on hand was due to spoil in the refrigerator.
How You Can Help
These are five of the many organizations helping Texans on the ground.
Sylvia Cerda Salinas has three diabetic kids and has lost two dozen cases of insulin to spoilage. She’s also worried about going to a shelter because she has another child with a compromised immune system and is worried, rightly, that they could contract COVID-19 in a congregate setting.
In Harris County, home to Houston, there have been more than 300 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning as desperate people turn to grills, generators, and stoves to keep warm. At least two people, a mother, and her eight-year-old daughter, died in the county after running their car in the garage for heat.
Many who have tried to get out of their unheated, waterless homes haven’t been able to thanks to conditions outside. Katy Genden took her three dogs and tried to drive to a friend’s house, but was forced to turn back by treacherous road conditions.
And even if you can find one that’s open and has food in stock, road conditions mean grocery stores are difficult to reach and clogged with desperate shoppers, if they are open at all. Ditto restaurants, gas stations, and anywhere else that sells food has managed to stay open. Water bottles and gas are hard to find and stores are stripped clean of food.
There are some signs that things are improving, with power coming back online for some Texas residents and (heroic) crews clearing roads. But another massive winter storm, this one stretching from the Rio Grande to New York City, is bringing more bad weather to the state at the worst possible time.