Cover Stories

Six Inches Over Texas

by Anna DesLauriers.

At the beginning of this year, I was out salting the sidewalks, thinking that we were lucky to have so little snow here in Maine. However, when I went inside and started browsing Facebook, I saw many of my friends in the south posting desperate pleas for tips on how to weather a winter storm. Texas had been hit with more snow than we had here in Maine, which is not a common occurrence.

The snow hit Texas hard, with Denver City getting 11 inches of snow in just two days. Along the plains of Texas, the recorded snowfall was six to eight inches. Officially, the Lubbock Airport recorded 7.6 inches of snow, which broke the previous daily snowfall record of 4.5 inches (set in 1936). The storm caused blackouts for 9.9 million people across the US and Mexico. This was the largest blackout since the Northeast Blackout in 2003. For the first time in recorded history, the National Weather Service issued winter storm warnings for all 254 counties in Texas. The power grids couldn’t keep up with the demand for electricity and heat and they had a colossal power failure across the state. At the highest point of failure, 4.5 million Texas residents were without power.

A friend of mine, and resident of Houston, Tou Ballard, reported loss of power and water, with burst pipes and water damage to her house. She was without power for four days. It was her first snow storm experience like this, and said it took a big toll on her mental health. Her family had to do a lot of community outreach to learn how to stay warm, and how to live through a storm like this. Across the Internet, people from northern states were giving out tips on how to weather the storm. A lot of money was crowd-sourced to send as direct aid to Texas because the local government wasn’t doing their part.

On February 16th, the state had record low overnight temperatures. Dallas recorded −2°F, which was the city’s coldest temperature since 1930, and its second-coldest on record. Houston and San Antonio had the lowest recorded temperatures since 1989. Pipes burst all over the state. When water came back into distribution, by February 18th, 13 million Texas residents lived in areas with a boil-water order. 

A family friend in Austin is still dealing with no water. Allison said yesterday she was on day nine. She told us that she technically has water, “…but if I turn the water main back on, the busted pipe in the front yard will start leaking again. Plumber is supposed to come today, but will he be able to fix it today? No one knows.” The plumber was a no-show that day, but came the next day. She’s getting by with the help of friends and neighbors who have filled up old milk jugs for her to be able to flush, and she has purchased drinking water.

Another friend that lives in Houston, PJ Douglas, reported losing power and water as well, and also had frozen pipes. She didn’t have much damage to her home, but her neighbors lost food, had ceilings caved in, and kids and elderly people in her area were getting very sick. She was without power for three days, and her projected light bill for the time of the storm is $200, with $100 of that charge coming from a single day. Compared to a man in Houston who said his bill was $10,000 for two weeks of electricity, she seems to have gotten lucky.

Because Texas has private for-profit power, it is not regulated the same as the rest of the US. There are three grids in the Lower 48 states: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection — and Texas. By not crossing state lines, Texas utilities avoided being subjected to federal rules. Wholesale electricity prices have gone up dramatically; in some places up to 10,000 percent. This resulted in some extremely high bills, sometimes as high as $450 for one day.

My teacher’s cousin, also a resident of Houston, lost power Monday at 2am, and on Tuesday her house was 34°F. Her power came on long enough to shower and heat up some food, but then it went off again. Her husband slept in the car with the engine running, and she slept in bed with the dog and a lot of blankets. She says the water seems stable now, but smells like fish, and she doesn’t want to shower and definitely won’t be drinking it.

When asked about the cost of her electric bill, she said that hers was actually very cheap. Apparently, on the Texas electric grid, you can choose to pay what you use, or you can opt for a variable rate. She did not opt for that. She compared variable rates offered by the electric company to bankers’ offers of mortgages with balloon payments. “Of course, the American dream is owning a home and everyone deserves it, but when the government forced the banks to provide loans to get those people into homes, it actually worked against them because of course those balloon payments were never going to be a good idea and ended up hurting those people. I feel sorry for the people that are facing those bills, however the news is not reporting that people are not going to be responsible for paying them. Offering the variable rate is a terrible idea in case of these situations.”

“I just don’t want to sound harsh and like I don’t understand the situation that people are in. I am actually more frustrated with the programs that seemingly suck people in with a “don’t worry about it – it will never happen” attitude. It is actually more cruel than helping them deal with it. In this case, a stable rate that keeps them out of this situation. I actually have compassion for the fact that they are misled to think it is a good idea.”

The biggest takeaway from the result of this storm is that the government did not have programs in place, and they need to have more disaster-preparedness for the future. With the trends in storms lately, it’s not impossible that something like this will happen again. The government and power companies are trying to fix this mess, but some feel it’s too little, too late. Hopefully things can come to a resolution that doesn’t devastate people’s lives more than they already have.

“They need to fortify obviously, but this is like COVID. It is a complete anomaly, (with) lessons to be learned, unfair death and struggle for far too many people. I am not minimizing. It is just a fact. They need to make the changes to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I am about solving the issues, not blaming a bunch of people.” When asked about what the future of the Texas power grid will hold, she said “those investigations cost an outrageous amount of money. I want that money to go to helping people. I understand the need for investigation, however I have never seen any of them be successful in solving or even exposing fully anything. (They can) investigate, but dump the money into fixing and helping!”

This may not be an anomaly, because climate change is likely responsible for the unusual cold in the south. Apparently the Jet Stream has weakened because of global warming, and that allows cold weather from the Arctic to sink further south, instead of holding it up in the northern tier of the US. According to Wikipedia, “climate scientists have hypothesized that the jet stream will gradually weaken as a result of global warming. Trends such as Arctic sea ice decline, reduced snow cover, evapotranspiration patterns, and other weather anomalies have caused the Arctic to heat up faster than other parts of the globe (polar amplification).” 

Regardless of the cause, the southern states need to work on strengthening their infrastructure, and have plans in place for if and when something like this happens again. There was far too much suffering in just a few days to allow things to continue this way. 

Categories: Cover Stories, Features

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