At 2 a.m. Tuesday, too cold to count sheep, I started tallying the toll of this disaster:
Twenty-four hours without power at my home.
Forty percent of Austinites suffering the same fate.
Four million Texas households without electricity, last I read.
Maybe $100 in spoiled food in my refrigerator. A water bill I didn’t want to think about, with my faucets running on slow drip.
Nine degrees outside.
All four members of my family set up to sleep in the living room, where a gas fireplace — thank God for that gas fireplace! — provided the only flicker of heat in the house. A meat thermometer I placed upstairs registered 40 degrees.
How long do we have to endure?
But the most important number of all is anyone’s guess: How many more hours of this?
I’d been following the news coverage and checking Twitter as much as my draining cell phone battery would allow. I understood the state’s power supplies were overwhelmed by demand and bowled over by Mother Nature. I understood that hospitals, nursing homes and emergency responders needed an uninterrupted power supply. I just couldn’t understand, amid the longest stretch of sub-freezing temperatures I’d ever experienced, how light and heat for millions of Texans were not deemed essential, too.
Inside Washington, D.C.:Capitol Hill is my neighborhood, not a militarized zone. Tear down oppressive fencing.
Earlier Monday, when the outage still had the hint of an adventurous indoor camping trip, my daughter buoyed my spirits. I was so proud when she declared: “We’ve got this! We’re Girl Scouts!” She looked so proud of me when I managed to light the gas stove by hand, making hot chocolate and grilled cheese sandwiches possible.
As hope faded with the afternoon sun, though, my daughter grew discouraged. She told me she was praying for the power to come back. I told her to offer a prayer of gratitude, too. We had a fireplace. We had piles of blankets. We had plenty of food in the pantry — even if, in another day or two, mealtime might resemble an episode of “Chopped,” with unusually paired ingredients on the plate.
I worry about those who don’t have those things. I worry about the death toll sure to come from this ice storm and our leaders’ failure to properly plan for it.
When utilities can’t be trusted
My mind wandered from this disastrous power outage to the coronavirus pandemic, then to the citywide boil water notice just a couple of years ago, when even our tap water couldn’t be trusted for a few days. How had so many elemental systems failed us in such a span of time? Each one was a once-in-a-century calamity, but here they were, all stacked up on each other.
Texans famously want very little from their government. But we need government leaders who can ensure we don’t freeze to death in our own homes. Why hadn’t they planned for the demand Texans would place on the electric grid in a bitter winter storm? Why hadn’t they ensured the power providers had sufficiently hardened their facilities against extreme weather events? How could America’s energy capital, a proudly prosperous state, leave millions of us huddling in the cold?
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The word from Austin Energy and Mayor Steve Adler and Gov. Greg Abbott is basically: Hang in there, we’re doing the best we can. The city opened warming centers but there’s no safe way to get to them. The National Weather Service, in emphatic red font, implores everyone to stay off the roads. They’re only getting icier.
The night before the power outage, I caught an airing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the end of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. There’s a scene, with a frigid Gotham under siege, when the fictitious president says the people of the city won’t be forgotten. “What does that mean?” one character asks. Another responds: “It means we’re on our own.”
And that’s where hundreds of thousands of Austinites, and millions of Texans, are now. Hang in there, the mayor and governor say. But we know we’re on our own.
Bridget Grumet is a member of the editorial board of Austin-American Statesman, where this column originally appeared.