AUSTIN — Despite recent evidence to the contrary, I still like to think that we live in a functioning nation, a place where the simple compacts still hold. We’re kind to our neighbors and they reciprocate. We work hard and rewards follow. We elect people who we trust to look out for us, especially when times are tough, and they do.
But I live in Texas and so all it’s taken is some snow to remind me that things fall apart easily — with catastrophic consequences.
Several people have died in connection to the winter storms, Texans victims of a go-it-alone state mythology that has left us all at the mercy of ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — the folks who operate the state’s solo power grid. We don’t usually share or borrow from other regions because that’s how Texas wanted it in the opening decades of the 20th century, and that’s why more than 4.4 million of us have been without power during the most severe stretch of winter weather my 73-year-old husband, a Texas native, or anyone else I know here, can remember.
Difficult, but fortunate
There will be time to process how angry this makes me and to decide how sincere Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, both Republicans, are about their calls for investigations. In the meantime, with temperatures as low as minus 2 degrees, I’ve been trapped with my husband, 14-year-old daughter and our shivering pup in a house without heat, most recently for 55 hours, after outages Thursday, Friday and Saturday last week. We’ve had no hot water, stayed in the same clothes since last week, and spent our days hoping for news about when life might return to normal.
Texas rolled by winter storms:A dispatch from my frozen living room
With news and resources scarce, my daughter and I bundled up and ventured out Tuesday. We lined up for an hour to get into the only open grocery store and witnessed drivers skidding through stop signs and intersections, topped off by a multi-car pile-up as we rounded the corner home. Driving on ice is a challenge, especially for those unaccustomed to it. That Austin has scant resources for making roads safer in a weather disaster has been just one more unsettling realization.
Our power finally returned Wednesday afternoon, but we’re not confident it will stay. We’ve been furiously boiling water now that Austin is under a citywide boil water notice.
My husband reminds me that we are fortunate. We have a home when too many in Austin, the would-be tech metropolis that Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently hailed as “the biggest boomtown that America has seen in 50 years, at least — a megaboom,” sleep under overpasses. We’ve used our cars to get warm and charge our phones. We’ve huddled under blankets with our dog as our heating pad and had friends who have power offer us shelter, despite the COVID risks and the months we’ve all spent masked and at a distance.
But a frigid, cold house with no light feels dead. And the hopelessness that sets in with so little information has been as relentless and defeating as the cold. With no internet, we’ve had sporadic glances at the news and those have brought home tragedy. A grandmother and her grandchildren outside of Houston all dead in a house fire, possibly after using the fireplace to keep warm; carbon monoxide poisonings; and, incredibly, more snow predictions.
What makes me colder than the sinking thermometer is pondering how many people in this low tax, pro-business state live in poverty, most of them children, and how they are faring. As I think about these kids and their parents, I marvel at how maddeningly full of itself Texas can be. If you’re inclined to think this way, know this: Mother Nature, and a stunning lack of foresight and leadership, is dealing Texas a whopping dose of humility.
Jena Heath is an associate dean and associate professor of Journalism & Digital Media at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.