Lizabeth Resendiz spent last week wrapped in blankets, reading and playing Lotería with her parents and siblings in their living room. Texas experienced a state-wide weather crisis that left millions of residents without heat and electricity and in some cases, water, for a few days. The Lone Star State reaches triple-digit heat during the summertime, so to say that Texans weren’t prepared to handle this colder weather is an understatement.
Resendiz did see weather reports that showed the incoming winter storm, and due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, her family was prepared and purchased enough food, water and other essential things to stay in. One thing they didn’t think to buy was a generator.
“That’s something that my family thought about while we were sitting in the living room with no power,” Resendiz told Luz Collective in a recent phone interview. “It’s like ‘Okay, now it’s time to invest in a generator,’ and definitely have flashlights, because we didn’t even have flashlights at home.”
With the state’s 254 counties all under a winter storm warning on Sunday night, the demand to generate power to produce warmth exceeded the supply that was depleted by failed energy sources. The snow and ice caused the state’s power sources – from natural gas to renewable energy – to go offline.
Texas mainly runs on its own power grid with The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), managing the flow of 90% of the state’s electric power. ERCOT ordered local energy providers to shed loads from the grids early Monday morning, leaving approximately two million homes without power during single-digit temperatures.
“We prepared as much as we could, but here’s the deal. The power outages are what’s getting us,” Nayelly Dominguez told Luz Collective in a phone interview earlier this week.
Dominguez has dealt with winter storms growing up in Fort Worth and living in Chicago, but it didn’t affect her like this. She was in Dallas with her boyfriend when she started experiencing hours-long blackouts on Monday, charging her electronics during the brief periods of power.
ERCOT initiated rolling blackouts across the state to conserve energy, but some neighborhoods didn’t experience them at all. Some Texans didn’t have power for 72 hours while nearby communities’ electricity stayed on. A photo on social media shows brightly lit buildings west of I-35 in Austin while the neighborhood east of the highway was dark. The city’s history includes “triple segregation” of the city when people of color lived on the east side (before gentrification).
In Dallas, Resendiz noticed a map on social media showing Highland Park, a wealthy neighborhood, wasn’t experiencing power loss during the outages. So she checked for herself. When she reported the outage in her neighborhood to Oncor Electric Delivery, it provided a map that showed where others were experiencing the outages. Her map was similar.
ERCOT Senior Director of System Operations Dan Woodfin said in a press conference earlier this week that the local utility companies determine how to implement the outages ERCOT ordered, which can exclude areas with critical care facilities such as hospitals or emergency response facilities. Newsweek reported that ONCOR primarily focused on residential neighborhoods and commercial areas for its outages and that Highland Park residents were experiencing outages even if it didn’t reflect on the map. But yet, with this past year of discussions around systemic racism and class conflict, viewing these images after hours of freezing in the darkness just didn’t sit right.
“I don’t think that energy, air, water is our essential thing that should be denied to any human,” said Resendiz. “Despite whatever color, whatever race, whatever ethnicity you are, those are basic needs that we need, and everyone should get those equally.”
Power was fully restored on Friday, February 19, but ERCOT started reducing outages on Tuesday and heavily encouraged conservation. Even though more power was restored on Wednesday, an additional snow storm rolled through on Thursday that added to the already chilly weather. Many houses were damaged by water pipes that burst inside, and many cities issued a boil water notice. Residents couldn’t use their electric stove to cook with no power, while people risked their lives from carbon monoxide poison or a fire by warming their homes with thier gas stoves. The goal was the same across the board though: simply stay warm.
Shannon Faulk and her husband had a rough night at their house, getting three and a half hours of sleep as they took turns holding their 11-week old infant.
“We were just holding her so she could have all body heat and keep her warm,” Faulk told Luz Collective in a phone interview early this week.
They were at her friend’s house for a moment after that when the power went out. They then headed to her brother-in-law’s house that eventually lost power, but they stayed because it’s better insulated and they experienced rolling blackouts. When the power was on for three to four hours, they warmed up the house and made sure to close the doors to trap the heat.
“But it’s still scary because we’ve had to break our COVID protocols,” said Faulk. “We haven’t been around anybody without masks on since October unless they’ve been quarantined for at least two weeks, and that all went out the window in order for us to get our baby warm.”
Anabel Soto worked when she had the Internet and electricity at her house in Dallas, but she felt that her director, who did have power on Monday, wasn’t as understanding of the situation. He wanted them to figure out how to log in for a morning meeting.
“That’s coming from a place of privilege, right? Because all I’m doing is trying to figure out how to keep my daughter warm, and you want me to log in at a 10 o’clock meeting,” Soto told Luz Collective in a recent phone interview.
Soto’s house is an older house, so it can be cold during the winter. So she, her husband and her daughter first seeked refuge with her dad at his house until his power went out on Sunday. Her sister and her family joined them when they went back to Soto’s house, because there was still power but there were issues. The gas burner triggered the carbon monoxide alarm, and they had to turn off the water main after a pipe broke.
At one point, Soto looked at her family and realized none of them have worked since last week. The Latinx community is already disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and this week’s crisis can mean a week of lost wages to many employees.
“This is going to be really difficult for folks that didn’t have any kinds of savings, or they have a lot of house repairs,” said Soto. “Whatever little money they had left after the pandemic, it’s going to be a real struggle for a lot of people.”
People across the state and the country have come together to offer any sort of relief they could provide. Crowdsourced spreadsheets, such as one compiled by Dallassites101, listed where to get food, resources or a warm place during the outages.
Beto O’Rourke, who lost to replace Senator Ted Cruz during the November 2018 election by a slim margin, gathered volunteers to make over 784,000 phone calls to help senior citizens in Texas with water, food, transportation and shelter. His Twitter feed is filled with links to resources for those needing assistance.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and her team has raised $2 million in direct relief funds that will assist in homelessness relief, elder care and more. The NY-based state rep partnered with five Texas organizations and traveled to Houston this weekend to meet with Congresswoman Sylvia R. Garcia and distribute supplies.
People commented on Twitter that AOC is doing more for Texas than Cruz who was photographed on Wednesday night heading to Cancún while many of his constituents were still without power. The Senator initially stated that he was accompanying his daughters who wanted to go on the trip, but he eventually admitted that the trip was a mistake.
Governor Greg Abbott declared an emergency item to investigate ERCOT in the next legislative session in hopes that the state can learn from this situation and never experience it again. However, he blamed wind turbines for the outages on Fox News. Wind power generates 7% of the state’s energy.
Resendiz hopes that Abbott investigates ERCOT, because she said that what the state experienced this week was unacceptable.
“There are consequences,” Resendiz said. “Consequences need to be implemented to whoever is responsible for millions of Texans being left with no power. I hope a solution comes out of this, so we never experience this again. Transparency and accountability are what I want to see.”