Marquise Francis·National Reporter & ProducerThu, 18 February 2021, 10:25 pm
Pim Black, who was born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, moved to north-central Texas last September to be with her partner on Dyess Air Force Base, about 200 miles west of Dallas. Saturday was the first time the 28-year-old had ever seen snow.
But what started out as a magical white wonderland for Black quickly turned into a nightmare.
“At first I was excited for the snow, to see something new,” Black told Yahoo News on Thursday. “I’d never seen anything like this, but it wasn’t fun anymore when you don’t have running water and you have to melt the snow to bathe and cook.”
“Now, we have to be prepared for anything because anything can happen,” she added.
Black joins nearly 12 million Texans who have been hit hard by water disruption due to the rare and severe cold and snowy weather turned ice that slammed the state last weekend.
Temperatures have dipped below freezing in many parts of the state and have remained there for days. Frozen pipes in homes and businesses have burst due to the bitter cold, spewing water on anything else in its path. Millions of residents have been issued boil water notices by their city government to ensure the water’s safety.
At least 31 people have died as of Thursday afternoon as a result of the severe weather. And that number is expected to climb in the days ahead.
In the meantime, more than 400,000 Texans remain without power as of Thursday afternoon, according to Poweroutage.us. Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the agency that oversees the state’s power grid, said in a statement Thursday that it had made “significant progress” restoring power overnight.
“We will keep working around the clock until every single customer has their power back on,” ERCOT Senior Director of System Operations Dan Woodfin said.
The power grid in Texas is unique in that it does not cross state lines and therefore is not under the oversight of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. In the early 2000s, Republican leaders in the state pushed to deregulate the state’s power market and allow power companies to determine when and how to build and maintain power plants. About 90 percent of the state uses the ERCOT-managed grid
Now this setup, and its flaws, are coming under heavy scrutiny.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbot, a Republican, blamed ERCOT for the outages, calling it a “total failure”. But on Thursday, he said, “We hope and anticipate that no location will be without power tonight.”
While many Texans wait to have their power restored, critics question how the state ended up in this predicament in the first place. Federal regulators warned Texas officials after a brutal 2011 storm that it needed to take steps to better insulate its power plants, but those warnings appear to have gone nowhere.
Former Texas governor Rick Perry went as far as to suggest that Texans would rather suffer blackouts than to be on the national grid.
“Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” Perry said. “Try not to let whatever the crisis of the day is take your eye off of having a resilient grid that keeps America safe personally, economically, and strategically.”
But Texans who spoke to Yahoo News said they could care less where the energy came from; they just want their lights and heat back on.
“Earlier this week, it felt like negative 4 degrees and like I was in the twilight zone,” Erika Cox, 40, said. “We were not prepared for this, but the rolling power outages have been the worst. I didn’t even know that we weren’t on the national power grid and that came as a shock to a lot of us.”
Cox, who currently lives in San Antonio, has lived in Texas her entire life and says this winter storm is like nothing like she’s ever experienced.
“This doesn’t happen here,” Cox said. “It’s a dire situation. And we are still in the middle of a pandemic.”
This isn’t the first time, nor will it likely be the last time, Texas has experienced severe cold weather. But some cities, and energy regulators, have fared better than others.
For example, in El Paso, a town of nearly 700,000 people near the Mexico border, only 3,000 people lost electricity over the past week. Of that number, 1,000 of them had their power restored within 5 minutes, Eddie Gutierrez, an El Paso Electric spokesman, told KHOU.
El Paso Electric, or EPE, which is part of the Western Interconnect grid, learned from a brutal winter freeze that devastated the region in 2011 and, according to Gutierrez, spent heavily to “winterize our equipment and facilities so they could stand minus-10 degree weather for a sustained period of time.”
“I think one of the lessons from the freeze 10 years ago was to have more preparedness,” Gutierrez said. “[We needed] to withstand this type of crisis and sustain extreme weather.”
On the other side of Texas, near the Louisiana border, the city of Beaumont also learned from the 2011 storm. Entergy, which powers Beaumont on the Eastern Interconnect grid, also winterized its infrastructure.
But residents on ERCOT’s grid have had a very different experience.
Jeremy Jacob, 45, moved to Allen, Texas in 1993 and says that every six-to-eight years there is a “fluffy” snowstorm that his kids can play in. But this current storm has been devastating.
Despite following all of the rules he’s been given from local leaders, Jacob still had a pipe burst in his home that has caved in a large section of his roof, ruined his living room and bedroom furniture, warped the flooring and made his garage a complete mess. Jacob says while local leaders have stepped up, state leaders have failed.
“All the governor does is point fingers and that’s not what we need right now,” he said. “Texas is big on deregulation, but this is a dramatic failure.”
Outside of the personal belongings lost to the storm, Texans are also having to make key financial decisions on the fly.
“My mom and many other elderly people I know struggled during this,” Joey Harwell, 30, told Yahoo News. “My mother has just over $5,000 worth of medications she has to keep refrigerated, but cannot get frozen. Those medicines were hours away from being ruined. All of our groceries are ruined. … It’s been so frustrating with limited answers from leaders from our local, state and federal officials.”
“I am born and raised in Texas and have lived in the same area my entire life,” Harwell added. “This is the worst I have ever experienced. I have been through tornadoes and floods, but this beats them all. Texas sure has a lot of healing to do, which I am guessing will take months.”
While many Texas residents remained without heat or power, news broke that Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, had traveled to Mexico Thursday morning with his family for a vacation, but then quickly returned after facing widespread criticism.
But Cruz’s thwarted vacation highlighted the failures of the state’s politicians for some residents.
Reigning Olympic shot put gold medalist Michelle Carter, who lives in Dallas, said “our leaders dropped the ball.”
“As leaders there are things you should have foresight on or have a plan for if things happen,” Carter, 35, said. “I don’t think they had a plan if this happened and everyone I hope remembers this when they go vote.”
Carter added that the storm showed how unprepared the entire state was, creating a crisis that touched rich and poor alike.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you have, when you don’t have water or electricity we are all suffering,” she said. “You may have more resources to bring them back more quickly, but we all feel.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Go Nakamura/Getty Images
I REALLY FEEL FOR THE STATE OF TEXAS AND SUCH AN ABSOLUTE NIGHTMARE ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU HAVE TO MELT THE HEAVY SNOW TO USE IT TO BATHE AND COOK. NO DRINKING WATER AND NO CENTRAL HEATING IN THE FREEZING COLD. THE GOVERNOR SHOULD EITHER ACT QUICKLY OR QUIT HIS JOB. NO EXCUSE FOR THIS CALAMITY!!!