The Texas Freeze Has Returned, and So Has Our Rage
A new winter storm in Texas has reminded me just how mad we all deserve to be.
On Monday morning, I saw an early forecast of freezing temperatures in Central Texas for later in the week and I immediately went to the grocery store to buy most of the things I knew we would need in case of an emergency.
I had already been thinking about this for weeks: what to do in the event of another storm, another repeat of an electricity grid failure like last year. I asked friends on Instagram for their recommendations — lots of canned food that doesn't require cooking, lots of water, insulating windows with heavy curtains. I remembered the tips shared by midwesterners on Twitter last year — cover your head, hands, and feet, crowd into one room and cover the windows and door leaks with blankets, use tents and sleeping bags to insulate yourself if you have them. But I didn't jump into action until I saw the forecast.
It's not like I hadn't remembered how bad it got last year. Roads went unsalted. Cars piled up on icy highways and drivers died. The state's energy grid failed, pipes froze and burst, and millions of people went without electricity and water for days on end. People burned their furniture and turned to unsafe indoor heating solutions and cuddled their children to keep them warm while they slept.
Hundreds of people died as a result — perhaps hundreds more than the state of Texas is willing to recognize. Elected officials, who had just as much responsibility as the grid operator ERCOT to make sure power and gas plants across the state could withstand freezing conditions, pointed fingers. Ted Cruz fled the country and then tried to place blame on being the father of cold daughters. (Screw him for "joking" about it on Twitter this week, too.)
I remembered all of it. And yet it wasn't until those first signs of warning — Monday's weather forecast, Tuesday's press conference with Gov. Greg Abbott and energy officials, viral photos of people at HEB stocking their carts with canned goods and candles and wine — that I really, really remembered how bad it was. That I could remember how it felt to live through that desperation. Of keeping the thermostat low to conserve, and feeling chilled when we went downstairs. Of filling pots and bowls and the tub with water in case we got a boil notice. Of watching friends walk miles in the snow to go to the grocery store. Of never having lost utilities myself, but feeling helpless and stranded from friends whose families lost electricity, who couldn't find vacant hotel rooms, who had children to feed and keep warm.
It wasn't until those triggers that it all came flooding back, and I realized how absurd it was that we were in another vaguely similar situation at all. How absolutely unacceptable it was for a year to have gone by and still hear from Abbott that "no one can guarantee there won’t be a ‘load shed’ event," which is a conveniently technical and ambiguous term for a power outage. How dare Abbott have spent a year passing legislation riddled with loopholes and making hollow promises that the power will stay on. How dare they do this to us again!
I know I'm not the only one reliving this collective trauma.
I checked in with friend groups scattered across the state, and their responses ran the spectrum of completely unaware of another freeze, to less concerned of the weather in their area, to freaking out as much as I was. It seemed that your level of alertness depended on which weather and news reports you were choosing to take comfort in.
Most people were either prepared for the storm — groceries replenished and water containers filled and pipes dripping — or were still making last-minute runs, hoping their nearby HEB wasn't understocked. Even I was surprised Wednesday when I made a final trip for eggs, and most shelves at my small HEB location (save for the eggs themselves) were still half stocked, if not fully stocked—perhaps an indication of how prepared other neighborhood shoppers already were before the cold began creeping in.
So far, the state seems to be luckier than last year. Smaller local power outages have persisted, but not to any scale comparable to last year. The temperatures are sub-freezing, but aren't as low as they were last year, and won't be low for as long. It's been raining on and off for days, perhaps a factor in this storm becoming one of the most "significant icing events" in Texas in decades, but not like it was last year, where freezing rainstorms slicked roads and weighed down trees with masses of ice, the latter with the ability to down power lines.
There are other things too, that have changed since last year. Electricity plants are winterized (though gas plants are another story — see loopholes referenced above). The Texas Department of Transportation took earlier measures to pretreat some highways ahead of the ice. And, at least in Austin, emergency weather alerts have been calling and texting my phone since Wednesday. Last year it took nearly a week after the storm first rolled in to get an emergency text telling me where people in my county could get clean water.
But all of these measures were somehow not enough to guarantee that, one year after the worst energy infrastructure failure in the state's history, a blackout like that wouldn't happen again, or to guarantee that regardless of icy trees and fallen power lines, every Texan, housed and unhoused and sheltered, could reasonably expect to keep the heat and the lights on during what was supposed to be a less-drastic winter storm.
So my anger remains. It shouldn't have come down to luck that the temperatures didn't drop lower, or the rain didn't come down as hard, for the grid to have stayed online for the entirety of this storm so far. Our anxieties weren't an overreaction — we were anxious because of what we experienced last year, but also in response to the uncertainty we still faced. Every single one of us should have been able to weather this storm knowing with 100% certainty that the grid, and the people whose responsibility it was to fix it, wouldn't fail us again. And we couldn't even have that.
It shouldn't take less frigid weather conditions for us to avoid power grid failure. There's no reason we should be worried about this in the first place. And I don't even want to begin to consider the deeper political implications of why Abbott couldn't assure us of an unfailing power grid in the first place, especially when the weather conditions were considerably less severe than last year, and there was a supposed surplus of energy on standby, but I must. Is it really that the grid's integrity is so shoddy that it can't provide us with the bare minimum, or that Abbott would rather cover his ass amid his 2022 re-election campaign than promise the bare minimum?
All of this — remembering how angry I was last year, and realizing how unreasonable these conditions are this year, and how we have a governor who is too concerned playing politics to do right by his constituents — has reminded me how angry I still should be. I can only assume that I lost touch of these feelings because it was the easiest thing to do to help myself "move on," to allow myself to continue to be a functioning person, a privilege that many, many people who suffered during the freeze haven't had. Instead of being angry, I've existed in this space between action and despair and resignation, feeling almost on the precipice of hopelessness. Same with the pandemic, I've stifled my anger to help me get through the past year, but in doing so I lost the part of myself that earnestly demands for more.
It's not what I want. I don't want to feel resigned to the way things are. I want accountability. I want Ted Cruz and Greg Abbott and their deregulation-loving peers out of office. I want a world that takes care of people during a crisis like this—that gives them shelter and money and doesn't police them or exploit their labor. There's also another obvious lesson in all of this, to never rely on this government to take care of us — that it will always be community volunteers filling the gaps the government leaves behind, and that the only people we can count on are ourselves. It's not an attitude of resignation, but an ignition for change outside of the systems that leave people behind. I'm not quite there yet, not quite done with this idea that the people who get to make decisions that affect our wellbeing can't somehow be made to bend to our will.
I forgot what it's like to be mad, what it feels like to want to channel that passion into change, and I'm sorry it took a brush with disaster to shock me back into that reality. But we can't fall to despair. If you are finding yourself angry like me, hold on to it. Feel your anger, and stay mad. We have so many reasons to be mad, to feel fed up and enraged. And we have to use our anger to demand more for our safety, health, and wellbeing, far more than they're willing to guarantee us. Don't let this hopelessness and resignation win, because we deserve so very much more.