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When Hell Freezes Over, Again
I lost power in yet another Texas weather fiasco—but my community was there to help me.
This month, Texas froze over, just like it did last year, and the year before. Once again, winter storms shut down power and disrupted water utilities across the state, despite the years that state and local governments have had to prepare for this now-regular problem. It’s only by sheer luck that this year’s power outages and its related fatalities weren’t worse.
The latest blackouts began Wednesday, Feb. 1. At least 350,000 homes and businesses lost power across Central and East Texas amid ice storms and freezing rain. Of those, 265,000 outages were located in Austin, Texas, where Austin Energy customers went without electricity for up to 10 days. That morning, I woke up to texts from friends and family who had lost power overnight. That afternoon — while I was microwaving soup, bitterly enough — my apartment lost power, too.
On Wednesday, Feb. 1, Austin Energy general manager Jackie Sargent initially estimated that customers would have power by Friday evening. But by Wednesday evening, the company’s online outage reporting tool had crashed, and customers calling in to report an outage found themselves on hold for ages. On Thursday, Feb. 2, the utility company revoked the estimate, saying they were unable to say when power would be restored given the severe storm damage to power lines. By Saturday, Feb. 4, more than 57,000 customers were still without power. On Saturday, Feb. 11, the company reported that power had been restored to all customers directly impacted by the storm.
The massive outage evoked memories of the tragic Texas blackout of 2021, during which the state’s energy grid failed and plunged more than 4 million homes and businesses into darkness. At least 246 people (and as many as more than 1,000) died as a consequence of the storm. But last week’s freezing temperatures weren’t as low and didn’t last as long, and this time the state’s power grid wasn’t at fault.
Instead, ice up to over three-quarters of an inch thick weighed down power lines and snapped tree limbs, downing lines with them. In some cases, fully-grown live oak trees completely uprooted themselves under the stress. On Wednesday and into Thursday, my husband and I listened to the cacophony of branches ripping from their trunks in the courtyard of our apartment complex, the noise of tearing bark the only sound among the silence.
The day after we lost power, we took advantage of the melted roads and flocked to my in-laws, who had just regained power after a 24-hour outage. Broken branches were tangled up in power lines, which hung severed above roads or fallen on asphalt. Cleanup crews dragged loose branches towards the medians, taking up entire lanes of traffic. In our neighborhood I noticed two crews repairing power lines — far too few for the visible damage alone. From the top of a cherrypicker, I saw one crew member try to maneuver a floret of branches off a line. The bushel was three times their size.
For Texas, the conditions that caused these outages were a seemingly unpredictable natural disaster. I’ve lived in Texas for most of my life, but even after watching the 2021 storm destroy decades-old trees around my childhood neighborhood, I’ve never seen anything quite like the destruction the ice left behind. Going into the second week after the outage began, my complex is still surrounded by piles of newly-chopped firewood and fallen foliage, and sidewalks across my neighborhood are still lined with trees and branches.
But regardless of the unavoidability of the blackout, the city’s attempt to minimize the impact of the outage and mitigate the crisis — to control what little they had control over — was subpar at best. From Dan Solomon at Texas Monthly:
There were all sorts of missteps along the way, but hardly any messaging about them. On Wednesday, the first day that much of the city spent without power, no city leaders or Austin Energy officials held a press conference, and the social media channels for the utility provided almost no useful information about where to go, what to do, or how long the outage might last. […]
It’s possible that there could have been a version of the crisis that wouldn’t have felt quite so bleak. The city could have come out the gate with a clear explanation of what was happening—a complicated series of power outages from downed lines that, for many of us, would take many days to rectify—and what resources were available to those without power, be they shelter or food assistance. It could have generated a feeling that we were all in this together, and that the institutions we count on were aware of our priorities.
Even then, this level of unpreparedness completely ignores the stark reality that many Texans have learned and accepted: that winter is now the season for expecting the unexpected.
We’ve learned from years of winters with below-freezing temperatures (even two decades before the 2021 storm); from an unreliable power grid that continues to threaten to fail; an apathetic, ignorant state leadership that failed to proactively winterize the grid; from hundreds of people dying amid the 2021 freeze, and blackouts that followed the year after. What excuse, then, would Austin’s local emergency services have for not understanding this, too? For not seeing that their failure to prepare for another inevitable freeze could be potentially fatal?
After the 2021 storm and an ever-raging pandemic, I’ve become traumatized by the realization that the state will always abandon us to fend for ourselves, both figuratively and literally. So, I began preparing for the worst. I stocked our apartment with window insulation kits, emergency lights, canned foods, cases and jugs of bottled water. I wanted us to be ready if we ever lost power, or water, or were trapped inside. But when the freeze hit and we lost power for over three days, we weren’t ready. As Wednesday night turned to Thursday morning, all I could do was think of how foolish I was for not having purchased a camping stove or a Halo charger. But at least the temperatures weren’t worse — at least the roads were clear enough for us to leave.
From looking at the damage that remained at our complex, and all the supplies we had the money to accumulate before the storm, I knew we were among the luckier ones. Through the week, my group of friends checked in on each other and offered up space, food, and warmth, even when they had just recovered from the outage. As we reached the third day of no power, we had friends continually check up on us, volunteering to take us in, bring us food, or shuttle us to shelter. Where I lacked, I had a community to lift us up.
It’s a bittersweet reminder, but one we cannot afford to ignore. In times of crisis, all we have is one another to keep each other safe. We cannot trust the people tasked with keeping the lights on. And it’s clear now that when the next big ice storm comes, our local and state leaders will simply shrug at their lack of preparedness, leaving the rest of us to freeze.