On February 9, officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s electric grid regulator, recognized historically low winter temperatures, snow, sleet, and freezing rain were approaching. What followed in the next week has contributed to dozens of deaths, food shortages, and confusion as to how it all happened.
Texas is powered on a separate electric grid, unlike the rest of the country which shares power through a network of grids. Without the capability of bringing in electricity from neighboring states, like others do during emergencies, Texas, one of the energy centers of the world, was left in the dark during the historically freezing weather.
At the beginning of the month, forecasters in the state monitored the movement of the storm front that came in from the north and west, warning that low temperatures, winter precipitation, and dangerous conditions were expected at least a week before the storm arrived.
The dangerous weather conditions caused a 130-car pile up in Fort Worth left six people dead on February 11. Several other multi-vehicle accidents were reported in the state. The following day (February 12), Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration in all 254 counties.
As early as February 14, ERCOT began asking consumers to conserve energy as much as possible because the weather created a “record-breaking demand on the power grid.”
The Grid Went Offline
Early Monday morning (February 15), ERCOT initiated rolling blackouts to attempt to preserve power and prevent a “catastrophic blackout.” The blackouts lasted, however due to technical difficulties and high demand, leaving millions without power or heat in frigid temperatures. The state’s system, which uses primarily natural gas, did not have enough energy generation to keep up with the demand placed on the electrical grid.
Before the grid went offline, ERCOT officials did little to actually prepare for the weather conditions. A report by KSAT found that ERCOT board members had only spent 40 seconds discussing plans for the winter storm. At least five of those board members, who do not live in Texas, have resigned in the aftermath of the storm that left several dead.
Millions Without Power Or Water
Some residents reported temperatures below freezing inside of their homes. Unfortunately, several deaths were reported in connection with the conditions as families and individuals desperately struggled to find any means to stay warm. Some residents went without power or water for over a week, with many still waiting for water to return to their homes as repairs are underway.
On Top Of A Pandemic
The storm in Texas only compounded coronavirus pandemic-related problems for communities already devastated by COVID-19. Hospitals struggled to maintain a water supply, and food insecurity surged as millions of households had to throw away supplies spoiled without electricity.
For Black Texans and Texans of color, the disproportionate burden from the pandemic was intensified as early reports indicate rolling blackouts impacted Black communities and communities of color first and for longer periods of time, a byproduct of the nation’s history of environmental racism.
People seeking shelter in the state’s warming shelter also put themselves at risk for contracting the virus, gathering with others they may have not otherwise been in contact with.
Vaccination sites in the state were also shut down, delaying appointments for those looking to get the shot.
Several Texans have reported receiving astronomical utility bills from their power companies in the days following the storm, some totaling more than $10,000. The state allows utility providers to offer fluctuating prices, which is helpful when demand is low, however with the exponentially increased demand during the storm, some are left wondering if they’ll be responsible for paying the massive totals.
Some residents had the money automatically withdrawn from their accounts since they had their bill set up on auto pay, adding to the financial burden already in place amid the pandemic.
What Happens Now?
Hearings started Thursday (February 25) in the Texas House of Representatives to determine what specific breakdowns occurred within ERCOT and other power company executives. The first day lasted 15 hours.
In the meantime, families are rebuilding homes, waiting on plumbers to fix damaged or bursted pipes, and regaining their footing following the blackouts.
President Joe Biden approved emergency funding through FEMA to be sent to Texas. President Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden made their way to the Lone Star State on Friday (February 26) to meet with state leaders. Dr. Biden is expected to visit the Houston Food Bank, where demand has increased in the wake of the storm.
Advocates are calling for upgrades, preparations, winterizing systems at the state level. For households and communities, getting and staying prepared for extreme weather conditions has gotten renewed attention, as many do not want to experience anything similar again.
Photos: Getty Images