Blackouts, interstate pile ups and shortages of food and clean water became common sights across the Lone Star state this past week.
The crisis began on February 10 when Texas felt the effects of winter storm Shirley. A 133 car pile up in Fort Worth, Texas on the icy roads coming from this storm made national headlines. Texans had little time to recover as Winter Storm Uri hit only a few days later on February 13.
The average temperature for Dallas, Texas in February is 51 degrees Fahrenheit. Dallas recorded a low of 5 degrees Fahrenheit this month. Houston and Austin both recorded temperatures in the single digits, highly unusual for these cities who have not seen temperatures dip that low in over 30 years.
National Guard troops were deployed to help with welfare checks and Texas opened over a hundred warming centers.
The danger did not end there as infrastructure failure after failure deepened the crisis for millions of Texas residents. The Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the group that controls the Texas power grid, took heavy criticism for what many felt were unnecessary outages.
In response to these criticisms CEO of ERCOT Bill Magness stated “If we had waited, and not done outages, not reduced demand to reflect what was going on, on the overall system, we could have drifted towards a blackout. People feel like what we’re seeing feels like a blackout, but the blackout that can occur if you don’t keep the supply and demand in balance could last months.”
Magness is describing the decreased production of power and increased demand for power because of the storm, a balance that was so off center the Texas power grid was minutes away from catastrophic failure according to U.S. representative Marc Veasey.
Texas also has the only independent power grid in the nation, making it impossible to borrow electricity from a neighboring, lesser hit state. Other outside forms of power like wind turbines, solar panels and nuclear power were not of use as these alternate sources of power had not been outfitted to keep warm in usually mild and sunny Texas. Wind turbines were not coated in anti-freeze materials or had the internal heaters that many turbines to the east do to protect against snow storms causing them to freeze.
The lack of power caused several Texans to seek shelter in their cars with the unfortunate consequences of upticks in carbon dioxide poisoning while others were out collecting firewood as people desperately tried to keep their homes and families warm.
The power outages also caused frozen or even burst water pipes across the state. An estimated 13 million out of 26 million Texas Residents were being asked to boil their water if they were able to get any in the first place. Grocery stores were unable to receive new shipments of food forcing an already depleted food supply to become even lower.
Texas residents were not the only people affected. Over 5,000 cold-stunned Sea Turtles and other marine wildlife were rescued off the shores of Texas unused to freezing temperatures this time of the year. Flights and other transportation out of Texas was also slowed down or stopped which lead to situations like 20 members of the local Clovis Crossfire Team and their families being stuck in Round Rock, Texas for nine days.
The White House in response has declared a Major disaster declaration in Texas in addition to sending FEMA aid, generators and diesel fuel to help keep hospitals, nursing homes and water treatment plants working.
Homeland security advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall told reporters at a White House press briefing "specifically in Texas, it has made 60 generators and fuel available to support critical sites like hospitals and water facilities."
Sherwood-Randall then continued, "it has moved in 729,000 liters of water, more than 10,000 wool blankets, 50,000 cotton blankets, and 225,000 meals."
While the ice begins to thaw and lights turn on the problems remain. Texans are beginning to demand answers as to how the power grid failed so spectacularly in spite of warning of this happening back in 2011, when a similar severe storm caused power outages across the state As well as push-back against skyrocketing energy bills for the Texans who had power during the storm. Electricity prices rose as high as $9,000 a megawatt-hour when the week before electricity cost around $50 per megawatt-hour.
Governor Rick Abbott criticized these price hikes, calling it "unacceptable" explaining he was working with legislatures to "ensure that Texans are not on the hook for unreasonable spikes in their energy bills."
“It’s worth asking the question: Who set up this system and who perpetuated it knowing that the right regulation was not in place?” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “
Those questions are going to have to be asked and I hope that changes will come. The community deserves answers.”
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