Winter Storm 2021

Austin's thaw should heat up anger at catastrophic failure during storm

Austin thaw should heat up anger at catastrophic failure during storm

Austin Texas Capitol snow storm 2021
Austin remains in crisis after an epic snowstorm crippled infrastructure.  Montinique Monroe / Getty Images

As Austin braces for yet another day of below-freezing temperatures, the media's attention has turned to Twitter hashtags and the junior senator from Texas, a stupid man who believes growing a beard will also grow him a spine.

In this blink-and-you-miss it news cycle, I suppose we should be pleased that Texas captured the nation's attention for the past few days, but it's a shame the senator is eclipsing that attention with his little Mexican vacation. Because this situation is grim — and it's not over.

This is dead bodies on the sidewalk bad. This is hospitals being forced to turn away patients bad. This is waking up with a charley horse because the temperature in your house is 32 degrees and your muscles have been tensed up for days. Austin doesn't have water for hospitals or residents; we don't have snow plows to clear the roads for emergency vehicles and grocery delivery vehicles. Many of us can't even wash our hands amid the biggest global pandemic in a century.

As we entered the fourth full day of record-low temperatures, our biggest warming center at Palmer Events Center hit full capacity, a jarring thought considering how big it is (and even more jarring when thinking of all of those people together weeks after the city's biggest spike yet in COVID-19 cases).

The crisis began over Valentine's Day weekend, when temperatures in Austin began to drop to near-historic lows. The state's power grid, managed by the ironically named Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, began to strain after a series of unfortunately timed events. (The Associated Press did an excellent job of explaining the failure here.) 

In an effort to keep the grid safe, ERCOT scheduled rolling blackouts across the state, and in the early morning hours on Monday, those blackouts began for more than 4 million Texans. What was supposed to be 45 minutes is now entering its fifth day. 

My own power shut off early Monday morning when I awoke to six inches of snow and an indoor thermostat reading 55 degrees. By mid-afternoon, with the thermostat quickly plummeting, the novelty wore off, and by the time the sun went down, the anxiety set in. Weighing COVID exposure versus spending a freezing night alone in the dark, two friends who live nearby came over to camp out in the cold, bringing the body count to three humans, three dogs, and one edgy cat.

The next morning, the house was 30 degrees, so cold we could see our breath and boiling tea cooled within a minute or two. As we slept, our lips and skin chapped, our bodies dehydrated by the simple act of staying warm enough to stay alive. I made scrambled eggs for breakfast, feeling lucky to have a gas stovetop. "Can you slice those?" I asked my friend, pointing to the cherry tomatoes that sat overnight on the counter. "They're frozen," she said matter of factly. We ate them anyway.

For those who haven't lost power or water, it's hard to explain how brutal it is. I lasted 36 hours before using a break in the weather to embark on a treacherous drive to my friends' house. I only fish-tailed once during my sojourn, which is far better than the SUV I saw trying to drive up the hill on Chicon only to slide all the way backwards onto Seventh Street.

Stay and struggle, go and risk it. Those were the only options for millions of Texans — but only those without medical equipment or health conditions keeping us at home, and enough money on our debit cards to get gas and provisions.

And then there are the people who can't stay home. Throughout this crisis, there have been first responders pulling days-long shifts; Austin Energy crews dodging snow balls and insults as they try to repair a situation they didn't cause; doctors and nurses sleeping in hospital conference rooms and ER beds; Austin Police going door to door on welfare checks; and Austin firefighters battling blazes due to gas explosions. 

Over the next few days, Texas will begin to warm up, but experts warn that the coming thaw may lead to more burst pipes as much of the state is struggling to fill water reserves. Every big city — Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth — remains under a boil-water notice for the foreseeable, and as society's gears begin to turn, we're likely to see the death toll climb.

I am writing this for two reasons: first, to have something to send my friends from the East Coast when they text me something snarky about Texas being unable to handle snow.

Second, I want to harness my utter rage at our city council members who are politicizing this moment (we don't need to know your office was instrumental in getting CapMetro to bus underserved and homeless populations to warming centers); our mayor and city manager, one of whom Zoomed from his brightly lit home office while 200,000 of his constituents shivered in the dark (though optics are not his strong suit); utility officials who seem to have no idea what their job entails and whose ignorance cost people precious time. And yes, our governor and junior senator for going on Fox News and a Mexican vacation, respectively, instead of helping the people who have elected them.

As so many of us have learned over the past year, we cannot rely on many of the people we've elected — and my God, hopefully this catastrophe coupled with the pandemic convinces smart, thoughtful, community oriented people to run for public office.

If you too are feeling full of rage, you're not alone. As the city thaws, there will be blame shifted and resignations offered, but do not let it temper that fire. Hold your elected officials accountable, learn about your utility systems, demand answers when you ask "how did this happen?" And when in doubt, send those officials packing, even if it's to Mexico.