The power was still out in my Dallas housing complex early last Tuesday, so I grabbed the survival hatchet from my emergency bag to chop up a couple of fallen trees, which were covered with six inches of down-soft snow dropped by Winter Storm Uri.
The trees broke easily, and after 30 minutes of hacking, I’d cut enough for two small blazes. I divided the wood — one half for my apartment, the other for my neighbor.
My wife Joy and I cooked beans over the fireplace and burned some old clothing to keep the temperature in the apartment above 40 degrees. After our fire died, our complex issued an “Important Message For Residents” warning that Dallas might ration water as treatment plants froze: “Please take action NOW to fill pots/pitchers, bathtubs and other storage containers … use this water to flush toilets.”
Joy, who had recently moved here from Bolivia, had seen her WhatsApp fill up with worried messages from loved ones who’ve watched America’s panoply of recent crises unfold. They asked if she was safe from the horrors on their televisions: the world’s worst Covid-19 numbers, horned defectors with assault weapons, and now infrastructure that abandons people during natural disasters.
After reading the hoard-water note, she turned to me and joked, “I thought the United States was a first-world country?”
In her eyes, a developed country and its state leaders should take care of its citizens. Millions of Texans have seen their electricity cut out for hours and days at a time in a deadly rolling crisis that began with snowfall on Valentine’s Day. Though most power is now restored, millions of Texans are still without water as treatment plants recover. The crisis has been a burden, not just for the state or the power company at fault, but for its residents to bear.
You see, we’re individuals, and, like one Texas mayor wrote on Facebook, we shouldn’t expect state institutions to help. “No one owes you or your family anything; nor is it the local government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this! Sink or swim, it’s your choice!” then-Mayor Tim Boyd of Colorado City, a town of fewer than 5,000 people a four-hour drive west of Dallas, told constituents in a typo-laden Facebook post. (That same day, he announced his resignation, but he didn’t say whether his exit stemmed from the backlash.)
We were on our own.
We lost power for most of Monday and Tuesday, but luckily, we never lost water. Many Texans fared worse. Houston firefighters had to deal with low water pressure when dousing residential fires started by candles, displacing dozens of Houstonians. Prison inmates had to live with overflowing, unusable toilets for days. Exotic animals, including a chimpanzee and other primates, froze to death in a San Antonio rescue. By last Tuesday, hospitals had treated more than 50 people for carbon monoxide poisoning; desperate to get warm, they’d heated their homes with gas stoves and running cars. A woman near Houston filed a wrongful death lawsuit against power utilities after her 11-year-old son froze to death in his bed.
The disaster worsened existing crises in average Texans’ lives. My neighbor, a nurse who underwent several major surgeries this year amid the pandemic, began to seem less social and more withdrawn. My boss’s mother suffered a stroke just before the storm, and his energies were split between caring for her and making sure his water pipes didn’t freeze. I was depressed and disagreeable.
I draw a line from this catastrophe to America’s fetishized individualism for which Texas, home to a fierce secessionist movement, is the poster child. Texas is where the West starts, home of high-riding cowboys and oilmen who project an image of self-reliance — all they needed to prosper was a government that stayed out of their way.
I work for a manufacturer that makes devices for the power industry, and I can’t conjure a better example of the Texas government’s light touch than its relationship to the electric grid. As electricity infrastructure evolved in the 1930s, the federal government regulated energy across state lines. But Texas had its own grid network, the Texas Interconnected System, and a flourishing oil trade. So the state shrewdly spurned interstate grids.
In the 1970s, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, was formed to manage the state’s electricity distribution. But in 2002, Texas deregulated its energy market, creating an environment in which electricity retailers compete for business. The lowest bidder would win customers in the marketplace, but that encouraged power generators to delay or neglect weatherizing critical equipment. In 2011, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission warned ERCOT that power plants must winterize their equipment. Electricity providers, beholden only to the market, largely ignored the advice.
Put simply, this market created a larger disaster when the freezing weather hit. Because the function of the Texas power industry is to provide cheap electricity, it has no incentive to make costly preparations to its infrastructure for comparatively rare cold weather.
As Uri intensified, enough people were using electric heaters and enough generation equipment had frozen that demand outpaced supply, and the grid’s frequency began to destabilize. Officials told the Texas Tribune Thursday the grid was “minutes” from a full crash, which would’ve taken weeks to restore. ERCOT then mandated statewide “rolling blackouts” to reconcile the grid’s burden with power generation.
It initially said the outages would last less than 45 minutes, but when I woke up that morning, the lights and heat were out. I spent an hour on a dying cellphone navigating overwhelmed service hotlines for any nugget pointing to restored power. I learned the outage could, in fact, last hours, and I gave up calling. Local officials gave suggestions on how to make do. The city of Fort Worth told constituents to close their blinds and stuff towels in cracks to retain heat.
This disaster doesn’t appear to have inspired sober reflection among many of our politicians. On Fox News last week, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott blamed wind turbines for the crisis; in fact, natural gas equipment is responsible for the bulk of the losses. Cranking up the invective, Abbott fingered as a culprit the Green New Deal, a policy framework to address climate change that Congress rejected in 2019. And, of course, our climate-change-denying Republican Sen. Ted Cruz famously jetted off from Houston to Cancun with his family mid-crisis as Texans froze to death.
Individualist thinking justifies this mentality. It says that states and individuals should marshal and deploy their own resources, a notion as American as apple pie. If you lack the resources to get to a Mexican beach resort, hike your sleeves, chop firewood, and don’t burn down your home.
I ended up chopping wood. I’m lucky that I had the option to — it allowed us to stay warm for part of Tuesday morning, and it was better than huddling in a darkened bedroom. But not everyone lives in a forested apartment complex, and others were forced to turn to potentially deadly methods, like a grandmother who spent a night in her car to keep warm.
The fact that I even had a survival hatchet feels ironic. I’m mostly skeptical of prepper culture, partly because it reeks of that individualism. Yet Joy and I frantically built our emergency bags in January after Trump supporters attacked the US Capitol. A friend who works in logistics told me corporations were preparing for a doomsday scenario after the DC raid — cutting emergency credit cards for employees, making extraction plans. Our form of government forces us to prep, and when you’re on your own, it pays to have the tools.
Still, during Uri, ordinary Texans didn’t just help themselves. They distributed food, donated and organized mutual aid funds, and, if they had electricity, took shivering strangers into their homes. A coworker ran errands for neighbors who can’t drive in snow. An acquaintance brought an elderly woman coolers full of water so she could flush the loo.
Tuesday night, our neighbor knocked on our door with an Ikea tote full of more black willow. “They cut this firewood, you want some?”
It was sweet to be cared for by our community. But it’d be better if our government looked after us instead.
Aaron Hedge is a Dallas-based writer and a reader at Longform.org.