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How mutual aid groups are helping Texas

People have applauded local organizing efforts in cities like Austin, Dallas, and Houston, in the face of a lacking government response.

A sign states that a Fiesta Mart is closed because of a power outage in Austin, Texas, on February 17, 2021.
A sign at a grocery store in Austin, Texas. Extreme cold weather conditions have left millions without consistent access to electricity and water for days.
Montinique Monroe/Getty Images

Extreme cold in Texas has left millions without consistent access to electricity and water for days. Residents are struggling with burst pipes and rolling power outages, amid heavy snowfall and near-freezing temperatures. People are reportedly boiling snow for water and burning clothes and furniture for warmth as resources remain scarce.

Over the past week, mutual aid groups across Texas have mobilized to feed, clothe, and house vulnerable residents, attracting the attention of in- and out-of-state donors on social media. In Austin, local volunteers worked to relocate the city’s homeless population inside hotel rooms, while collecting food and clothing donations. Organizers in Dallas have similarly coordinated a rehousing campaign during the storm, and crowdsourced transportation help to get people to “warming centers.” Mutual Aid Houston has closed its GoFundMe campaign, which received more than $130,000, and organizers plan to distribute the funds for community aid in the coming days.

The profusion of these virtual resources is similar to the rush of assistance in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Mutual aid is predicated on the idea that residents should help each other reciprocally; some grassroots groups operate under the left-wing slogan of “solidarity, not charity,” as a catchall for their ideological mission. Generally, these groups aim to directly help underserved communities, rather than rely on top-down government assistance that might come too slowly or not arrive at all.

Samantha Montano, a disaster researcher and assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, tweeted that it’s surprising to witness how “mainstream messaging has shifted” from soliciting Red Cross donations “to local [organizations] and especially mutual aid funds in just a few years.”

Online, people have applauded these organizing efforts in the face of inadequate government response. The Daily Beast reported that Dallas, a city of 1.3 million, has only opened one major warming center with a capacity of 500 without cots or any guarantee of food. The city said it could open up to 10 such centers in libraries and recreation centers but is worried that those buildings could lose electricity.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday that natural gas providers (the largest source of electricity in the state) are not allowed to export the resource out of Texas until February 21. Providers are instead expected to sell gas to in-state power generators, in an effort to restore consistent electricity to millions of homes. Yet state officials are still unsure when the power grid will be fully functional, the Dallas Morning News reported. After days of uncertainty, residents are frustrated at what appears to be an avoidable disaster: At least 23 people have died from storm-related causes, and Harris County alone (which includes the city of Houston) has received more than 300 calls about carbon monoxide poisoning as people sought out alternative sources of heat. According to the experts that spoke with the Texas Tribune, the state’s failure to upgrade equipment to withstand extreme winter temperatures and its deregulated energy market left Texas’s power grid vulnerable.

These preventable policy hiccups have angered residents who feel abandoned by their state leaders — some of whom have appeared to abdicate all responsibility. The mayor of Colorado City, Texas, appeared hostile to the idea that the local government should help struggling citizens during crises. On Tuesday, Tim Boyd, who has since resigned, published a tirade on his personal Facebook. “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!” he wrote, declaring that “only the strong will survive.” On Wednesday night, photos of Sen. Ted Cruz at a Texas airport apparently bound for Cancun enraged social media users.

While warmer weather is expected next week, Texans are concerned about the lasting implications of the winter storm in light of the state’s infrastructure failure. In the face of neglect, many feel like they have no choice but to direct hope — and resources — toward mutual aid networks.

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