After an unprecedented freeze swept Texas, the state’s grid approached a catastrophic blackout. Millions of Texans lost power or water—or both.
By Texas Observer Staff
February 18, 2021
As a winter storm sent temperatures plummeting across Texas this week and the state’s power grid approached total failure, millions of people were left freezing in their homes without heat. Crises have compounded crises as residents are forced to contend with single digit temperatures, icy roads, non-potable or non-existent water sources, and food shortages—all amid an ongoing pandemic. We spoke with people around the state about their experiences and how they made do during this long, cold week.
Pastor at Galveston Central Church
At 2 a.m. on Monday morning, the power went out at Galveston Central Church. “Well shit,” thought Michael Gienger, a 32-year-old pastor there. “What are we going to do?”
Over the weekend, Gienger had gathered food donations and cots from the Salvation Army in advance of the looming polar vortex, transforming the church into a makeshift shelter that volunteers dubbed “Hotel Central.” He began sleeping there himself on Sunday evening, and was woken in the middle of the night by volunteers after the main hallway light went black. Luckily the stove and oven were gas-powered, but the building temperature soon dipped into the 40s. By Monday night, the power hadn’t returned. Then late Tuesday night, the water shut off. They started using buckets filled with garbage bags to dispose of waste. Now, they fill up coffee pots with a neighbor’s pool water to flush the toilets.
Many who are staying at the shelter are homeless people that the church serves meals to every Sunday. Among them are a man who lives in a parking garage downtown, a man who works in the church’s bike repair shop, and a man nicknamed “preacher” whose ceiling caved in from a busted pipe on Tuesday.
“It’s life or death,” Gienger says of the conditions in Galveston, where beaches are covered in snow and people have frozen to death. On Tuesday, the Galveston county medical examiner’s office asked for a refrigerated truck to store the bodies of at least 20 people who died during the power outages and below-freezing weather. “Hotel Central” will likely come to a close on Friday, Gienger says, after the freezing temperatures subside. Gienger is grateful his church could respond to the crisis, but he thinks, “What choice do we have?” Gienger is frustrated by what he says are failures of the housing system for homeless people. “Why do people not have affordable housing?” he says. “What would happen if people simply had roofs over their heads?” —Arya Sundaram
Location: Harris County Jail
For the last few days, Arthur White, 32, has held his bowel movements. The toilets in the Harris County Jail, where he’s incarcerated, are overflowing with feces and urine, according to White and multiple other people jailed inside. White says the toilets have been clogged for three days. “People are crapping on top of more crap,” he says. “It’s horrendous.”
Without showers, he says he feels “close to despair.” The jail has no hand sanitizer or running water, he says. On top of the storm conditions, getting masks has been an issue throughout the pandemic. White says the guards refuse to give them fresh masks, suggesting they keep masks on for a week or as many days as possible.
White says the power has been turning on and off, and estimates that the temperature inside is around 40 degrees. Some people eat their meals with blankets on, to fend off the cold. When they sleep, he says they have only a sheet to put over their mats, and a thin blanket. The only way he can stay warm is in his bunk. But, he says, a vent above him pulls in cold air, which is constantly blowing.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office posted on Twitter that the jail ran on a backup generator power for much of Monday, but “during that time… the people entrusted into our care received 3 cold meals on schedule and extra blankets.” But White says he received no additional blankets. “They’re not doing anything extra,” he says. “It’s way, way below minimum.” White says he hasn’t received enough bottled water or food. On Monday night, he says they had no dinner because, according to a guard, the man in charge of feeding them left.
The Observer also spoke with A.D. Wooten, a man living in a separate building from White, on Wednesday night. At that time, he said he had only received two approximately 16-ounce bottles of water in the past 16 hours. Because they lack running water, some men have used this water to wash their hands and faces and brush their teeth. Wooten also complained of clogged toilets and “reeking” air, and he also says guards are sleeping on blow-up mattresses because they haven’t been able to leave.
“Does [Mayor Sylvester] know about this?” Wooten says. “If all hands are on deck, why are our feet and hands still tied inside of here?”
On Wednesday, Krish Gundu, the executive director of Texas Jail Project received dozens of calls from people held in the Harris County Jail, awaiting trial, including White and Wooten. “We could have prevented this mounting public health crisis by taking a smart approach to depopulating our jails,” says Gundu. “But we chose not to. Now we have to pay the price.” White and Wooten have yet to be convicted of a crime, like most people stuck in Texas jails.
During the pandemic, a major issue in Texas jails has been lack of soap, Gundu says. During the storm, an incarcerated man she’s been talking to for over a year told her that he had “good news”: Because no one’s using running water, there’s finally enough soap. —Arya Sundaram
Location: Fields Store
Lisa Seger has weathered an onslaught of climate catastrophes in the last several years. She’s seen wildfires, floods, and hurricanes wreak havoc on the goat farm and dairy she runs with her husband in Waller County, 45 miles northwest of Houston. The farm survived the Riley Road Fire, one of thousands of fires in 2011 that burned 4 million acres across the state. After the Memorial Day and Tax Day floods hit in 2015 and 2016, Seger, 50, prepared for Hurricane Harvey in 2017 by digging ditches on their property to divert water from the animals’ barn. But the Icepocalypse, as she refers to the current winter storm, is her first multi-day hard freeze.
Intermittent electricity this week meant Seger had to plan ahead, as the farm’s milk machines and the well they get their water from both depend on electricity.
During the intervals without power, Seger made lists of the farm work to be done that needed electricity, “making sure that we were absolutely ready to go the second the power came on.”
She shared information about mutual aid funds on Twitter and posted photos of their goats in scarfs and sweaters in the guest room of their house. Concerned about the animals’ safety, Seger has kept the goats in her home on and off since Sunday—the longest they’ve ever stayed inside.
“We’re their caregivers, and if I’m cold, they’re cold,” Seger says. “You just worry. Theoretically, the animals are better at it than us. They are livestock and people keep goats in the Alps. But it’s really hard to believe it, because we’re so miserable, that they could be OK.”
The lack of power and cold temperatures doesn’t just mean discomfort. Other farmers lost their crops in the freeze and will be without a livelihood for months as crops regrow. Seger stands to lose a week of sales, since the cheesemaking process requires climate-control. To have cheese by Saturday, she has to start Wednesday. “I’m trying really hard not to feel sorry for myself,” she says. —Irene Vázquez
Megan Strahan, 31, counts herself as one of the lucky ones. She lost power in her home south of Fort Worth for a total of 24 hours over Monday and Tuesday. One of her fellow science teachers, who she’s been texting to check on, didn’t have power for 36 hours. Another teacher hasn’t had water since Sunday, so she’s been melting snow.
Strahan’s energy provider said her power would be back on at 9:30 p.m. on Monday, after hours of on-and-off outages. But 9:30 came and went, and the house was still dark. So, she pulled mattresses for her, her husband, and their two kids, 5 and 8 years old, into the living room and piled on blankets, praying that the heat would come back. Then her text messages stopped going through, and her calls wouldn’t connect. She watched the temperature fall on the thermostat after she set it to 67 degrees: 52 degrees at 4 a.m., then 49 degrees at 9 a.m. That’s when she and her husband decided to leave. They bundled up in multiple layers and blankets and drove to the house of a friend who posted that they had power on Facebook. They returned home on Tuesday, after she got an alert that their power was back on.
Strahan, who teaches at Southwest High School in Fort Worth, worries about her students, who have been traumatized not only by the fallout of this week’s storm, but also the pandemic, and the financial difficulties of this past year. A majority of her students are low-income, and most are Black or Latino.
She’s sent her students messages to check-in, and received a few short notes back from students who say they’re OK. What worries her the most are the students she hasn’t heard from. “I don’t know what I don’t know,” she says. “They’re cold, and there’s nothing they can do about it. I feel helpless as an adult. I can only imagine how they feel.”
Tuesday night, she was convinced that the power was going to go off again. So she kept an overnight bag packed and blankets tucked in the car. It wasn’t until around 10 p.m. that she finally felt comfortable tucking her kids into bed. “I could power the whole neighborhood with the amount of anxiety energy I am letting off into the universe,” she says. —Arya Sundaram
After Cressandra Thibodeaux’s power went out early Monday morning, she got desperate to find a place to bring her elderly mother. So she started calling her ex boyfriends: “I was very fortunate to have all my exes live in Texas, literally,” she says with a laugh. Her most recent ex, who lives 12 blocks away, happened to be out of town and had a generator in his shed. As the sun started to go down, she bundled up her 87-year-old mother, Marilyn Thibodeaux, and made the trek to his house.
Her mother didn’t understand why they needed to go. She was recovering from a case of COVID-19 that had landed her in the emergency room and was suffering from temporary dementia brought on by the virus. “At points, she didn’t know who I was. She couldn’t talk,” Cressandra says.
Marilyn, who had been living with Cressandra, 54, for two years, had just begun to regain her memory. But the storm was too much. “My mom couldn’t grasp the severity of the situation.” She kept turning off the faucets that Cressandra had left dripping. She didn’t want to get out of the bed where she and Cressandra slept together, nestled between their two dogs, their faces covered by blankets to protect from the cold. “COVID left her exhausted,” Cressandra says. “You can imagine a lot of people who were 87 who did not want to leave the bed, who believed it would get better. That’s what my mom kept saying.”
Now that they’re relatively warm and safe, Cressandra’s spirits have buoyed. She’s offered up her ex’s house as a warming station for friends and neighbors without power, creating an unexpected community during the disaster. “I just got back from the grocery store and I just want to say, in this whole year of isolation, in that grocery store, there were the hottest guys. Houston! Who knew?” she says. “It’s funny to imagine you’re flirting during the apocalypse.” —Megan Kimble
Resident Council President
Lupe Garcia only had four blankets in her apartment when the power went out, but she knew her neighbors needed them more than she did. When she called her 89-year-old neighbor to check in and found out her neighbor’s son was there, she had him come pick up the blankets to distribute, fearful of walking on the icy pathways of the apartment complex herself.
Since Garcia, 71, retired and moved to Santa Rita Courts five years ago, she’s become a sort of community organizer at the public housing complex. An East Austin native, she is constantly on the phone with her neighbors to find out what they need and how she can help. “I work to give everybody a little bit of something, a little bit of hope, a little bit of comfort,” she says. “I want to make them feel like they’re not forgotten.”
She’s organized back-to-school backpack and shoe drives for the 100 or so kids who live at the courts. She regularly fundraises to help seniors buy food and cleaning supplies. She started an annual women’s conference for residents, hosting motivational speakers and educational courses.
On Wednesday, after nearly three days straight without power, when her feet had become icicles on the concrete floors, she knew she needed to do more to help her neighbors. She started calling the people who had sponsored her other community drives, asking for donations. By Thursday morning, she was handing out blankets, diapers, and bottles of water.
Garcia is frustrated by state leaders who have focused on deflecting blame rather than getting help to those who need it. “You know, we got another storm coming in. Let’s figure out how we’re going to do this.” She says her organizing efforts are “a lot of work, but I enjoy it. I try not to keep myself, you know, in the negative mode. Because that doesn’t help.” —Megan Kimble
On Tuesday evening, Jana Brewer, a member of the Cherokee Nation, began to panic when she realized that she wouldn’t have enough candles to last until the weather began to warm later in the week. The next morning, she grabbed an empty tuna can, string, and olive oil to make an oil lamp that she hoped would work for a few days. It was all she had left to make a light source.
“I think it’s a pretty cruel thing that the government officials don’t have the wherewithal to serve the community and didn’t anticipate the needs of the community,” Brewer says.
Brewer, 65, lives near the small, rural town of Pottsboro, off Lake Texoma on the Texas-Oklahoma border. When she bought her home, the neighbors told her that the one-way road out, a steep hill to Pottsboro, wouldn’t be a problem because they “don’t get winter like that here.” But on Sunday, it snowed and the temperature dropped to 4 degrees. Then the power started going on and off. For four days, she would be alone in her home without electricity. The snow storm made it impossible for her car to make it up the steep, slick hill—known by locals as “suicide hill”—and out of her neighborhood.
During the day, she wore three shirts, a pair of jeans, three pairs of socks, gloves, a hat, and a scarf to keep warm. At night, Brewer slept under five quilts. On Monday, the low was minus 1. She happened to have reflectix, a double reflective insulation roll, for an upcoming camping trip, which she used to insulate the windows in her room. After the water pipes in her guest bathroom and laundry room froze, she used a tiny tea light to thaw the pipes in the bathroom. A day and a half later, the water began to flow again.
“It takes a lot of time and energy to monitor all these different types of fuel to heat your home: Candles, oil lamps, those are all fire hazards, left unintended,” Brewer says. “Most of my day was just spent monitoring candles and oil lamps.”
With no help from state or local agencies, her neighbors came together to help each other. One would call every day to check on her. Another brought her a butane camp stove to cook on. And another drove to her home in a utility terrain vehicle to see if she needed anything. Eventually, the neighborhood of 15 homes created a list of things people needed, to share what resources they had.
The power returned on Wednesday. Brewer says her survival was due to her optimism that everything would be alright. —Pauly Denetclaw
Organizer with Mutual Aid Houston
After almost a year of distributing financial assistance and providing jail support during the Black Lives Matter protests and the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers at Mutual Aid Houston (MAH) were in the middle of a much-needed break. Then the storm hit this week. When organizer Anna Maria, 23, lost power at 3:30 a.m. on Monday, all she could think about was how the city should have warned residents about what was coming. The group snapped back into action.
Power losses across the city knocked out necessary services like heat alongside the communication channels that mutual aid groups rely on. Without the internet, it was difficult to centralize and disseminate information. Icy roads locked organizers and those in need in their houses without the experience or equipment to navigate their neighborhoods.
“I think even we did not fully grasp how bad it was,” Anna Maria says. “We don’t have a frame of reference for this kind of weather or what it does physically. So once it hit we had a much more intimate understanding of just how woefully unprepared we all are.”
Organizers started calling people one by one and sent texts whenever they could get a signal. Neighbors walked on foot to deliver supplies. Anna Maria stayed up until 5 a.m. on Thursday morning helping people access food and water drop offs and other resources.
“We know exactly what people need, we literally can’t get it to them,” Anna Maria says. “Even during hurricanes, which are just so destructive and horrifying, there is some infrastructure in place: Let’s hop in a boat and go help people. But nobody has winter tires and nobody has experience driving on icy roads. We understand that we can raise money, but right now people need food, water, and heat, and the roads are a death trap.”
Like many, Anna Maria is angry with those in power who didn’t act to help their communities. But she’s fiercely proud of those people who did. “Any kind of mutual aid work proves again and again that American individualism has not, in fact, been enough to stamp out human beings’ innate instinct to have each other’s backs in every catastrophe, in every state.” —Irene Vázquez
Organizer with LUPE
Neri Curiel’s 3-year-old daughter likes to sleep with the bathroom light on because she’s scared of the dark. Early Monday morning, Curiel, 39, heard a noise; when she got up, she realized the bathroom light was out. They’d lost power. Curiel packed her family into her bed, stacking blankets on top of them as they piled together for warmth.
Like many in the Rio Grande Valley, Curiel and her husband and four kids, lost electricity, gas, and water, all at once. Many of Curiel’s neighbors in Donna, a small colonia, are undocumented, or in families with mixed immigration statuses, and the vast majority are poor. After her neighborhood lost power, she could tell that the neighborhoods closer to McAllen were still lit up.
On Tuesday, her husband waited for two hours in line to buy a gas tank so they could turn on their stove to cook. Since they didn’t have power, she and the kids ate dinner early in the evenings while it was still light out. Her husband, who works in a bodega, had to brave the icy roads to go to work; he didn’t get home until dark and ate by candlelight. Curiel struggled to explain to her two younger kids who are disabled, why the lights were off, why there was no heat, why they couldn’t turn on the television.
As a community organizer with La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), Curiel tried to help however she could: distributing money or finding out who had gas through a WhatsApp group. Community members helped one another, businesses offered hot food, and churches set up food pantries. “The wealthy have a more organized infrastructure,” she says. “The communities here are always left for last.”
Curiel was at a food pantry when her 21-year-old daughter called her on Wednesday to exclaim, “The light’s back!” As of Thursday, her power was still going in and out throughout the day.
Curiel worries the lights will go out again, and the water too. And she worries about the future: Colonias in the Valley have for years been ravaged by flooding, and climate change is only making conditions worse. Curiel believes structural changes are long overdue. “We were just emerging into the light from this pandemic. And now this came and threw us into chaos,” she says. —Arya Sundaram and Irene Vázquez