‘Unrelenting’: Texas snowstorm forces UMass Texans to face a freezing winter
Texans found themselves unprepared, their homes without power and their roads left unsalted and unplowed
March 1, 2021
Residents across Texas were shocked on Feb. 14, as a cloudy, calm day turned into an uncertain night and almost half a foot of snow began to fall. Stark power outages, broken pipes and dissipated heat have plagued Texans for over a week now, the result of a record breaking snowstorm across the state.
Texas’ infrastructure was never built to endure snowstorms. Residents are used to basking in the state’s traditionally 60-degree winters; their homes are built with shallowly-dug pipes, and the state’s independent electricity grid was designed to handle a certain degree of demand for power—not mass heat use in mid-February.
The state, its cities and its citizens found themselves completely unprepared. State and local governments struggled to solve numerous issues including a lack of plows and salting trucks, inaccessible public buildings and non-weatherized infrastructure. Texans were forced to survive the harsh reality of a natural disaster in the midst of an already-isolating pandemic.
“When it comes to natural disasters, we don’t really get anything. Maybe like a tornado once a year or so…but it’ll be pretty small,” said Joshua Krupp, a University of Massachusetts computer science student on co-op living with his family in Austin. He lost power and heat in his home last week for 40 hours straight.
Despite the initial outages occurring over a week ago, Texans abroad and within the Lone Star State continue to work to process their experiences and what they feel illuminates malfunctions on both infrastructural and leadership levels.
“We’re all kind of in survival mode”
“It got below freezing in our apartment that night. Both of us were waking up every hour because it was so cold, even with three or four blankets on our bed,” Matt Martin recalled about his first night without power. Martin is a UMass alumnus and Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin living in the city with his girlfriend. He lost power around 3 a.m. on Feb. 15, and for the next almost 50 hours, bounced precariously between his apartment, a shut-down Super8 motel and a friend’s home.
Like Martin, many in Austin initially lost power between late Sunday night, Feb. 14 and early Monday morning, Feb. 15. Planned rolling blackouts turned into endless outages, and Texans, both housed and unhoused, were living in freezing cold temperatures.
“[I was] constantly bundled up and couldn’t use my phone for more than like five-to-10 minutes at a time before my hands started getting pretty cold,” Krupp said. “That was the toughest part. Just it being like, unrelenting.”
Assistant Dean of Development for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass, Nicki Hendrix, is living in Austin and experienced a similar unrelenting nature as her fellow Austinites.
“I haven’t had power since Sunday night. [It] has put a damper on my ability to do my job,” she said. “We do have water, but we have to boil it.” Hendrix’s power returned on Friday at 7 p.m. while talking to reporters. At the time this article was written, sources who had regained power still feared losing it again and dealt with unstable access to electricity.
Within Texas’ massive expanse of cities and towns, however, experiences ranged from rolling blackouts, to full outages, to no power loss whatsoever. From Austin, to Dallas, to Houston, UMass Texans faced a number of issues and insecurities.
Andrew Ballard, a UMass alumnus living in Dallas, credits his stable power to the wind energy powering his apartment “We’ve been having power outages, a few people in our apartment building have [lost power], but we have wind energy, actually…they keep on spinning so we’ve been okay.” There has been debate about the difference in reliability of renewable energy sources and those powered by fossil fuels.
Also in Dallas, Alisha Karan, a sophomore public health student, first realized the seriousness of the storm when she saw news of a 133-car pileup in Fort Worth. She and her family then dealt with rolling blackouts throughout last week. “It started on Monday and I think we got power on Thursday. So, we just had an hour or so of power and then it would be an hour off, so it just kept rolling like that. Same thing with the hot water, it would just come on and off,” she said.
“We got really lucky it wasn’t as bad. We know a lot of people here, their pipes burst in their house because they [the houses and pipes] are much older, so they were having flooding issues,” she continued. Karan noted that Feb. 19 brought higher temperatures, causing much of the ice on Dallas’ roads to melt.
Ken Wong, a UMass alumni member living in northwest Austin, lost power for only one day. When the sun set on Monday, their power returned. “We’re definitely a lot better off than a lot of people are in Austin,” Wong said. “And we just happen to live in a neighborhood that’s right next to the water tower—they’re building a hospital on our section of the grid—so we’ll have some protections.”
Many, including Rachel Green, assistant professor of comparative literature at UMass, observed a glaring difference between the sectors of the grid that kept power and those that did not. She lived in Texas while getting her PhD from UT Austin and still has family and friends who reside there.
“At least in Austin, the effects differ widely from neighborhood to neighborhood. We know some people who are in a neighborhood with critical infrastructure, and they have not been impacted at all, they have power, they have water,” she said.
“Other people that we’ve spoken to throughout the city feel they’re living through the end of days, with no power…In our circle, we know people, families and professionals, who don’t know if they’re going to have food or potable water. They don’t have it right now and they don’t know when they’re going to get it.”
While most Texans have recently regained power, their difficulties aren’t over yet. “[Now,] heat, water and power are all good except for the fact that we need to boil water in order for it to be consumable,” Wong said. These boiling water notices were issued in many Texas cities. In total, 267 were issued due to low temperatures, frozen pipes and low water pressure.
“[We] eventually got our water back, just by going around with a hairdryer on freezing our pipes,” said Bryan Gervais, a UMass alumnus and professor of political science at UT Austin. His family’s tactic was similar to others’ who didn’t experience pipe breakage, but were still forced to address their frozen state.
People also found themselves unable to work. Krupp, who is currently in co-op, could not work while his power was out, instead getting through the week because “[I] actually borrowed a book from a friend like a week earlier. So that was most of my entertainment, plus my mom had downloaded a movie on her iPad like a week before that she never watched so we just watched that,” he said.
“A bunch of it was pretty much just sitting there on the couch and bundled up just try[ing] not to freeze,” he added. “Like we’re all kind of in survival mode so it [work] didn’t really matter all that much.”
Martin found himself pushing himself to complete his work in the middle of the snowstorm, despite lacking power. “It kind of goes to show you just like, the kind of mentality that you’re taught to adopt when you jump into a Ph.D. program,” he said. “I have a short essay that was supposed to be due on Friday. And I was like, oh, when am I gonna be able to do this when I don’t have access to power and my laptop just died…I still have my deadlines that will be happening next week that I have to stay on top of…I have to keep going. It’s pretty exhausting to be honest,” he continued.
Though Kamil Q. Brown, a UMass alumnus and visiting scholar at UT Austin, said that the pressure to do work is still present even during this type of event. “That sort of pressure just is compounded in moments like this, where you feel like you should be doing things that you actually cannot, and you have to sort of sit with the discomfort of…maybe not having certain resources or having to think about your relatives,” he said. “This hit us at a point where you kind of were getting into the groove, and folks had been quick to call it the new normal,” he added of the storm’s timing in the midst of the pandemic.
The pandemic only added to the isolation. Hendrix said that “normally in a situation like this, if you had libraries with power, like, you’d be allowed to go to them, you know, and people could get in touch with their loved ones, apply for assistance and…handle some of the kind of basic needs stuff, and also get warm…but all of those have just been—[already] they’ve been kind of removed from our civic life.”
“I’ve never felt so far away from my family as I do right now.”
Physical communities, which had grown stagnant throughout the pandemic, found themselves making connections in order to survive. While the risk of contracting COVID-19 persisted, some Texans abandoned their unheated homes as outages wore on.
“What matters most is the immediate well being of the people that you care most about,” said Martin. “We would like to be able to take those [COVID-19] considerations into account. But when you’re living through a natural disaster, where the government completely abdicates responsibility to take care of people, that kind of gets put to the backburner.”
Krupp maintained a similar perspective, though the stakes of his experience were heightened by his contraction of COVID-19. “I tested Positive for COVID[-19] on Friday, so we assumed my entire family has it, and the friends we went to…they knew we had it. So, they pretty much just like quarantined off the entire upstairs for us,” he said.
“It was kind of a pain at first because we didn’t know if we could go or not. So, you’d just be stuck for another, like 24 hours if we didn’t go.”
The ability of Texans to transfer to warmer locations varied. “We do have friends who lost power, lost water, [who] had been going to shelters or relying on their neighbors for help. Staying warm inside their cars, that kind of thing,” Wong said.
Transferring locations during the storm meant driving on unplowed, unsalted roads. “We drove all the way to the super eight and terrible driving conditions. It’s like they did not even touch, salt, plow anything,” Martin said.
The state’s unpreparedness was reflected in its residents: “At least three of the households on my street…we pulled together to share one shovel,” said Brown. Others added that Texan households were lacking the very basic necessities, like winter coats and gloves.
In Ennis, Texas, about 35 miles south of Dallas, UMass junior and microbiology major Bella Triolo’s grandparents faced dangerous roads on their quest to get necessities from the local grocery store.
“They ended up getting stuck in town because of the snow and their car had to be towed out by another,” she said. “They were towed home by a neighbor, faced few other incidences and lost neither power nor water during the storm.”
Similar treks to grocery stores were met with unusual scenes. Sam Castillo, a UMass graduate, waited in line at his local Whole Foods in the cold. “I was doing jumping jacks for 30 minutes to stay warm,” he recalled from his outing.
Gervais also mentioned that stores were completely emptied through and lacking any refrigerated items. “Things are starting to get back to normal except [groceries stories] they’re closed down, completely [out of] everything you can think of like eggs and milk and bread, no essential things. And the lines are incredibly long” he said of the experience.
As the community outside of Texas watched these events unfold around family members and friends, feelings of helplessness arose.
“I’ve never felt so far from my family as I do right now,” said Kelsey Whipple, a professor of journalism at UMass and a San Antonio native. “I never have felt so impotent and so far from them.”
“It made me really aware of what it must be like to not have a community that knows how to handle this, you know? There’s no one to teach my sister how to use a snow rake in Austin the way that their neighbors could here [in Massachusetts]. And that is really hard,” she added.
While families might not have been able to directly reach their loved ones, the power of mutual aid funds has strengthened Texas communities when governments could not or would not. “It’s been really impressive, the grassroots and like, bottom-up approach,” said Matt Martin. “They’ve [mutual aid funds] been able to seriously reduce some of the immediate suffering of the people who are most affected by the weather and the failure of the government.”
“Infrastructure is a reflection of our investment in communities”
“This is a failure on multiple levels: on the policy level, on the preparation level, and on the governance level,” said Jay Taneja, assistant professor of electrical engineering at UMass.
“This is a result of setting up a very market-driven system in Texas that does not have regulations for keeping prices in a narrow band and does not have protections for consumers in all cases,” he continued. “It also was a result of how the Texas system keeps what’s called a ‘reserve margin,’ essentially extra generation capacity in the event of an unusual circumstance.”
According to Taneja, because Texas keeps a much smaller reserve margin than other grids do, this unusual circumstance (a mix of high electricity demand and a simultaneous winter storm warning across all 254 Texas counties) caused the demand to skyrocket while the supply of electricity decreased. This predicament was then amplified by the number of generation failures across an array of energy types: wind, natural gas, coal and nuclear.
This power catastrophe was not just limited to within Texas borders, as households in surrounding states, including Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, also saw power loss. Texas is, however, where the largest number of problems occurred—an initial over 4.5 million Texan households were reported experiencing outages at the peak of the storm.
“This is right in this mix of politicizing energy systems and we’re going to see this more and more as we have more change in the energy system, as we go through this energy transition toward being sustainable,” said Taneja, who pointed to natural gas and wind as being the two main sources of the state’s failure.
Natural gas provides Texas with almost 50 percent of its energy supply. “A good amount of that failed because of water and pipelines that froze, [and] because of the inability to get natural gas supply to those generators—and so that meant that all that generation was offline,” Taneja added, going on to note Texas generation authorities’ failure to plan.
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“Typically, the peak in Texas in generation happens during the summertime but not the wintertime, and so when they have long plant closures for maintenance, they tend to schedule them for winter, and so there were a number of plants that were offline due to maintenance,” he said.
Now, while many Texans have regained power, access to water remains problematic. As of Feb. 24, over a week post-storm, it is estimated that around 1.4 million Texans still lack clean drinking water. While some boil water notices have been lifted in certain places such as San Antonio, Austin and Houston, almost 8.5 million Texans were still under boil water notices as of Monday, Feb. 22.
“Here in New England, we bury pipes underground, about four or five feet, so they don’t freeze in the winter,” said John Tobiason, professor and Department Head of UMass Civil and Environmental Engineering.
“As we move further south, we relax that, and as temperatures are warm, Texas typically is hot, not freezing,” he said. “So often pipes are not very, very far [underground] and they might be subject to freezing. And houses are not insulated as well, so pipes in the outside of walls and things like that maybe are much more susceptible to freezing if you have an unusual[ly] prolonged period.”
According to the Texas Tribune, the communities that have been hit hardest by these power and water outages are those who identify as communities of color and who live in traditionally marginalized neighborhoods, such as East Austin.
Taneja reflected this sentiment regarding historically unequal investment in marginalized Texan communities. “Infrastructure is a reflection of our investment in communities, whether that’s our electricity grids, our roads, our medical infrastructure, our school infrastructure,” he said. “That the portion of the grid that was providing power to communities that are lower-income, that tend to have more Black and brown folks, that that failed is not at all surprising given how infrastructure is built.”
Tobiason spoke to this idea of mindful, inclusive decision making. “We, the collective community, have to accept that, over time, decision makers, often with money [and] the money constraints, we have gone along, as, just say designers, and designed things in ways that were not equitably provided to populations,” he said. “And to the extent that we’re complicit in allowing that decision to carry, we have some onus to acknowledge that and then to work hard to not do that in the future.”
Having lived in East Austin as a graduate student, Whipple experienced this reality firsthand. “This event is just another example of how pervasive and historical classism and racism [are, and how they] create inequities that we’re unprepared for,” she said. “We’re surprised when we discover them, even though we shouldn’t be.”
Reflecting on the patterns she witnessed during her time in Austin as well, Green emphasized that the storm left communities of color and those otherwise marginalized the most vulnerable. “Obviously the effects of this are widespread throughout the community, and obviously underserved communities, marginalized communities, communities of color are hit the worst,” Green said.
“The city of Austin has long had challenges. It’s highly segregated, services are unequally apportioned, [and] it’s experienced runaway growth for the past decade,” she said.
Illustrating these observations are questions being raised about Austin’s priorities in terms of grid distribution. Images of neighborhoods such as East Austin blanketed in darkness juxtaposed with the consistently bright lights of downtown Austin have been circulating through social media platforms.
This snowstorm exemplified a “spectacular” infrastructural failure, though the situation is not that simple. “I’d say part of the blame, so to speak, is that this is an event on the edge of the probability distribution of events we would design for. It’s like floods, and hurricanes and wind,” Tobiason said.
“If we design for everything that we know nature might deliver, because we’ve seen it once before, it would be very costly to do that design,” he continued. In other words, while Texas could have been prepared to a greater extent, it would be downright impossible for the state to prepare for the occurrence of every possible extreme weather event. Tobiason did mention that this might promote the improvement of the public’s investment in infrastructure.
“Infrastructure—we tend to take it for granted until it breaks.”
Such an infrastructure failure was met by an equally challenging communication failure. Once the power went out, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas—the organization that operates and manages Texas’ energy grid and market—communicated information across the state using Twitter.
Austin Energy, a publicly-owned provider of electric power in Austin, did the same. Likewise, the City of Austin shared information by using Twitter, internet updates and Facebook Live, of which Joshua Krupp said “hardly anyone could watch” due to their lack of access to the internet at the time.
In Houston, Annita Achilleos, UMass alumna and research associate at Baylor College of Medicine, faced what she viewed as poor communication from local and state government.
“You had to look to find resources. They weren’t readily available,” she said.
After the water was shut off, there was no communication from Harris County about drinking water. It was necessary to boil it first. Finding out “about [freezing] pipes and stuff really was through social media that people were talking about what do you do in that case, and kind of like giving advice and tips to each other…Reddit was one thing that we’ve been looking at,” she continued.
Whipple mentioned mixed messages coming from ERCOT as well. “Don’t tell people there are going to be rolling blackouts when what you actually mean is rolling temporary blackouts. What you actually mean is like, ‘you may need to find shelter because you and your family will not have power water for several days,’” she said. “Communicate the actual situation to the public, so that they are prepared and have options.”
Alternatively, Joydeep Biswas, professor of computer science at University of Austin and adjunct at UMass living in Austin, believes he’s in good hands. “I think the Austin government was trying very hard to be supportive, as well as provide as much information as possible. I was really appreciative of the fact that, you know, the snowstorm hit and immediately next day, they had warming shelters available everywhere,” he said.
“I think the Austin government is good at anticipating the needs of the people. Unfortunately, they were stuck between a rock and a hard place, because they, on the one hand, want to help the people and restore power, but they can’t because they have direction from ERCOT to reduce their power consumption,” Biswas continued.
While residents might have had varied experiences, structural change is still deemed necessary, and Taneja explained what Texas could do in the future to prevent further failures. “Texas’ grid, from an infrastructure perspective, is isolated in many ways. It is interconnected with the other grids, but at those interconnection points, the point is to keep the system isolated. A lot of that technically is hard to change, so we don’t likely see that,” he said.
According to Taneja, Texas could improve its systems by weatherizing them in preparation for “more large-scale surprising events” to prevent such widespread outages in relation to future extreme climate change events. “That means keeping larger reserves so that we can be resilient in the face of failure. That means weatherizing equipment, [and] that means not allowing consumer systems that put people at risk,” he said.
Such technical failure is in large part the result of a failure of policy, which points to a “failure of governance,” according to Gervais. “When there’s no incentive to, you know, to govern if you pass good policy, then this is what you have, you have disasters like this,” she said. “What we can learn from the Texas case is that, you know, to ask more of your elected officials, than just, you know, performative sort of politics.”
“There have been bills that had been introduced in the Texas state legislature that would require utility companies to winterize and to prepare for winter weather like this, so that we wouldn’t have a massive power failure, and those bills weren’t passed, or they weren’t implemented correctly,” he mentioned.
Gervais was not the only one to point fingers at those leading Texas.
“We need to have our leaders react in the moment and take action and serve their communities and not escape to Cancun on a poorly planned family vacation,” said Whipple, who also mentioned that identity plays into being a Texan and choosing to vote to change policy. That ‘Texan independence,” she thinks, contributes to why not many outside of Texas care to understand just how diverse and politically-purple the state is.
“Texas is basically purple…[and] there’s a ton of people who don’t want this kind of governance,” Whipple said of the conservative Texan leadership which she believes doesn’t represent the majority of Texas’ residents. “And actually, Texas has a really pretty impressive, like progressive background… You know, it’s a southern state. [But] Texas, by the way, is full of Californians and other people who didn’t live in Texas until kind of recently,” she said.
Gervais notices Texan autonomy as well, especially given recent events. “I think that, that ethos of independence, you know, this idea of being free and free from regulation and all that, that’s certainly a part of Texas and the Texas mindset,” he said. “But this time, there’s real consequences to that just because of the power grid.”
Those consequences are still being discussed by Texas officials, though many are claiming that such consequences won’t be sustained and change will constantly butt heads with current leadership as Texas experiences more extreme events.
“Watching increasingly extreme weather events, combined with a state government increasingly hostile to science, and increasingly meddling in the decisions of local elected officials, it seemed to me that it was only a matter of time before Texas came to experience the brunt of a changing climate,” Green said.
“But I couldn’t have imagined something this catastrophic this soon.”
Ella Adams can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @ella_adams15
Talia Heisey can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @HeiseyTalia