Commentary: Two years later, the 2021 blackout still shapes what it means to live in Texas
Two years ago this week, Texans woke up to something many had never seen before: snow. It was not the annual heavy frost or light dusting. It was honest-to-God snow. A thick blanket of it, inches deep, had covered everything while we slept.
And, for millions, the power was out.
These two facts competed for our attention. For my Texas family, and many others, power outages are more common than snow storms. In this case, it seemed, the state power grid had to conserve electricity because of the storm, and we had been cut off as part of those measures. I figured the lights would return by nightfall. So, I decided to take the kids sledding.
I remember the muffled silence of that morning. The phones weren’t working. There were virtually no cars, and the roads had become slippery pedestrian boulevards.
We did snow angels at the closed-down elementary school by our house and checked in with people dragging sheets of cardboard to our neighborhood’s few sled-able hills. I made cheery plans with another local dad to meet for a whiskey later in the day, just to keep the cold off.
But by midmorning, warning signs had started to appear.
One couple told us their old pier-and-beam house had leaked out all its heat. They had just returned from a four-mile walk downtown to find a hotel room. They said there were probably no rooms left.
Another neighbor volunteered that the windmills in West Texas had stopped working, causing the blackout. I felt no need to correct him right then. But, of course, that line would come back, repeated by our Governor, to sow confusion about the cause of the disaster that I didn’t yet know was unfolding.
My wife was the first in our family to suggest that things were not going to be okay. She grew up in Texas. She knew the state was not prepared for this kind of weather. She doubted its ability to recover quickly. It was getting colder.
When cell phone service returned, I saw missed messages from my editor. For several months, Mondays had been a day off for me as part of a voluntary COVID-19 furlough policy. But, he said, the station needed me to help report on the blackout.
I had no internet access, power or heat. I said I could work if my family and I had those things. He started to arrange getting us a place to stay.
The power did not come back. We spent that first freezing night bundled together in my kids’ room.
The next morning, on the drive to the hotel that the station had found for us, the full scope of the crisis started coming into focus.
At an apartment building up the street from us, a second-floor wastewater line had frozen and burst, sending a stream of sewage down an outside stairway and into the parking lot. Much of it had frozen on the stairs creating an icy waterfall of human waste blocking that access to the apartments.
There were more burst pipes on our way, along with abandoned cars and darkened homes. When we reached downtown, the power was on, but things seemed hardly less desperate. By the highway, tents belonging to people without housing were surrounded by snow. At a pharmacy on Congress Avenue, a line of people stretched around the block.
These scenes, and worse ones, would repeat themselves for days as the state was buffeted by waves of snow and freezing rain and the power did not return.
Within four days of the lights going out, we could not drink water from the tap because of problems at the treatment plants. Even some local hospitals had run out of good water. Fires had burned through homes as people tried to stay warm. The grocery stores that could open their doors had aisles of bare shelves. Across Texas, hundreds had died. The official estimate says 246 people, but that number is likely significantly higher.
Throughout the crisis, state and local authorities often seemed absent or incapable of grasping the magnitude of what was happening. But everywhere you looked, you saw people helping people.
Volunteers braved the cold and ice to get homeless people into shelters. Many whose houses and apartments kept power took in friends and strangers alike. They strung extension cords from their homes to turn them into neighborhood charging stations.
A few days into our stay at the hotel, the cafeteria where we had been getting food ran out. When workers realized I had two kids with me, they ran to the kitchen and returned with a bag of white bread and small packets of jelly and peanut butter. It was all they had left.
At some point during that week, state grid operators conceded that the electricity would only return once the temperatures improved. We waited. And as the snow melted, the power started coming back.
Six days after the storm hit, it was T-shirt weather again in Austin. But for millions of people, our sense of what it meant to live in Texas would never be the same.
As an energy reporter, I went into this experience with more knowledge about how the power grid works than many people. My job during the blackout was mainly to work as a translator, turning incomprehensible statements from politicians and regulators into usable information for the public.
For example, when an official at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas referred to “shedding load," I could explain that they were really talking about cutting people’s power.
In the days after the crisis, that need to explain things remained. The freeze had gripped many states, but Texas suffered more than any other place. People, angered by what happened, wanted to know why.
The reason was our independent energy grid — how it runs and how it’s managed.
For the last two years, my work has largely been devoted to explaining those things, and our state leaders’ efforts to overhaul that system. To do that requires not only reporting on electric engineering and energy markets. It requires reporting on the politics of energy in Texas. It is the story of powerful industries and interests like fossil fuel producers, power generators and financial traders who lobby to influence whatever “fix” comes out of the process.
That’s why we at KUT named our podcast about the grid The Disconnect: Power, Politics and the Texas Blackout.
“Is the grid ‘fixed?’” is a question I've been asked a lot since starting the podcast.
After two years and billions of dollars spent, the state grid appears to be in somewhat better shape than it was in 2021. Some parts of it are better prepared for extreme weather, and it often has more energy available to it than it used to. But, if we were confronted with a storm of the same magnitude as we experienced in 2021, most everyone agrees that the grid would fail us again.
In the meantime, some Texas politicians have seen opportunity in crisis. As they meet this year in Austin, many hope to push new changes that could reshape the Texas grid of the future. This often means favoring fossil fuel producers and big power-generation companies in policy proposals.
The voices of regular Texans, those of us who depend on electricity to survive, often seem to be left out of these conversations.
Lives changed forever
If you’re reading this on the day it is published, you are reading it exactly two years after the death of Manjula Shah. She was one of the hundreds of Texans who did not survive the 2021 blackout. She died on Feb. 17, as a result of hypothermia and pneumonia after the power went out in her Austin home.
KUT reporter Andrew Weber and I profiled Manjula and spoke with her family last year about their experience trying to care for their mother in the blackout. This year, in the lead up to the anniversary of her death, the Shahs were again without electricity.
This time the problem was not the state grid. A powerful ice storm had struck Austin. Trees and branches had crashed down on local power lines and left hundreds of thousands in the city without energy, including the Shah family.
The causes were different, but the results were the same for Manjula's daughters, Minal and Rajeeta. They were again stuck in cold for days.
"It really does bring awful memories of what happened" in 2021, Minal said.
As we talked at their kitchen table, the sounds of generators from around the neighborhood buzzed through the windows. They said their neighbors had bought them after the 2021 event.
It's one example of how people have subtly shifted their expectations.
"People are a little bit more prepared now," Rajeeta said.
The Shahs didn't have a generator, though they were grateful for the battery-powered lanterns they had bought and the firewood they had stacked from a tree that fell in the 2021 storm.
Power outages, they said, seem like they're becoming a part of life in Texas.
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