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Failing Government, Freezing Texans

A cold and chaotic week in Galveston.
February 20, 2021
Failing Government, Freezing Texans
Volunteers hand out cases of water bottles to Galveston residence at the Schlitterbahn Waterpark parking lot on February 19, 2021 in Galveston, Texas. - A fierce and deadly winter storm that wreaked havoc in the southern and central US and blanketed the East Coast in snow was forecast Friday to start tapering off. After days of bone-chilling cold that left millions without power and caused water pipes to burst in oil-rich Texas, temperatures were forecast to be well above freezing on Friday in much of the Lone Star state and rise into the 50s Fahrenheit (10 to 15 Celsius) into the weekend. (Photo by Thomas Shea / AFP) (Photo by THOMAS SHEA/AFP via Getty Images)

The residents of Galveston Island, Texas were left to freeze inside our own homes this week by the state of Texas.

At 2 a.m. on Monday, when we initially lost power in the middle of an ice storm with thunder and lightning, we believed the blackout would last just a few hours and then we would be able to warm up again. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) had warned that there might be controlled, scheduled, rolling blackouts—and we had foolishly believed them. We would ultimately endure almost sixty hours without electricity. There were two nights when temperatures inside our homes dropped into the twenties. Due to the large number of islanders whose pipes froze or burst, our water ultimately failed, too, because of island-wide low water pressure.

Galveston Island is known as a beach town—but it’s also a place steeped in history. The island has the dubious honor of having survived the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, the Great Storm of 1900. No one knows the exact death toll of the Category 4 hurricane, but it has been estimated to be between 6,000 and 10,000 people. In the years prior to that storm, Galveston was home to more millionaires per capita than any city in the country. Its growth had been fueled by its port, the only deepwater port in Texas at the time, which created a busy commercial center replete with wharves, warehouses, and banking. As a result of that prosperity, Galveston is home to a National Historic Landmark District full of beautiful nineteenth-century houses.

The people who call Galveston home are accustomed to severe weather. Hurricanes are a serious threat every summer. Many buildings have plaques highlighting the high-water levels from storm surges over the years, some well over six feet high. But we are resilient. We always rebuild. After the Great Storm of 1900, our city leaders built a seventeen-foot, three-mile-long seawall and raised the grade of five hundred city blocks, gradually sloping from seventeen feet on the Gulf of Mexico side of the island down to eight feet on the bayside, to save the island for the future. We are people who know how to triumph over adversity, especially that caused by Mother Nature.

Our state’s leaders know how to message and prepare Texans for dangerous weather, as they do every summer. There is a full-court press every time a hurricane could strike near us. There are news stories about how to create a hurricane kit and where shelters will be located. We know which ones are pet-friendly and which are not. We routinely see messages on highway notification boards instructing us to gas up and ensure we have enough water and nonperishable food for our family for several days.

None of this was done last week.

The meteorologists urged Texans to be aware of the potential for dangerous temperatures. We prepared only for a few days of bad roads and maybe a few hours each day of rolling blackouts by buying extra food and asking each other which plants would likely survive the low temperatures and how to protect them most effectively. Texans also looked up how to wrap their pipes correctly and hoped they’d done it well. In Galveston, there was general excitement at the prospect of playing in the snow, a rare event on the beach.

However, our state leaders did not warn us about the potentially dire power situation. As the nation learned this week, Texas has its own power grid, one that is largely cut off from the rest of the country. Assuming that our state leaders had at least a basic competence at governing, we expected they would monitor and ensure the working of the electrical grid infrastructure, since it is not regulated federally. But our leaders didn’t perform even that basic duty in the days leading up to a powerful winter storm. And since they didn’t disclose the true extent of the problems that they anticipated, the average Texan had no idea how unprotected we were from very cold temperatures coming our way.

Keep in mind that Houston is the “energy capital of the world.” It is home to 4,600 energy-related firms, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. We have the expertise in our own backyard to ensure energy reliability for the state. However, Texas’s leaders have chosen to prioritize profit over people. When there are no regulations requiring power plants to winterize, and the generous tax abatements they receive don’t have those requirements, it creates an incentive not to do so for once-in-a-decade storms. The added cost of preparing a plant for extreme weather would cause the price of electricity provided to be higher, thus making the responsible plant operator unable to compete in a market where these costs are often skipped.

While it is true that plants are required to turn in winter plans to ERCOT, it is patently obvious no one routinely checks for compliance. So where is the oversight? The Texas Public Utility Commission is responsible for regulating ERCOT. The PUC is led by three governor-appointed commissioners: Arthur D’Andrea, DeAnn Walker, and Shelly Botkin. Governor Greg Abbott has angrily called for an investigation into ERCOT—but why not also the PUC he appointed? They were clearly asleep at the wheel and bear significant responsibility for what occurred here over the last week.

As a result of the state’s negligence in communication, power-plant management, and oversight, Texans vastly underestimated the extreme electrical outages that were to come. Since Galveston is an island, we were trapped here once the storm began. The bridges were closed due to icing on the roads and the ferry was not running. Galveston doesn’t have snow plows or salt trucks to make our roads passable. Since our homes on the island were built in a normally temperate climate in the nineteenth century, they are poorly insulated. Due to historic district restrictions, we are neither allowed to install modern energy-efficient windows nor to use newer building materials that would help the houses retain heat in frigid temperatures. We also have raised homes with crawl spaces that house most of the plumbing—meaning our pipes are exposed to the elements but not easily accessible to homeowners. Candidly, most Texans don’t even own warm winter coats. We simply don’t have the infrastructure to handle these rare Arctic blasts.

But with proper warning, we could have prepared. Had we been warned that we would need to use the typical hurricane protocols, people could have successfully evacuated into COVID-safe shelters, with generators and cots and ample supplies and plenty of room and volunteer assignments for organization.

Instead, it has been a week of chaos, misery, and—for at least dozens of Texans—death.

When the blackouts began early Monday morning, our power was cut immediately and did not reliably return for almost sixty hours in bitterly cold temperatures. The promised rolling of the blackouts never came to the island. There was an obvious lack of planning for equitable power distribution by ERCOT and CenterPoint, the electricity distributor that serves the island. There was no communication or direction given to Galveston Island residents to evacuate because there would be prolonged, seemingly targeted power outages. Therefore, on Tuesday morning we awoke to iced-over toilet-bowl water and frozen water in our pets’ bowls. It was 28 degrees inside my house that morning.

My family was luckier than some because we have a gas stove and oven. Our teenage daughter suggested we heat up blankets in stockpots in the oven so we could have some way to warm up, if only for a few minutes. We boiled water constantly and huddled together in the kitchen. We wondered; where would be the safest place to sleep? Our cars’ gas tanks were only half-full and we wanted to conserve fuel in the event we could leave the island because gas was almost impossible to find. So we ran the cars sparingly for the amount of time it took for the adults’ phones to charge up so we could keep in contact with friends and family across the state.

Eventually, even our water stopped working, due to the many frozen and broken pipes on the island.

The state had completely abandoned us. Residents called the fire department requesting transportation to shelters, but there were no shelters available with both enough space and electricity. There was at least one house fire that required the fire department to use water from Galveston Bay to put out the blaze. Galveston County has requested a refrigerated truck for all the bodies the medical examiner’s office expects to find.

The residents of Galveston survived by helping each other. We communicated regularly and performed wellness checks on our elderly neighbors. We shared food, water, warm cars, and wine. My husband is a petroleum engineer and he spent hours helping to patch and thaw broken and frozen pipes.

While the state government failed us, our mayor, Craig Brown, rose to the occasion. He worked diligently to secure a centrally located warming station, but he only had local resources to use. He received no help from the state, despite repeated requests. He arranged to have bottled water flown in for residents. Once it was safe, he had work crews going by every house through the night for three days to check for water leaks and burst pipes to prevent more loss to the overall system. He set up ADA-compliant porta potties in twenty-eight locations on the island. He wrote a letter to Governor Abbott requesting restitution for his residents. He asked ERCOT and CenterPoint why Houston had rolling blackouts and Galveston’s power was just off.

When I spoke with Mayor Brown yesterday, he was full of praise for the City of Galveston employees. He said they had worked for 72 hours straight to restore services to the citizens of the island. I know I speak for all the residents of Galveston Island when I say that I am eternally grateful for their faithful work.

The difference between Mayor Brown’s actions and those of Governor Abbott are extreme. The mayor did everything he could with the resources available to him to care for his constituents. Meanwhile, the governor didn’t even bother to ensure there was an equitable distribution of what power was available, much less ensure that power plants were winterized as federal energy officials recommended after the freeze and rolling blackouts ten years ago.

Ultimately, Texans were left to fend for ourselves, forsaken by state leaders who are more interested in litigating who uses what bathroom than who lives or dies. This has to stop. We need common-sense legislation to ensure we never experience anything like this ever again. The death toll will continue to mount over the next few days. I fear it is much higher than has currently been reported. The time for culture wars in the statehouse is over. It is time to govern.

Heather Golden

Heather Golden is a writer in Galveston, Texas.