'It's a dire situation': Texas residents say promised changes after previous severe winter weather never came

Marquise Francis
·National Reporter & Producer
·7 min read

Pim Black, who was born and raised in Bangkok, moved to north-central Texas last September to be with her partner at Dyess Air Force Base, about 200 miles west of Dallas. Saturday was the first time the 28-year-old had ever seen snow.

But what started out as a magical white wonderland for Black quickly turned into a nightmare.

“At first I was excited for the snow, to see something new,” she told Yahoo News on Thursday. “I’d never seen anything like this, but it wasn’t fun anymore when you don’t have running water and you have to melt the snow to bathe and cook.”

“Now we have to be prepared for anything because anything can happen,” she added.

Black is among nearly 12 million Texans who have been hit hard by water disruption due to the rare and severe cold and snowy, icy weather that slammed the state last weekend.

Temperatures have dipped below freezing in many parts of the state and have remained there for days. Frozen pipes in homes and businesses have burst due to the bitter cold, spewing water on anything in its path. Millions of residents have been issued notices to boil water by their city governments to ensure the water’s safety.

At least 31 people had died as of Thursday afternoon as a result of the severe weather. And that number is expected to climb in the days ahead.

 Transmission towers and power lines lead to a substation after a snow storm on February 16, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Transmission towers and power lines lead to a substation after a snowstorm on Feb. 16 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

In the meantime, more than 400,000 Texans remained without power as of Thursday afternoon, according to Poweroutage.us. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the agency that oversees the state’s power grid, said in a statement Thursday that it had made "significant progress" restoring power overnight.

"We will keep working around the clock until every single customer has their power back on," said Dan Woodfin, ERCOT's senior director of system operations.

The power grid in Texas is unique in that it does not cross state lines and therefore is not under the oversight of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. In the early 2000s, Republican leaders in the state pushed to deregulate the state's power market and allow companies to determine when and how to build and maintain power plants. About 90 percent of the state uses the ERCOT-managed grid.

Now this setup, and its flaws, are coming under heavy scrutiny.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, blamed ERCOT for the outages, calling it a “total failure." But on Thursday, he said, “We hope and anticipate that no location will be without power tonight.”

While many Texans wait to have their power restored, critics question how the state ended up in this predicament in the first place. Federal regulators warned Texas officials after a brutal 2011 storm that it needed to take steps to better insulate its power plants, but those warnings appear to have gone nowhere.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry went so far as to suggest that Texans would rather suffer blackouts than be on the national grid.

“Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” Perry said. “Try not to let whatever the crisis of the day is take your eye off of having a resilient grid that keeps America safe personally, economically and strategically.”

Rick Perry (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Former Gov. Rick Perry. (Salwan Georges/Washington Post via Getty Images)

But Texans who spoke to Yahoo News said they could not care less where the energy came from; they just want their lights and heat back on.

“Earlier this week, it felt like minus 4° and, like, I was in the twilight zone,” Erika Cox said. “We were not prepared for this, but the rolling power outages have been the worst. I didn’t even know that we weren’t on the national power grid, and that came as a shock to a lot of us.”

Cox, who currently lives in San Antonio, has lived in Texas her entire life and says this winter storm isn't like anything she’s ever experienced.

“This doesn’t happen here,” she said. “It’s a dire situation. And we are still in the middle of a pandemic.”

This isn’t the first time, nor will it likely be the last, that Texas has experienced severe cold weather. But some cities, and energy regulators, have fared better than others.

For example, in El Paso, a city of nearly 700,000 people near the Mexican border, only 3,000 people lost electricity over the past week. Of that number, 1,000 had their power restored within five minutes, Eddie Gutierrez, an El Paso Electric spokesman, told KHOU.

El Paso Electric, or EPE, which is part of the Western Interconnection grid, learned from a brutal winter freeze that devastated the region in 2011 and, according to Gutierrez, spent heavily to "winterize our equipment and facilities so they could stand minus 10° weather for a sustained period of time.”

“I think one of the lessons from the freeze 10 years ago was to have more preparedness,” Gutierrez said. “[We needed] to withstand this type of crisis and sustain extreme weather.”

Karla Perez and Esperanza Gonzalez stay in their apartment during power outage caused by the winter storm on February 16, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Go Nakamura/Getty Images)
Karla Perez and Esperanza Gonzalez in their Houston apartment during a power outage caused by the winter storm on Feb. 16. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

On the other side of Texas, near the Louisiana border, the city of Beaumont also learned from the 2011 storm. Entergy, which powers Beaumont on the Eastern Interconnection grid, also winterized its infrastructure.

But residents on ERCOT’s grid have had a very different experience.

Jeremy Jacob moved to Allen, Texas, in 1993 and says that every six to eight years there is a “fluffy” snowstorm that his kids can play in. But this current storm has been devastating.

Despite following all the rules he’s been given from local leaders, Jacob still had a pipe burst in his home that has caved in a large section of his roof, ruined his living room and bedroom furniture, warped the flooring and made his garage a complete mess. Jacob says that while local leaders have stepped up, state leaders have failed.

“All the governor does is point fingers, and that’s not what we need right now,” he said. “Texas is big on deregulation, but this is a dramatic failure.”

Outside of personal belongings lost to the storm, Texans are also having to make key financial decisions on the fly.

“My mom and many other elderly people I know struggled during this,” Joey Harwell told Yahoo News. “My mother has just over $5,000 worth of medications she has to keep refrigerated, but cannot get frozen. Those medicines were hours away from being ruined. All of our groceries are ruined. … It’s been so frustrating with limited answers from leaders, from our local, state and federal officials.

“I am born and raised in Texas and have lived in the same area my entire life,” Harwell added. “This is the worst I have ever experienced. I have been through tornadoes and floods, but this beats them all. Texas sure has a lot of healing to do, which I am guessing will take months."

Pedestrians walk on along a snow-covered street on February 15, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)
Pedestrians on a snow-covered street on Feb. 15 in Austin. (Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)

While many Texas residents remained without heat or power, news broke that Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, had traveled to Mexico Thursday morning with his family for a vacation, but then quickly returned after facing widespread criticism.

But Cruz’s thwarted vacation highlighted the failures of the state’s politicians for some residents.

Reigning Olympic shot-put gold medalist Michelle Carter, who lives in Dallas, said, “Our leaders dropped the ball.”

“As leaders, there are things you should have foresight on or have a plan for if things happen,” Carter said. “I don’t think they had a plan if this happened, and everyone I hope remembers this when they go vote.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) checks in for a flight at Cancun International Airport. (Photo by MEGA/GC Images)
Sen. Ted Cruz checks in for a flight at Cancún International Airport. (Mega/GC Images)

Carter added that the storm showed how unprepared the entire state was, creating a crisis that touched rich and poor alike.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you have — when you don’t have water or electricity, we are all suffering,” she said. “You may have more resources to bring them back more quickly, but we all feel.”

Cover thumbnail photo: Go Nakamura/Getty Images

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