My little sister sent me a photo of the faucet in her Dallas house, which she had left on at a drip overnight at the instruction of a half-dozen Instagram suggestions from people who know how to weather the cold. This, they said, is to keep your pipes from freezing, to keep the water running so it doesn’t solidify in the freezing temperatures and explode. We don’t know about that. We are Texas girls, after all, raised in winters warm enough to swim in the pool on Christmas, with bodies capable of regulating 110 degrees but not 30. You can get used to the heat, gain a tolerance for it, learn to run a mile through air that feels like you’re breathing through a straw, but you can’t get used to the cold. The cold will kill you. When my sister woke up the next day, her faucet was an icicle. It was cold enough inside her bathroom to freeze the water solid as it dripped.
We knew it was coming. There is nothing Texas weather reports love more than a big ball of air hurtling toward you; whether it’s a cold front or a heat wave, they know it’s coming early. What is there to stop it? There are hundreds of miles between Texas and anything to break the wind, endless plains for a pressure system to sprint across before it gets to you, full of the wrath of God.
You know what happened. We all know what happened. The power grid is down in Texas, and has been for days. People are freezing. They are trying to warm their feet over the gas burners on their stove. They are arriving at the hospitals by the hundreds with carbon monoxide poisoning because they have tried not to die by using cars and camping stoves and ovens for warmth, and the tradeoff is that the air will still kill you, but more quickly. They are in pain. Even those with power are scared.
I know more people in Texas than I know anywhere else by a country mile. I was raised there, I went to school there, and graduated there. I know hundreds of people across the state, and the state is not small. It is five hours from Houston to Dallas if you speed, four from Austin to Dallas, nine from Dallas to El Paso. I have heard from people in the Rio Grande Valley who are terrified, and from people near the Oklahoma border. There are 29 million people in Texas, and almost all of them are too cold.
Everyone is scared. My friends tell me they’re worried about their parents and grandparents who don’t have power and can’t be reached because the roads aren’t plowed. They say that (if they’re lucky) their power is off and on, but they have no water, or vice versa. They say that they are worried their friends and coworkers are dead because the last time anyone heard from them was Friday, and they didn’t have power. They say a pipe exploded and the living room is flooded. People are sharing houses, taking in strangers, handing food out on the street in the midst of a viral pandemic. They are attacked on every side by invisible, deadly enemies.
How did this happen? How does an entire giant state run out of energy? How does a power grid fail so drastically? The answer is simple. Texas partitioned its own energy grid from the rest of the country so it could be free from regulation, and that independence comes with a cost. In a 2019 story for the Texas Observer, Amal Ahmed wrote that Texas’s energy grid, ERCOT, “has the lowest reserve margins, or extra supply, out of any grid system in the United States this summer. If customers had needed more electricity than predicted, there wouldn’t be much room for error, and ERCOT might have needed to initiate rolling blackouts to prevent a larger, more dangerous power outage.” The state was warned a decade ago that this might happen. And they did nothing. “The ERCOT grid has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union,” an expert told the Houston Chronicle. “It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.” In other words, a lack of capable governing allowed an important and life-sustaining system to rust.
No one I’ve talked to in Texas has mentioned the government. They know better than to expect anything from it. Anyone who has lived in Texas for any period of time and experienced any kind of dire need knows that the government is not going to help you. It’s controlled by men who care more about their pockets than their people. It’s one thing to come to terms with that level of neglect when it’s being enacted in the service of denying people individual rights to decisions over their body, or ensuring that everyone can carry a gun at all times. But it’s something else to see the consequences of the government’s callousness borne out in the crashing of a power grid. Even libertarians think that the government should make sure the roads are safe and that people can heat their homes.
Texas isn’t the only state that’s been forced to bear these failures of government. In January 2016, the Michigan governor promised to look into how American citizens in Flint had ended up with tap water that ran brown and was poisoning people. The scandal got so large that Presidential candidates went to the tiny town to say their piece. And what happened? Basically nothing. No one went to jail. In 2019, they said they would keep investigating, but nothing has happened. People are going to be sick for the rest of their lives and the people responsible will pay no price.
There’s New York, too, and Iowa and California and Florida and so many other states where thousands upon thousands of people have needlessly died due to state and local governments botching their pandemic response. Americans are being failed in every state. They are dying and suffering while our representatives are arguing over whether to give us 1,400 more dollars in the 11th month of a pandemic. Every level of the United States government is lying to you right now. They are looking you dead in the eye as your family members freeze and cough and drown in debt and telling you that, actually, you’re fine.
“Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” former Texas Governor Rick Perry said in a blog posted on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s website. “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.”
Current Texas Governor Greg Abbott went on Fox News to place the blame for Texas’s blackouts on green energy sources, and to wield the grid’s failure as a dire warning against the Green New Deal. He was lying, the same way Andrew Cuomo lied when he wrote an entire book about his masterful leadership through the coronavirus pandemic while 15,000 New Yorkers died in nursing homes as a direct result of his policies. He was lying the same way Barack Obama lied when he went to Flint in 2018 and pretended to take a sip of water in front of an outraged community.
It’s not about governing. It’s about lying frequently and passionately enough to bend the narrative to your will. It’s about being right. It’s about making your point. It’s about telling the right story on TV so that you can get re-elected and use taxpayer dollars to get your friends richer while telling a little lie whenever you need to, and then throwing your hands up when people die because of it.
They do this because they know how to get away with it. They know that the very worst thing that can happen to them is losing some public support and having a hard time getting re-elected, and that even those shallow pitfalls can be avoided through more committed mendacity. So far the only powerful person who has paid any kind of consequence as a result of the failure in Texas is Senator Ted Cruz, who had to abruptly return to the state after being caught getting on a plane to Cancun. He then seemed to claim that he only ever got on the plane to accompany his family on the start of their vacation, and always intended to fly right back to Texas. It’s possible that this little political embarrassment will be the worst thing that happens to Ted Cruz for the rest of his life.
We know they will always get away with it. We know they aren’t going to help us. Tweets and graphics with information about mutual aid groups to donate to are going viral on every platform. We know better after this year, after this summer, than to trust that the government will do anything at all. This has been a year of sending donations via cash-sharing apps to bail funds, to mutual aid groups, and to individuals because we know that there isn’t help coming from anywhere else.
Last night, President Biden ordered federal assistance be sent to Texas. But we’ve seen federal assistance before. We’ve seen it for hurricanes, deadly viruses, fires, tornados, and floods. It’s never enough. The systemic failures that brought Texas to this point will be ignored or forgotten, and the toll this week has taken will be chalked up to a fluke of nature, just another disaster that nobody could have seen coming or been prepared for. And in the end nobody will suffer any consequences, except for all of us.
If you live in Texas or just want to help, this community-made Google doc has a great list of resources.