A cold day in hell? It was more like a week. Of course, I am talking about the devasting snow, ice, and freezing temperatures that hit most of Texas in mid-February. On Thursday, February 11, the precursor to disaster occurred when an icy freeway led to a 133-car pile-up on I-35W, leaving at least six persons dead and 65 others injured. Within hours of the crash, 26 fire department vehicles, 80 police cars, and 13 ambulances came to the scene. The cold then went from bad to worse. The temperature dipped below freezing in the afternoon of Saturday, February 13, and remained there until midday Friday, February 19. We reached the “low of the lows” temperature of three degrees on Tuesday, February 16, freezing our water everywhere, as this photo from The Dallas Morning News attests:
As if the frigid cold wasn’t terrible enough, Texas turned into a third-world country. Most of the state experienced power outages (affecting over 40 million persons), some for hours at a time and some for days. Temperatures inside some homes dipped into the forties. Pipes froze, and some exploded, flooding homes that were already forming icicles from indoor ceiling fans. Municipalities issued boil water notices, and bottled water and foodstuffs on grocery store shelves disappeared faster than toilet paper during a pandemic.
Inventive Texans tried almost anything to stay (or get) warm. In the dark, families huddled around gas fireplaces and gas stoves. Some built fires using any wood they could find, including furniture. We brought charcoal grills inside to cook on and to help warm us. It is little wonder that hospitals treated more than 300 carbon monoxide poisoning cases during the cold week in hell. And when all else failed, people layered-up their clothing and smothered themselves in blankets. And through it all, electricity rates soared in Texas’s deregulated system, with some consumers facing bills well over five thousand dollars (and at least one topping $17,000) for a week’s worth of unreliable electricity.
It all reminded me of this scene from the disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow:[i]
People are genetically wired for survival, not selflessness. We are motivated by self-interest, greed, power, and self-preservation, and we act accordingly—until we don’t. When we witness gut-wrenching tragedy, severe unfairness, or even just bad luck, we forget our predispositions and come together to help, comfort, and support. And a week in the cold without power and water brought out the best in many of us.
Many people with hearts the size of Texas looked after those around them. They opened their homes as temporary living quarters, turned off broken water mains, provided needed transportation, shared meals, water, and clothing, and cleaned out destroyed drywall and other debris left from broken pipes. Nonprofits and churches, working together, sheltered the homeless and established warming centers for those without heat. And many opened their checkbooks to help. George Fuller, the mayor of my hometown, McKinney, Texas, personally delivered hot water to a newborn’s mother so she could make formula. “I boiled water and put it in a thermos and brought it to her. It was no big deal,” Fuller said. It was one of many house calls the mayor made. He helped deliver blankets, water, and food to McKinney residents with frozen pipes. And he returned with more hot water for the newborn.
It wasn’t just Texans. A New Jersey plumber and his brother-in-law apprentice loaded his truck with supplies and drove over two thousand miles to Houston to repair broken pipes. After ten days, he is still there and will be until everyone has running water again. What does he charge for his services? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. He sees his work as part of his calling to help those in need.
The film, The Impossible,[ii] tells the story of a family vacationing in Thailand in 2004, separated by a tsunami. Like those big-hearted Texans (and at least one New Jersey plumber), Thai villagers reached out to help a visitor they don’t even know:
My wife and I were fortunate; we never lost power or water, although, with insurance claims projected to surpass $19 billion, I see a premium increase or two in our future. Some of my adult children and their families were not so lucky. They experienced constant power outages and, in one case, a main water line burst (fortunately before it reached their house). To those that helped them and others around the country, I give, as Maria did (played by Naomi Watts in The Impossible), a heartfelt thank you.
But the week in cold hell brought out the worst in others, including some of our politicians. Senator Cruz took an ill-timed trip to Cancun, and Tim Boyd, the mayor of Colorado City, Texas, posted this, in part, on Facebook:
“No one owes you [or] your family anything; nor is it the local government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this! Sink or swim, it’s your choice! The City and County, along with power providers or any other service, owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a handout. If you don’t have electricity, you step up and come up with a game plan to keep your family warm and safe. If you have no water you deal with it and think outside the box to survive and supply your family with water. If you are sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are sitting there waiting for someone to come rescue you [it’s] because your lazy[ness] is [the] direct result of your raising. Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish [sic]!”
Senator Cruz soon apologized for his trip, and Mayor Boyd has since resigned.
But Boyd’s post raises an issue all Texans must now face. What is (or should be) the government’s role in our lives? If it is not to ensure the steady supply of water and electricity, especially since we pay for these services, I am unsure what is. But to what extent?
Governor Abbott began by playing the blame game. He first pointed the finger at ERCOT (the manager of Texas’s power grid), even though it has almost no enforcement power over electric power generators. Then it was the renewable energy sources of wind and solar (even though solar generation increased during the week). And then gas wells and pipeline operators took their turn (about two-thirds of the wells or pipelines supplying power to electric generators froze up). In truth, there is plenty of blame to go around, including Texas’s Public Utilities Commission, which up until now, has had few fingers pointed at them.
Our typical response to these failures is, “There ought to be a law.” Perhaps that is the right response, but a law to do what? Most critical issues are more complicated than we like to believe. And Texas’s cold week in hell is no exception.
Texas has prided itself on its lack of government intrusion into our lives and businesses. Free markets, with the right incentives, will motivate companies and consumers to do the right thing. Or so we thought. We experienced similar, once-in-a-decade storms in 1989 and 2011 (although the recent storm was far worse). After 2011, the Texas legislature investigated what went wrong and issued guidelines on fixing it—primarily winterizing power generation facilities. But those guidelines were voluntary. The legislature thought power generators would be financially motivated to winterize their facilities (you can’t make money if you aren’t generating power). But few, if any, did so. I suspect the generators determined it was more cost-effective to save the cost of winterizing and risk losing a few days of revenue once every ten years. Did they guess wrong? It doesn’t look like it. For example, the parent company of TXU (Texas’s largest power provider) stated the one-time financial hit it will take from the recent storm could be as high as $900 million—no small sum. But compare that to its profits of $626 million in 2020 and $928 million in 2019.
But even if the power generators had winterized their equipment, I am not convinced that would have solved the problem because so many natural gas wells and pipelines failed, denying generators the energy needed to run their plants. And the incentives for oil and gas producers seemed to work the opposite way. The natural gas supplier’s inability to meet the demand caused spot prices to spike to over $1000 per BTU from under $5 before the storm. Or, as one local oil and gas company described it: it was “like hitting the jackpot.” And most oil and gas companies have hundreds, if not thousands, of wells, so if a few froze up, there were plenty more that did not and could take advantage of the price spike. Do we now have to add another law requiring power generators and oil and gas operators to winterize their facilities? Perhaps that is the right answer. And what about the electricity marketers who are now issuing outrageous bills to their customers? Is there a law out there for them as well? And what role do consumers play? Texas residents have enjoyed energy prices significantly below those charged in other states, and many believe that is the result of deregulation. If the Texas legislature requires power generators to weatherize their facilities, consumers will ultimately pay for it. Should they be able to say they want to keep their lower bills and risk losing power a few days every ten years? But don’t forget, at least 80 persons have died now due to hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, and other storm-related causes. I have no doubt the families affected by those deaths would prefer slightly higher utility bills.
I do not profess to have all the answers. I only wish to point out the complexities involved in every critical issue we face as a society. And quick reactions often bring unintended consequences. I hope our politicians take a thoughtful approach to this issue and don’t just react in the hopes they appear to the public to be doing something.
In closing, as I watched Texas’s power and water problems become politicized, I thought of this uplifting speech by President Whitmore (played by Bill Pullman) in the movie Independence Day:[iii]
I hope our government and business leaders can put away their petty differences and respond to this latest crisis, not by pointing fingers, but with thoughtful solutions after considering all of their ramifications to everyone.
In the meantime, we have plenty of extra blankets if anyone needs one.
[i] The Day After Tomorrow:
- Production Companies: Twentieth Fox, Centropolis Entertainment, and Lions Gate Films
- Director: Roland Emmerich
- Screenwriter: Roland Emmerich
- Starring: Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Emmy Rossum
- Release date: May 28, 2004
[ii] The Impossible:
- Production Companies: Mediaset España, Summit Entertainment, and Apaches Entertainment
- Director: J. A. Bayona
- Screenwriters: Sergio G. Sánchez (based on the story by Mária Belón)
- Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Holland
- Release date: January 4, 20123
[iii] Independence Day:
- Production Companies: Twentieth Fox and Centropolis Entertainment
- Director: Roland Emmerich
- Screenwriters: Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
- Starring: Will Smith, Bull Pullman, and Jeff Goldblum
- Release date: July 3, 1996