Community copes with damage from rare snow storm, look to politicians to improve infrastructure
Freezing water gushes through a burst pipe of sophomore Mason Carr’s parents’ bedroom. The ceiling begins to droop as water rises up the walls and the room floods. Carr stands in six inches of water and feels the snow fall inside the room. Weeks later, the room still has no ceiling, walls or floors.
“The only thing I was thinking was how unexpected it all was,” Carr said.
THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
During the calm before the storm, few Texans foresaw the energy collapse and icy temperatures that would take over the state for nearly a week. The unpreparedness of politicians and deregulation of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas are debated to be the causes of Winter Storm Uri that left 4.3 million people without power and 15 million with water issues, according to poweroutage.us.
There are three major power grids across the United States: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection and ERCOT, which covers most of Texas. ERCOT is independent of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s jurisdiction, which makes Texas the only state excluded from the ability to exchange power with other states.
“There have been systems such as ERCOT in Texas, which basically controls the supply and demand of what everybody is making and what everybody needs,” Lewis Gillies, CEO of Rockall Energy based in Dallas said. “They were the ones that were trying to balance the whole system out. There’s a pretty extensive and deep review going into their historic performance. I believe quite a number of people at a pretty senior level have unfortunately lost their jobs as a consequence of the whole event.”
Texas power plants were exceedingly unprepared for the upcoming freezing conditions. The state does not require power plants to be winterized, and ERCOT’s planned worst-case scenario didn’t anticipate the scale of outages.
“If you want to be able to deal with weather extremes, then you have to invest in advance, either in winterizing or having standby capacity available,” Gillies said. “Ultimately, it will be the consumer that has to pay for all of that to be done, but it’s going to require the state to legislate that requirement. That’s not typically something that the state has done in the past, but I suspect they will be considering it very carefully as something they want to do going forward given these strange weather patterns we are beginning to experience.”
Assistant Head of Middle School Meg Fahrenbrook actively listened to weather forecasts and online commentators leading up to the storm. She prepared to lose power by making sure she had food, batteries, candles and other essentials.
“We live in a 1950s home, so [my husband] was wrapping exposed pipes with different things,” Fahrenbrook said. “We actually wrapped them with twinkle lights to keep them warm.”
On the other hand, many Texans underestimated the warning signs of the upcoming weather.
“Texas usually doesn’t get weather like this,” Carr said. “It just came out of nowhere. The week before, people were saying it’s going to snow, but a lot of people didn’t think it was going to be as bad as it was or think that we weren’t going to have school for that entire week. From what I heard, people were saying it was going to snow Monday, but that’s about it.”
On Thursday, Feb. 11, more than 130 vehicles crashed on an icy Texas interstate, leaving six people dead and dozens injured. This event marked the beginning of a precarious week ensured by under-preparedness. Due to the hazardous road conditions, Head of School David Baad closed school for the day.
“Conditions on roadways can change rapidly, and unfortunately, even with proactive measures the unpredictable and fast-changing severe Texas weather can still result in some ice accumulating,” the Fort Worth Fire Department said.
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STORM
On Tuesday Feb. 14, cold and ice began to set in, and power outages spread across the state. The Texas power grid was on the brink of total failure, and President Joe Biden declared the storm a major disaster, opening up federal funding for relief efforts. Junior Camille Greening was one of many that suffered damage as a result of the cold temperatures.
“It started feeling really serious when it started affecting me,” Greening said. “After that, I started paying attention. A sprinkler broke in my ceiling in my living room and everyone in my neighborhood was at my house trying to get all the water out. We couldn’t figure out how to turn off all the water. We went to a hotel that night and were able to get a plumber soon. Now our floors are all messed up.”
As the temperature plummeted, Texans turned on their lights and heating while electricity supply plants shut down. The shortage of gas from oil and gas plants filled the power ridge and couldn’t get to the power station.
“Just as you had a big surge in demand, you had a fall in supply,” Gillies said. “Then the whole system started to fall over and had to start shutting off customers all over the state so it could continue to run in a stable way.”
The reactions of politicians and elected officials were highlighted, some receiving criticism and others receiving praise. Sen. Ted Cruz was met with backlash after he decided to take a trip to Cancun, Mexico during the storm, while New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised $4 million to assist recovery efforts.
“I think a good leader is someone who is going to be there when there is a crisis and when people need them and they need to be visible,” Fahrenbrook said. “I was really disappointed to see some of the leadership leaving our state in a state of crisis.”
Like Ocasio-Cortez, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stepped in to help Texas relief with a generous donation to Genesis Women’s Shelter, despite not having any affiliation with the crisis itself. Genesis Women’s Shelter in Dallas offers temporary housing to women, safe from situations of domestic violence. The shelter lost power, therefore the electromagnetic locks meant to keep the 87 women and children living inside safe stopped working. Eventually, water tore through the ceilings and flooded the apartments, forcing residents to evacuate while attempting to social distance.
“I basically said, ‘Grab your important documents, things that are irreplaceable, and we need to get out of this building,’” Director of Education and Advocacy Krista Fulz said in an interview with Marie Claire. “Coming to transitional housing is giving them a bit of safety and security in a time of pandemic and fleeing from super abusive partners. That was all ripped out from under them in a matter of days.”
In honor of Women’s History Month, the Women’s Studies Organization stepped in quickly to help by applying for the Community Impact Fund, which provides money for student groups wishing to make donations to nonprofit organizations. The donation funded snack food for the children at Genesis.
“Because of our consistent support, these snack food items are no longer [have to be] budgeted for at Genesis,” WSO Advisor Dr. Catherine Civello said. “We could not have a physical collection of items because of safety concerns, social distancing and COVID… They rely on our generosity.”
Head of School David Baad announced that remote learning would resume Wednesday, Feb. 17. Teachers had to prepare for if their students or themselves couldn’t make it to class.
“It’s always hard to know where our students are emotionally in that moment,” Fahrenbrook said. “A lot of the messaging I sent out to my students was [giving] them something they could do, but letting them know they wouldn’t be impacted negatively if they couldn’t get it done, since this is clearly an emergency situation.”
However, after receiving many reports from the community about power outages, burst pipes and other hardships, Baad suspended all instruction for the rest of the week.
“When we did [online school] for one day, we learned that there were more people affected than we had realized,” Head of Upper School Henry Heil said. “It had some good impacts, but it was creating a couple of stressors for some people who were not able to access WiFi. We decided if it was going to create more anxiety, then [we should] stop doing it.”
Even though the snow and ice eventually melted, many homes were uninhabitable and dozens of Texans were left dead. According to CBS, the storm cost $200 billion in damage, rivaling the damage of the most destructive weather events in U.S. history, such as Hurricane Harvey. The week after, lawmakers in the Texas Legislature held hearings and looked for answers after the breakdown of the energy grid, with ERCOT at the center of attention. On Jan. 22, 27 Texas members of congress signed a letter to President Biden to “expeditiously approve federal assistance for all counties.”
The aftermath left constituents questioning their politicians’ action, or lack thereof, amidst the snowstorm. Many felt betrayed that politicians failed to upgrade their infrastructure, despite knowing there was an issue. According to a Feb. 29 poll of 144 students, 61 percent of students who kept up with Texas politicians’ responses believed they should have done more.
“I expect more from our politicians in times like these,” Greening said. “A few years ago, when this happened in 2011, the government told us to join the electrical grid. We were warned about this issue, so it’s not like [Texas politicians] didn’t know. I think they should [join the national power grid], but I don’t think they will.”
Some attribute the lack of action to republican initiatives to maintain low taxes. Others believe that the gravity of the problem outweighs having to pay more.
“I think that everybody wants energy security, but nobody wants to pay for it,” Gillies said. “That’s the reality, but I think in practice, that doesn’t work when you get extremes, whether it’s really cold or really hot. We seem to be getting more of these extreme weather events, and if we don’t pay to be prepared for that, then we will pay for it upfront and at the time. As a consumer, I would be very happy to pay more for my utilities if I knew that the facilities were secure through these events.”
Forty-two percent of students believe that the storm was in part a result of climate change, and 29 percent are unsure. While scientists disagree as to whether or not global warming is connected to the February snow, it is certain that rising temperatures will make storms worse and more unpredictable. Greening believes the storm is directly related to climate change.
“When the North Pole gets hotter, the warm air replaces the cold air in polar osmosis,” Greening said. “That’s when we see things happening like Alaska being warmer than us. I saw on the news that this same thing happened in the 1980s.”
Fahrenbrook agrees that Texas must define how much they are willing to put at risk for lower taxes.
“It is really important for Texas to prioritize infrastructure moving forward, and for Texas to think deeply about their desire for independence from government oversight,” Fahrenbrook said. “What do we lose by pushing so much for our independence? There’s a real reckoning that needs to happen in Texas state politics around what they can actually provide their people versus what kind of help they need to seek from the federal government. That is not a sign of weakness; that is a sign of doing what is right for your people.”
Gov. Greg Abbott and other Texas politicians blamed the power failure on green energy, even though the state runs on fossil fuels. Abbott not only denounced the Green New Deal, but also ERCOT, who operates the grid.
“It would be harsh to blame anyone,” Gillies said. “I think if you’re going to have renewable energy in your portfolio, you’ve got to be prepared for circumstances where that doesn’t work, and you have to backup for it. The state needs to think of a comprehensive energy provision plan for weather extremes, whether it be very hot or very cold, and have a recurrence of what happened this winter.”
In addition, COVID-19 vaccine shipments faced widespread delays due to poor road conditions and the closure of vaccination sites. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines needed to be stored in ultra-cold temperatures, so unused vials had to be quickly administered or re-refrigerated otherwise the doses would have had to be disposed of.
“Someone I know got their vaccine cancelled due to the storm,” Greening said. “It caused a lot of issues because some people waited so long to get an appointment.”
With the aftermath bringing to light many fundamental issues in Texas’ infrastructure, many hope for change to prevent a future storm’s damage being detrimental, as with Uri. 77 percent of students think that Texas politicians should work to improve infrastructure in the future.
“Texas wasn’t prepared for anything like this because we didn’t have the necessary materials or preparation,” Greening said. “I feel like it should be a wakeup call to get connected to the national power grid and become aware of climate change.”