I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. The winter storm of 2021 was abnormal for us. We are more used to hundred degree summer days and crazy humidity than winter freezes, busted pipes and power outages. Apart from the four years I lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I have spent my whole life in Texas. Like most Texans, until the winter storm of 2021 I had not known that Texas was the only state in America that had chosen to have its own separate power grid.
My father once worked for the old energy company, Houston Light & Power, in the days when there was just one choice for an energy provider in the Houston area. On the first day of the Texas winter storm, the electricity was still on in my neighborhood, and we had not yet begun to have issues with the water pressure. I thought I’d dodged the bullet like I had during Hurricane Harvey when streets in my subdivision had not flooded and the power stayed on the whole time.
But the following day, as I sat down to edit an article I was writing for Medium.com, I heard the TV click off. The heat stopped. And the only light that remained was what was provided by the battery of my laptop. I grabbed my phone, and on social media I posted that I was no longer one of the lucky ones.
I found my battery operated lanterns and flashlights. I found the solar charger I’d bought after Hurricane Harvey. I went out to my car and grabbed my emergency radio. I turned on two burners of my gas stove for heat. And I waited.
A year or so before the winter freeze that exposed the Texas power grid, a transformer had blown out in my neighborhood. I remember hearing the loud pop before everything went dark. The power was out for four of five hours before the TV once again began to speak like a patient who had been brought back from the dead. That’s what I expected, a few hours of silence and darkness.
But the hours passed in darkness. The terrible silence swallowed my whole life. It seemed like each moment my house grew colder and colder. I’d grown up poor, and even spent the sixteenth year of my life homeless and alone, so I knew how to survive when the electricity was disconnected. I knew how to spend ten dollars at the super market and eat for a week if I needed to.
As the time passed, I started to hear about how Texas politicians had chosen to isolate Texas from the national power grids so that in Texas, energy companies could avoid the federal regulations that had kept people in the rest of the country from suffering as we were. The day that I read about former Texas governor and former energy secretary in the Trump administration, Rick Perry, saying that Texans were willing to go without electricity even longer to keep the federal government from regulating the same companies that has caused our suffering, the water in my house stopped like clotted blood.
The city’s water processing plant had also lost power, and as a result most Houstonians had little to no water pressure. Even before that I’d stopped taking showers, afraid of getting sick in the still not warm house. I wondered if burglars and thieves would try to take advantage of the darkness.
Houston is an oil business town. The local economy is more diverse than it used to be, but it is still a town where an oil executive at a big company is akin to a god. It is the former home of Enron. Many of the skyscrapers that stand like majestic temples in the Houston skyline are the homes of some of the biggest energy companies in America.
As I spent the next days un-showered, unshaven and shivering, and wearing three layers of clothing even inside of my house, I watched images online of that Houston, Texas skyline with all of those tall energy company buildings lit up like stars in the night even as all of those buildings stood empty. It was like throwing food in the trash while starving people were forced to watch.
Most of the gas stations and stores were closed because they also didn’t have electricity during the winter storm. The line for a fast food restaurant wrapped around the corner. I sat in my house at night triple layered and wrapped in blankets. My dogs looked up at me like they didn’t understand why I didn’t do something to make it warm again.
An entire family died while sitting in their running car trying to keep warm. A grandmother and her three grandchildren died in a house fire as they tried to stay warm and alive. I have since seen the grieving daughter and single mother of those three children in an interview on CNN. She spoke lovingly of her late mother who had immigrated from Vietnam with nothing.
She told the CNN reporter stories about what kind of people each of her small children had been. She spoke of the dreams that each of them had had, and the kinds of people she had hope each would grow up to be.
Texas Senator Rafael “Ted” Cruz, went to Cancun. People died. People in Texas who could barely pay the bills even before covid-19, even before the winter storm, woke up to find busted pipes and collapsed ceilings that they had no idea how they would pay to have repaired.
Food spoiled in dormant refrigerators. At the grocery store we stood in line outside in sub twenty degree weather as the overwhelmed and overworked store employees could only let ten people in at a time. At night the skyscrapers taunted us with their uninterrupted energy, the warmth of their empty halls and offices.
Ted Cruz returned home when he was outed on social media. He traded in his expensive suit for a hoodie and took to the streets to shake the hands of the people he had left to die. His look said, regular guy. But he is not one of us, any more than the oil company executives who had to finally be embarrassed into turning off the lights in those skyscrapers.
The families of Ted Cruz or Rick Perry surely never spent one night in the dark. They never felt so desperate for warmth that they would risk burning their house down or dying of carbon monoxide poisoning. Their food didn’t spoil. They never had to watch their shivering children cry.
It was eighty five degrees in Cancun, Mexico on the day that Rick Perry went on House minority leader Kevin McCarthy’s website and said that the poor Texans who were freezing, starving and dying would be willing to go without electricity even longer to keep the federal government from requiring those poor energy companies to make sure this wouldn’t happen again. And even at that very moment, all over Texas people shivered as they stared hopefully at space heaters and thermostats, praying they would live long enough to see the light again.