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In Texas, anger, fear, and burning kitchen cabinets to keep warm

It’s incredibly difficult to fully explain what it feels like to be in Texas right now.

For one, I’m not sure which hat I’m wearing. I’m a homeowner, wife, and mother, so obviously I’m concerned about my family and the place I live. But I’m also a local resident who cares about community. So I’m deeply concerned about my neighbors. Finally, as a professor and researcher who studies local governance and sustainability, I’m caught between my scholarly frustration at the level of ineptitude and negligence and the part of me that considers everything to be a teachable moment.

But more than anything, I don’t know how to feel because I don’t know how to think.

Shoppers walk past a bare shelf as people stock up on necessities at the H-E-B grocery store in Austin, Texas.

Shoppers walk past a bare shelf as people stock up on necessities at the H-E-B grocery store in Austin, Texas. Image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Everything feels like a blur. In my own city, people experiencing homelessness are freezing to death on the streets. In neighboring Fort Worth and Arlington, public agencies have suggested that residents boil their water. In Austin, 64,000 Austin Energy customers are still without power. In Houston, many families are dealing with carbon monoxide poisoning because they tried to keep their cars on or burn charcoal grills near their homes. It’s horrifying to watch this happen. To know that if any of this were to occur in another country, the U.S. would be encouraged to send aid, to assist. And to recognize that no one is coming to Texas to help us.

About one week ago, a strip of I-35 near Fort Worth iced over, causing a 133-car pileup and six tragic deaths. With so few freezing days in this area of Texas, the roads, buildings, and homes aren’t prepared to manage a cold front. My heart ached for the people who lost a loved one before the sun rose and the ice had a chance to melt. The images from the scene could have been taken from a horror film. They were quickly shared around the globe as people heard, perhaps for the first time, that North Texas wasn’t built to withstand these conditions.

Vehicles at a standstill southbound on Interstate Highway 35  in Killeen, Texas.

Vehicles at a standstill southbound on Interstate Highway 35 in Killeen, Texas. Image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

But even us residents had no idea how unprepared we truly were.

On Sunday evening, some Texans found out that a potential snow storm and the expected freezing temperatures could put a huge strain on the state energy grid, as it had about a decade before. We were told that we could expect controlled, rolling outages. Power would go off for anywhere between 15-45 minutes and then back on and then off again.

I say “some Texans” because only those who are on social media sites or who regularly check the news received this heads-up. The rest of the state had no idea that their power sources were about to go offline. And even those who did find out were not given clear information about which homes or neighborhoods would be targeted or how long this would last. We braced for what we thought was the expected worst, but no one anticipated what would happen next.

In the wee Monday morning hours, rolling outages grew into uncontrolled, unexpected outages for hours at a time. Texans across the state lost power and heat, as well as internet access. Water pipes froze. Gas leaks began. Without any heat, our homes —designed to be cool to manage the hot summers — immediately felt like ice. No one could tell us when power would go back on. And just like that, fear and chaos settled in.

While some people were entirely home bound, others jumped in their cars and swerved to grocery stores, where they quickly bought up all items in stock. With horrifying road conditions and the images from the recent crash still on everyone’s minds, food trucks have been delayed. And, of course, as we all continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns about going to hotels or staying with people who had power loomed large.

Gallon jugs of water and pre-made meals inside the warming center at the Palmer Events Center in Austin, Texas,

Gallon jugs of water and pre-made meals inside the warming center at the Palmer Events Center in Austin, Texas. Image by Thomas Ryan Allison/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In our own home in Dallas, we noticed our pipes freezing as early as Sunday evening. We lost power and heat later that night and huddled together until mid- Monday-morning when it came back on. And though the grid hasn’t stabilized, and we still live with the uncertainty that everything might turn off again and dont have reliable internet service, at least we are warm. We are the lucky ones.

A friend of mine shared that she and her husband had to burn their kitchen cabinet doors for firewood to keep their young child safe until they could find a warm place to go. Another friend witnessed dozens of people standing outside of hotels, where every room was entirely booked. Images of people dying in the streets, waiting in lines for food, diving in dumpsters just to find something to eat, are being shared everywhere. Knowing this is happening just outside our home feels like a mix of dizzying, anxious, and nauseated feelings.

Two women warm up by a barbecue grill during power outage caused by the winter storm in Houston, Texas.

Two women warm up by a barbecue grill during power outage caused by the winter storm in Houston, Texas. Image by Go Nakamura/Getty Images

In the Jewish community of Dallas, the owner of the local kosher supermarket has received donations to provide free, hot meals to local Jews. Members of Chaveirim, the local handyman association, have made themselves available for small repairs and assistance. And though the schools have been closed all week, people are sharing activities and advice on local text and Whatsapp groups. It helps. My family and I certainly feel less alone. But internal communal systems cannot be relied on as a disaster preparedness plan. They might be qualified first responders but they’re not emergency managers.The small points of light are uplifting but not effective in the face of a structural failure.

We’re watching people die in real time, with nothing to do but wait for the sun to shine and the temperatures to rise. For a new natural event to balance out the effects of the last one. But the horrors of these past few days were not created by the snow or ice, they were man-made. They resulted from the inability of the state to regulate and weatherize their electric system. From information gaps due to ineffective communication systems. From a total abdication of responsibility on the part of our appointed and elected leaders.

It’s that darkness that will loom over this region even after the cold subsides and the power is back on. Anger. Frustration. Loss. And perhaps, it will be strong enough to bring about demands for change. At least I hope it will. Because I never want to hear that a Texas resident froze to death on the street ever again.

Hannah Lebovits is an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas- Arlington. Her research and teaching focuses on topics related to urban policy, public administration, social justice and sustainability. She is also a freelance writer and has written for local and national publications. Hannah lives in Dallas with her husband and two children.

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