Even before the power went out, Rivi Mitchell was struggling. She’d lost work because of the pandemic—like many professional Black nannies in Texas—and struggled with health issues like sickle cell anemia, diabetes, and asthma. The 56-year-old sleeps with the aid of a machine, but suddenly in the middle of the night without warning, she had no electricity. “The power did come back,” Mitchell says. “It went off around 2:30 AM on Monday, and then on Tuesday around 3:55 AM, it came back on for a few hours.”
Then, it was out again. A pipe burst and her complex’s sprinkler system exploded. For three days, Mitchell’s apartment was without power with at least two inches of standing water. She lives in a complex for residents 55 and over, and every unit in the complex was flooded with several inches of water. For days, they were without power or heat in freezing cold temperatures.
Mitchell is one of the millions of Texans last week who lost power. During the toughest day, 4.5 million homes and buildings were dark. The overseers of Texas’ electricity grid, Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), claimed blackouts were rolling, but many families felt lied to as it became apparent that while some areas lost power for days, others never suffered any outages. Photos circulated of brightly lit city centers in major cities.
Glenora Ramos, a 48-year-old Black mother to young children, received no notice before power went out in her home. “Water needed to be boiled, but for some people they had no water to boil, and for other people, there was no electricity. But I had no lights and no electricity,” Ramos said.
The communities that are feeling more of the impacts from the Texas grid failure reflect deep divides and structural imbalances within the state. ERCOT prioritized power for areas with critical services like hospitals, but Black, brown, and lower-income Texans tend to live outside of those areas in neighborhoods that have limited access to services and infrastructure, and in homes with less insulation, poorer build, and design.
The outcomes are horrific. Experts say the total death count will take months, but at least 80 lives were lost, including an 11-year-old boy, an 8-year-old girl and her mother, and at least six homeless people. There were hundreds of reports of carbon monoxide poisoning as families did whatever they could to get warm.
“Just like the pandemic, it’s unnecessary death. This could have been prevented,” Mitchell says, and experts agree. Many point to federal reports from 2011 and 2014 following major utility infrastructure disasters which provide recommendations for Texas’ power grid, including installing insulation, wind breaks, and heaters.
The state didn’t make these changes, and it doesn’t have to. Texas operates an independent grid to avoid federal regulation and ensure that the market can make decisions on pricing and output. This privatized system is resulting in death, stress, and ongoing challenges for millions of Texans who are already bearing the brunt of the pandemic, all while perpetuating price increases and profit for the market.
With the anticipated increases in power needs, the Texas Public Utilities Commission increased the price of electricity by 7,400% on Monday, Feb 15. Although the commission did this to incentivize companies to produce electricity, it resulted in Texans facing skyrocketing electricity bills, adding another challenge for those who, even before the pandemic, were choosing between clothing, housing, and bills.
The Texas energy system, however, is strongly supported by the people who have implemented and supported them: decades of Republican leadership. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott blamed renewable energy for the power problems. Former Secretary of Energy and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry commented that “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.”
Couple this with Sen. Ted Cruz’s attempted escape to Cancún, Attorney General Ken Patxon’s successful departure to Utah, and the resignation of multiple members of the ERCOT board—most of whom did not live in the state—and it looks like those in leadership are actively choosing to prioritize electricity companies over Texans.
Now that the heat is back on, Texans are anticipating more fallout. Cities are under boil water warnings, grocery stores lack essentials, and infrastructure will need to be rebuilt—all while millions reel from missing work with rent due in a week.
Not only that, but there are other ongoing challenges that will be less visible. Black, brown, and lower-income families are more likely in areas with industrial sites that were shut down because of the weather. When restarted, they tend to release large amounts of pollutants in the air, similar to what happened following Hurricane Harvey, and exacerbate health issues.
This, on top of the fact that data shows that communities of color are already hit hardest by the pandemic—with the highest number of cases and deaths from the virus, loss of jobs and health care, and less access to vaccines—shows how deep structural imbalances in our communities are continuing to be exacerbated in times of crisis. The damage done continues in spite of the fact that the snow melted.
Kara Levy, a Black single mother, hasn’t had warm water for over a week and anticipates that she will scrape by financially for the rest of this month. Levy runs a cleaning company, but she can’t clean without water. The pandemic is making her redefine her work multiple times, doing what she can to support her family.
“I haven’t seen my electricity bill, and I don’t want to see it,” Levy says. “Electricity is a basic necessity that shouldn’t be deregulated to the point where people are dying.”
Others feel the same. “People are blaming natural disasters, but it’s not natural disasters. It’s a man-made disaster. Our government failed us.” Mitchell said.