What’s Happening, What’s Being Done, and How We Got Into This Cold Weather Catastrophe

photo by John Anderson

Although most of the southern U.S. has been experiencing winter storm conditions and record low temperatures since Sunday night, Texas has been in a uniquely disastrous situation.

This is largely because most of Texas is on a different power grid than the rest of the U.S. The other 47 states are on the Eastern or Western Interconnection, with multiple operators; the Texas grid is operated by the state-chartered nonprofit Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. That grid has been separate from the national grids since the 1930s, and because it doesn’t cross state lines (it does have limited connections to surrounding states and to Mexico), it’s not subject to oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and it can’t import power on a large scale from the other two U.S. grids. Across Texas as of Tuesday morning, 4.5 million people were without power; by Wednesday morning, that number had been nearly halved.

Locally, 186,472 customers of Austin Energy – the ratepayer-owned utility that provides most Austinites and many other Central Texans with electricity – are still without power, some since Sunday. On Monday afternoon, Austin EMS medics responded to a cardiac arrest call at the Esperanza Community, the state-sanctioned encampment for people experiencing homelessness in South Austin; the subject was pronounced dead on scene. Little other information could be provided before press time, but it is believed that this may be the first cold weather-related death among Austin’s unhoused community. Wednesday morning, medics and Austin firefighters responded to a structure fire at 2932 E.12th; as we went to press, two were pronounced dead on scene, one was transported to a hospital with life threatening injuries, and three others suffered minor injuries, per EMS. Freezes have resulted in hundreds of burst pipes (as of Tuesday night, the Austin Fire Department had responded to 871 burst pipe calls), which have led to water shortages in some households. Austin Water confirmed on Tuesday that it will not be shutting off service so long as its treatment plants remain electrified, but that it’s important to conserve. On Wednesday the water utility issued boil water notices for some customers in Southwest Austin and Lost Creek, as a precautionary measure though the treatment plants are still operating, said AW Director Greg Meszaros. Some Austin suburbs, such as Leander, have lost power to their water systems and are now on boil water notices or have cut off water service entirely. On Wednesday afternoon, Austin Water asked customers to immediately begin conserving water “to avoid a citywide boil water notice, impacts to fire protection, or widespread lack of water service.” Update: Wednesday night, a citywide boil water notice was issued in Austin. Read story.

On Tuesday night, AE said ERCOT ordered the utility to shed more load with power cuts, meaning some who’ve regained power may lose it again. In the worst-case scenario, AE General Manager Jackie Sargent said, the utility would have to resort to shutting off circuits that include critical infrastructure like hospitals, 911 call centers, and the city-run warming centers and cold-weather shelters that are helping to keep vulnerable Austinites safe. “I’m hoping that won’t happen,” Sargent told reporters on Tuesday, “but I don’t want to create a false sense of security.”

By Tuesday night, the attacks on Texas’s once-celebrated moves to bring renewables onto its electric grid were under assault by the top state officials who were once eager to take credit. (Texas has more renewable energy on its grid, and has for years, than most states.) Gov. Greg Abbott went on Fox News to lie about the cause of energy blackouts in Texas. The energy catastrophe “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott said of the mostly-theoretical green infrastructure program that is not anywhere close to becoming law, let alone the cause of millions of Texans losing power this week. ERCOT’s forecasting presumes that wind and solar will be impacted by winter weather but that most thermal sources can run at 100% of their total output. That did not happen, with catastrophic results, beginning early Monday morning.

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott went on Fox News to lie about the cause of energy blackouts in Texas. The energy catastrophe “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott said of a mostly-theoretical green infrastructure program that is not anywhere close to becoming law, let alone the cause of millions of Texans losing power this week.

How Did This Happen

The outages have been caused by ERCOT’s grid management, which seeks to maintain a perfect balance between generation and demand at all times through market mechanisms rather than regulation, being swamped simultaneously by the loss of huge chunks of generating capacity and a huge increase in demand for power to heat Texans’ homes, throughout the entire state. Weather-related transmission line damage, such as the kind that left portions of Northwest Austin without power last week, was a lesser factor until the overnight ice storm Tuesday and Wednesday. Early Monday morning between 1am and 2am, generators that power the grid using natural gas (responsible for most of the overload), coal, and nuclear energy went offline due to insufficient weatherization or insufficient gas supplies, while West Texas wind fields also froze. (Cold-weather plans for electric utilities are regulated by the state Public Utility Commission; ERCOT advises utilities on best practices.) Early Monday morning, ERCOT directed local utilities to initiate rolling blackouts, turning off power to all non-essential circuits in 10-40 minute intervals, moving sequentially throughout the city so no one was without power for too long.

Tweet sent by Austin Energy at 3:30am Feb. 15. The catastrophic failure of the statewide grid meant that the “rotating” outages for many AE customers have been permanent for days now.

Instead, some 42% of AE customers were without power starting 2am Monday morning, Feb. 15, and still are as we go to press; those who retained it were likely on the same circuit as critical infrastructure such as hospitals, water treatment plants, or fire stations – all other circuits were cut. Other Texas cities were able to do rolling blackouts at least for some time, but Austin was not so lucky; Sargent told reporters Wednesday afternoon that because Austin has more critical infrastructure proportional to other cities, the amount of load ERCOT asked AE to shed encompassed all non-critical circuits at once. Some of the continuation of the blackout is also due to cold load pickup, when the power turns back on and there is another outage triggered by all appliances being left on since the first outage. (This can be avoided by people without power unplugging appliances, turning off the thermostat, and leaving one light on to indicate when the power is back.)

In response to questions about buildings Downtown retaining power while residential neighborhoods went without, AE said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon that they are looking into possibly cutting power from those businesses; city leaders indicated they’re working with such groups as the Downtown Austin Alliance to power down non-essential uses. Also in response to outrage that flowed online from viral images of brightly lit (and presumably empty) Downtown buildings, Travis County Judge Andy Brown signed an executive order that would force “all manufacturing, industrial, and commercial businesses” to “minimize non-essential processes and operations to the greatest extent possible.” Athletic facilities, stadiums, and “other businesses” were also ordered to turn off exterior lighting, so long as they are not “necessary to provide essential services.”

It is unclear what penalties could be imposed on a business that does not comply with that portion of Brown’s order, or if the county intends to pursue enforcement. Another provision of the order would subject businesses attempting to price-gouge for groceries, medicine, and hotel rooms, as well as other goods and services, to temporary restraining order or civil penalty under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act.

Current Emergency Response

photo by John Anderson

The emergency response did not start off strong for the city. On Monday morning, 311 and the city of Austin website went down, although 911 was still operational. On Valentine’s Day, Austin EMS was seeing record numbers of crashes related to icy conditions; once snow blanketed the city, the majority of calls have been fall-related, says Captain Darren Noak, deputy PIO for Austin EMS.

Medics responded to a record-shattering 1,435 calls on Monday – double the previous 24-hour record, according to Austin EMS Association president Selena Xie. “It was a total shit show,” Xie told the Chronicle, recalling how numerous ambulances and trucks were stuck on the way to calls – or worse, while transporting patients – and had to be pulled out. Xie urged people to stay home, unless leaving for critical supplies or to safer shelter, because more people on the road makes it more difficult for medics to do their job. Austin’s police officers were also busy, responding to more calls in three days than they normally would in a week. From Feb. 13-15, officers conducted 155 welfare checks, while responding to more than 600 traffic related incidents.

Medics responded to a record-shattering 1,435 calls on Monday – double the previous 24-hour record. “It was a total shit show,” Austin EMS Association president Selena Xie told the Chronicle.

EMS responded to 93 falls and only nine traffic injury calls, but 13 toxic exposures due to carbon monoxide poisoning, including another eight by 7am Tuesday. “We caution people about using those forms of heat – stove, oven,” Noak said. “Absolutely use generators, but don’t put your generator on your back porch, your garage, or in your house. It’s got to be far enough away… so that the [carbon monoxide] doesn’t seep into the residence.” He also advises against sitting in your vehicle to warm up: “You’re still gonna get yourself into a potential carbon monoxide situation.” There were 907 calls for service as of 5pm Tuesday: 41 about exposure, 82 for falls, 17 collisions, and 12 more carbon monoxide-related, with three transported in serious condition.

The city’s public safety agencies were also busy transporting medically vulnerable people, both housed and unhoused, to warm shelter or making sure they were safe at home. Most of them were taken to the Palmer Events Center, which is serving as the largest city-run warming center and also a hub for transporting people to cold weather shelters scattered throughout the city and reserved for high-risk individuals.

Unhoused advocates pushed on the city to offer more Protective Lodging in motel rooms, especially since in January the Biden administration issued an executive order requiring FEMA to reimburse cities for 100% of the operational costs stemming from running emergency, non-congregate shelters, like ProLodges. The previous reimbursement rate, established as a response to COVID-19, was 75%. The city has not yet received any reimbursement from FEMA, although that is not unusual, especially in an emergency that has touched every state and municipality in the nation.

Some unsheltered people were admitted into a ProLodge, although a precise number was not available before press time, despite numerous requests by the Chronicle for the number of vacancies at ProLodges. A city spokesperson told us that many people eligible for ProLodge admission – i.e., those most at risk from dying on the street – were already occupying a room, so admissions were not accelerated prior to the winter storm or during it.

But it is believed most who accepted support were taken to congregate shelters, not motel rooms. People conducting outreach over the past few days reported many of those living in camps declined offers for assistance, opting to rough it out in a tent. It is possible more people would have accepted help if the offer had been for a private room with security for their belongings; in the pandemic, some have been reluctant to seek shelter in shared public spaces even with COVID precautions in place.

Mutual aid organizations and nonprofits have also been working to shelter people since Sunday night, including Austin Mutual Aid, Stop the Sweeps, Community Resilience Trust, Little Petal Alliance, and Free Lunch. Bobby Cooper, who founded Austin Mutual Aid in March, and around 50-75 other drivers have been picking up people at encampments across town and putting them up in hotel rooms. Cooper says they knew the emergency was coming last week and pushed the city to act proactively; when the ice arrived they jumped into action, coordinating organizers through Signal chats and Instagram DMs to pick up people they’ve been aiding since March at 14 different camps.

The Other Ones Foundation donated vans in order to transport more people at once, and Austin Mutual Aid is promising reimbursement to all who pay for a hotel room out of pocket; they’ve garnered additional funds through their Kick the Cold fundraiser since November. “We’re just telling people, you know, buy a Cup o’ Noodles at the gas station, buy a bunch of them, and get people into this hotel.” Other orgs like Little Petal Alliance also cook meals to drop off to hotels once people are sheltered, or pick up donated food from the new “command center” Downtown at 207 W. Fourth Street to ferry to hotel rooms. So far they’ve secured shelter for 400 people.

Stop The Sweeps, an advocacy and mutual aid group that supports people living in encampments, assembled enough volunteers to check at least 200 people into motels and shuttle another 200 to warming centers by Tuesday. The work has been challenging, with motels suddenly losing power or having their rooms booked up quickly. Problems that regularly make unhoused life challenging, like not having an ID, have not gone away. Some volunteers ended up checking people into motels with their own IDs to avoid being turned away.

There are an estimated 2,500 unhoused people in Austin according to last year’s official Point in Time Count (this year’s was scrubbed due to the pandemic). There are likely many more who have gone overlooked despite the heroic efforts of professional and volunteer outreach workers. Cooper fears this is a crisis that will have repercussions for weeks to come, and says it was preventable. “And it’s beyond frustrating to know that people are dying. Because why is a GoFundMe paying for 400 people to be in a hotel right now? In the fastest growing city in America?”

“It’s beyond frustrating to know that people are dying. Because why is a GoFundMe paying for 400 people to be in a hotel right now? In the fastest growing city in America?” – Mutual Aid founder Bobby Cooper

What to Expect Going Forward

Power was restored to some 1 million people across Texas by the end of Tuesday, but Austin Energy said early Wednesday morning that in addition to ERCOT-directed outages, another storm overnight resulted in outages from iced-over trees felling power lines. ERCOT also lost power it was importing from the Midwest and Mexico as those regions dealt with their own winter storms, and asked Texas’ utilities on Wednesday morning to shed more power from 2.8 million households. The National Weather Service has a winter storm warning in effect for Austin and San Antonio until 6pm Thursday, with the last storm predicted for Wednesday evening threatening ice and freezing rain, turning into snow Thursday morning.

Communication from the state down to local level has been frustratingly vague, but one thing is crystal-clear: There is no end in sight to these outages until ERCOT can stabilize the grid by balancing out energy supply and demand. Those with power need to conserve as much as possible: turn the thermostat down to 68 degrees or lower and unplug nonessential appliances – that means the TV, the dishwasher, the washing machine.

People without power can avoid overloading the grid when they do receive power again by shutting off the thermostat and unplugging large appliances. If it feels unsafe to shelter at home, dial 311 to arrange a free ride. As of press time, Cap Metro had suspended normal operations on Wednesday to focus on emergency assistance, but had not made a decision for Thursday. Currently, the most comprehensive information on cold weather shelters and warming centers is available via the Austin Disaster Relief Network.