Global Reset: Unprecedented snowstorms hit Texas and leave residents without power or water


Provided by Finn Frankis ('20)

Snow covers the quad next to the cafeteria at the University of Texas at Austin. The university closed campus on Feb. 14 and reopened on Feb. 24 due to the water outage and hazardous weather conditions.

by Alysa Suleiman and Sabrina Zhu

When the first flakes of snow drifted down Tuesday, Feb. 16, covering the front of her apartment complex in Houston in a blanket of white, Meeah Bradford, a junior at St. John’s Academy, laughed and shook her head at Texas’ “freak weather.”

Later that evening around 6 p.m., her power went out, and the water stopped. As the hours ticked by and temperatures dropped to below freezing, in the onsetting dark and cold, Meeah quickly realized how dangerous passing that evening would be. 

“Around 1 or 2 a.m., it still wasn’t coming back on, and that’s when it kind of set in for me,” Meeah said. “This was probably the coldest it’s ever been since I’ve lived here.”

4.4 million residents lost power during the storms that hit Texas on Feb. 23, cutting off water and electricity for over 40 hours. Residents were originally on boil water status—with broken pipes, water was deemed unsafe to drink without heat treatment. 

St. John’s Academy, Meeah’s high school, returned in-person back in October, but when the storms hit, the administration cancelled classes from Feb. 16 to 19 following that Monday’s planned closure for Presidents’ Day.  

“Many public schools aren’t planning to go back until [Feb. 24], and the reason for that is that a lot of places still don’t have clean water,” Meeah said. “We have to realize that a lot of people’s health conditions probably deteriorated quite a bit as a result of the storm conditions, and so it’s much easier to get sick.” 

Bennett Liu (‘20) is a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, where the power generators on campus continued to provide buildings and facilities with electricity despite statewide outages. The baths and toilets on campus ceased to function for three days, and the university moved portable toilets outside dorms for student use before campus finally reopened on Feb. 24.

“They lost 150 million gallons of water because of all the burst pipes, so none of the water is clean to drink anymore,” Bennett said. “Food is a big thing, so our dining hall was open to all students on campus for free. They started giving up rationed food because [the university] wasn’t going to have a shipment until Thursday, so they went about a week and a half without food, and the portion sizes got really small.”

Meeah, her father, her mother and her pet lizard spent the first six to seven hours in their car to keep warm and charge their devices, hoping that this would be the worst of their troubles. But when they passed the 24-hour mark, and the electricity remained out, she and her family once again began to prepare for a night surrounded by “cold with no heat.” Despite their own struggles to stay warm, Meeah knew that many in the Houston community had much less to carry them through the nights.

“I was more scared because I was very concerned about people that are homeless or people with super young children,” Meeah said. “I’m 16, so I feel like if we had gone without power for even more than 72 hours, I would have been fine. But I have a friend who has type one diabetes, and she couldn’t charge her pump. It became more stressful as the days dragged on.”

In an effort to conserve heat, Meeah wore two pairs of socks, sweatpants over her leggings and three hoodies underneath her winter jacket, along with a scarf and a hat, and there were “still times where [she] was freezing cold and shivering.” Even though her family considered buying battery-powered heaters or candles, the dangerous road conditions—lanes packed with so much ice that “they were slick”—prevented them from accessing other heating devices.

The United States electricity power grid isolates Texas in its own southern corner from both the Eastern power grid and West power grid. The deregulation of the Texas power grid gives customers cheaper options and relies on competition between providers, and it aims to encourage more alternative energy producers. 

With so many companies competing, most do not invest in consistent maintenance or protection against severe weather, like snowstorms and hurricanes. The nonprofit Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) manages the market, but its regulation policies are very lax compared to those of other states. Many Texans’ power rates are set by the current price of wholesale electricity, which spiked during the storm, causing electricity bills to skyrocket.

“Money has to be spent on upgrading the Texas infrastructure for their power grid,” upper school science teacher Jeff Sutton said. “A lot of it hasn’t been maintained since the 60s, so you’re looking at a power grid that’s 50, 60, 70 years old without maintenance or upgrading. That’s what has got to happen, that needs to be taken care of.” 

Unlike other grids in the nation, Texas’ system also does not require companies to keep a reserve of extra power. As a result, there was no back-up supply during the storm, and power providers quickly collapsed.

“If you leave everything to private corporations to deal with, they focus on cutting costs rather than creating robustness, so they’re not prepared for shocks like this,” Bennett said. “I hope Texas can stop its reliance on oil and fossil fuels and move on to more reliable energy sources, which can definitely be weatherproofed.”

Texas governor Greg Abbott criticized the actions of ERCOT that caused the state-wide power outages, and he also falsely blamed wind power and other sustainable energy sources for supposedly taking energy away from the state power grid. In the face of Texas’ power grid failure, five members of ERCOT resigned, including chairwoman Sally Talberg and other officials.

“The fact that we have to deal with the effects of this storm completely unprepared and unable to recuperate fast enough is a complete result of a partisan issue, and it has nothing to do with [a lack of] natural resources or anything like that,” Meeah said. “Our Texas leaders need to do better in terms of putting those partisan issues aside and realizing that for some people, this is genuinely a matter of life and death.”

Meeah lost close members of her community to the impacts of the storm, children whom she once spent her weekend afternoons coaching at her fencing club, Salle Mauro Fencing Center.

“With the power outages, they were struggling to stay warm, they started a fire in their fireplace and they unfortunately didn’t make it out of the house,” Meeah said. “Three kids and their grandma weren’t able to escape in time, and their houses just completely burned down.”

In the face of economic and personal loss, Texans look towards those outside and part of the state community to rally together, respond and rebuild. 

“I’m really grateful to everyone who’s tried to help out during this time,” Bennett said. “In the absence of proper leadership, people have really been able to come together for some level of grassroots organizing. Major props to all those people.”

Visit this website for more information on how you can pitch in to help those struggling in Texas.

Additional reporting by Varsha Rammohan.