February 11, 2022
...while we fight the big structures that allow people to be made invisible, or even be sacrificed, we also need to do the small slow work of making sure that the water flows, and that people who literally die without electricity have it.
Reflections on the One Year Anniversary of the TX Deep Freeze
This February marks the one year anniversary of the Texas Deep Freeze. While the people of Texas were trying to stay alive and protect our homes from flooding pipes, we were also furious. We understood that the fear, economic loss, and hundreds of deaths unfolding were not primarily because of the weather, but rather the result of decisions made by the state government and energy companies.
Both local and national media coverage rightly traced the devastation of Winter Storm Uri to the deregulation of Texas’s electricity grid 23 years earlier. With price as the only incentive, the electricity market became a race to the bottom, with no reason for companies to invest in resilience. Media was quick to point out the irony that “the nation’s leading energy-producing state, [seemingly] the last place on Earth that could run out of energy … did.”
Yet, isolating the cause of the grid collapse to a Red State’s hunger for independence and cheaper electricity lets the rest of the country off too easily. Texas is just at the extreme end of a trend towards utility deregulation and privatization by states and municipalities across the political spectrum. In 1996 California, typically positioned as Texas’ most clear opposite, was the first state to deregulate its electricity market, leading to the large-scale blackouts of the California Electricity Crisis a few years later.
While California eventually backtracked following a near total collapse of its utility, the 2011 Texas blackouts were a warning that went unheeded. Despite cutting off power to 75% of the state during deadly conditions, the disaster led only to empty reports with no enforcement of federal regulators’ recommendations to weatherize.
After Texas’s most recent winter storm last week, Governor Greg Abbott claimed that “the Texas electric grid is more reliable and more resilient than it’s ever been.” In reality, new regulations have once again been sparsely enforced and left up to individual generation and transmission facilities to implement. Natural gas facilities, which power almost half of electricity generation in the state, had no requirements to winterize at all.
The refusal to implement any real changes does not stem from ignorance, but from a calculated acceptance of risk in exchange for continued profit. In this equation, all the risk is taken on by the people while all the profit goes to the corporations.
Deregulation is often justified by giving consumers the “freedom to choose”. But Winter Storm Uri showed us that freedom is sometimes only the freedom to freeze. To this day, the government refuses to acknowledge the true death toll of last year’s power outages, which experts have estimated is almost 3 times higher than official counts. As an organization, we know of at least two people who died from the storm’s impact who were unlikely to be counted in official totals.
And while the electricity crisis received significant attention, there has been a much longer running water crisis triggered by the freeze. As temperature indoors and out plummeted, already crumbling plumbing broke and kept families without running water for months. West Street Recovery has repaired more than one hundred freeze-damaged homes in the last 12 months, but we are entering the second year of response with hundreds more homes still in need in Northeast Houston alone.
Like with many climate phenomena or economic dynamics that endanger marginalized people, officials downplay the magnitude of the crisis and emphasize radical individuality and self-responsibility. We should not have to rush the grocery store for survival supplies every time temperatures dip below zero, just as we should not have to fear our houses will flood every time there is several days of sustained rain. And to make matters worse, there is little done to financially or logistically support community led preparedness efforts.
This increasing climate precarity is concentrated in the same populations again and again. Different populations are differentially exposed to the violence, injury, and death that results from an economy that prioritizes profit over all else. Families who cannot afford to replace moldy sheetrock after their houses flood are the same families who had to live without water for months after the freeze, are the same families who cannot afford hospital bills in a privatized healthcare system.
When scholars, policymakers, corporations and media model risk for each climate event separately, the way in which compounding risks across disasters are concentrated in BIPOC and low income communities is not captured or communicated. Maybe that is the point. Modes of understanding the world that rely on abstraction obscure how some groups are repeatedly endangered in low probability events. The profit maximization and deregulation that shape our electricity grid are measured through these supposedly value neutral systems.
In response to the violence of deregulation (and the attempts to naturalize it) we have big cultural work ahead. We need to be confident in our analysis that profit maximization is not compatible with prioritizing human life and human dignity. One of the ways we build alternatives to the status quo is by asserting the importance, dignity and worth of people who the leaders of our society repeatedly throw under the bus as the cost of cheap energy. And, while we fight the big structures that allow people to be made invisible, or even be sacrificed, we also need to do the small slow work of making sure that the water flows, and that people who literally die without electricity have it.
West Street Recovery