Texas is wrapping up a brutal week of power outages, when millions of people were left huddling indoors in freezing temperatures, and one of the worst winter storms the area has seen in decades. Nearly 130,000 people remain without power, and at least 47 deaths have been attributed to the storm.
To get a sense of what the situation looked like on the ground, Slate spoke with Kyle Ray, the lead pastor of Sent Church, which opened a warming station in Plano, Texas. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slate: What happened when the storm started?
Kyle Ray: A lot of people’s power went out early Monday morning, around 2 a.m. Here in Plano, it got to be 10, 15, 48 hours with no heat. People’s houses are getting down in the low 40s and the upper 30s. And some people didn’t have water either, because their pipes froze.
We didn’t open the church building on Monday, because we felt like opening the building would have been more of a drain on the grid. And how can we provide shelter if we didn’t know if the power would be on consistently? As the sun went down, my 8-year-old daughter and I were in front of our fireplace, staying warm by the fire. I got this email from somebody in the community that said, “It’s a little disconcerting to look over at your building to see your sidewalks illuminated.” I didn’t even know the sidewalks lit up. And I’m not about to go out like that—that will not be our reputation.
I went to bed that night, and I woke up freezing. Tuesday morning, I was at the building by 7:30. We think that the building didn’t lose power because we have an assisted living facility on our property. I think the power companies had some control over where they shut power down. By 10 a.m., we had communicated with the city of Plano and become an official warming station. We talked to Walmart, and they donated snacks. We talked to Starbucks, and they donated some food. We talked to a local restaurant that brought meals over just in case we needed meals. They didn’t have electricity, but they had gas, so they did lasagna and spaghetti. A husband-and-wife couple made a handmade banner to go out on the street. And then people started rolling in.
What were you hearing from the people who did come in?
When stuff like this happens, nobody comes in talking about how frustrated they are with the power company or with the government. In general, the people that came were just grateful, grateful to have a warm place to be.
How did you handle COVID?
We contacted the city of Plano, and they asked some questions before we opened our warming center. Anybody who came here had to follow COVID guidelines. We took temps. We asked the screening questions, loosely. All our volunteers had masks, and we had masks available. At the church in general—because of Texas—we have strongly encouraged masks, but we haven’t required masks. So we just tried to be cautious. We set up chairs physically distanced and tried not to have people clustered together.
How long did you keep the church open?
We kept it open from Tuesday morning through Thursday afternoon. A lot of people right around us got power back Wednesday morning. So then come Thursday morning when we opened at 8 a.m., we didn’t have anybody come through, and that was the cue to me that people had power back and were trying to figure out things at home.
In total, we had maybe 30 people at our site. What that showed to me was that people really wanted to try and stay with their homes. They would prefer to just wait things out with a bunch of covers and sleeping bags. Or they had the means to just leave. In my subdivision, the HOA people who ride around and check on the neighborhood found like 70 homes with water gushing out, and many of them couldn’t get ahold of the homeowners because people left. People were saying hotels were full. Some people said they knew people who had gone to hotels, but those hotels had pipes burst, and they had to evacuate.
What are things like there now?
The streets are covered with snow and ice, so roads are still bad. Temperatures are going to warm up [Friday]. I’ve heard that Home Depot and Lowe’s, all their plumbing supplies have been sold out. Plumbers are two and three weeks backed up. I would say in about six hours people will discover if their pipes actually split and burst when they froze or if they’ll be flowing with water.
What are you going to do next?
There are some people who’ve lost all the food in their refrigerator and freezer. I would imagine we might get some calls for grocery assistance. We might get some benevolence requests for the cost of plumbing repairs: If you don’t have a financial margin, people may not be able to afford that. I would imagine there’s some people who will file insurance claims, but they may not have the money for the deductible that they need to come out of pocket. We’re anticipating more of those kinds of calls over the next few weeks.
Do you think this has affected any Texans in a long-term way?
Some people who have the financial resources are thinking about switching to solar power. They want to be off the [electrical] grid. And obviously, this whole thing has sparked the finger-pointing. Who’s really responsible? I don’t claim to be an expert on that. And I think in general, people’s mindset is “I better be more prepared in the winter.” I think I think you won’t find people caught flat-footed without firewood.
Speaking of blame, were people talking at all about Ted Cruz?
In my own social media circles, the biggest critics of Ted Cruz are the people who don’t live here. And I’m not saying that it’s not offensive to people in Texas. I think when you’re in the midst of dealing with burst pipes and trying to find plumbers and squeegee and water, you don’t have a lot of time to be critiquing what people are doing. So I know that there are some people who live here that have already decided which party’s fault it is. But by and large, people are just trying to make it through.