The Slatest

Officials Have Once Again Failed to Handle a Huge Public Health Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic made the nation’s weakness horrifically obvious, but mass power outages during a blistering cold wave provide more evidence.

The road is blocked off because of a gas leak in East Austin. Millions of Texans are still without water and electric as winter storms continue.
The road is blocked off because of a gas leak in East Austin on Wednesday. Millions of Texans are still without water and electric as winter storms continue. Montinique Monroe/Getty Images

A lot has been made clear during the course of the coronavirus pandemic. But one of the most consequential revelations has to be that public officials in the United States are ill-prepared to respond to any type of major event that is detrimental to human life. And within that lack of preparation lies a habit of indifference toward their constituents and a desire to blame anyone other than themselves.

Take Texas, where a historic winter storm has caused extended power outages for millions of people. It’s difficult to pinpoint a single villain in this failure, explained Julie A. Cohn, an energy historian, in an op-ed for the Washington Post. The nation’s power grids are a complex weaving of thousands of smaller companies with no single source of oversight. In Texas, the grid that failed does not have a uniquely flawed infrastructure, but it is intentionally restricted to stay within the state’s lines. Winter storms of this magnitude don’t typically hit Texas, although when they do, they tend to wreak havoc. The state also doesn’t provide incentives to companies that would encourage them to winterize. (Texas also doesn’t appear to have snow plows.)

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Among all these intricacies, narrow economic considerations reign supreme. Instead of building backup generators and charging slightly higher rates, Texas relies on a free-market principle where it allows power companies to charge as they wish when the demand for power increases. But human well-being isn’t an economy and it shouldn’t be run as such—not ever, and especially not when climate change is causing drastic shifts in global weather patterns.

The news out of Texas shows how the harm is being distributed. At least two people suffering from homelessness have died from the cold. A woman and child died from carbon monoxide poisoning after running their car in the garage to stay warm after losing power. Someone watched their loved one’s oxygen machine’s battery run out. A family burned their belongings so their children wouldn’t wake up cold. Water supply for hospitals is running low, and some facilities must evacuate patients in the middle of two disasters. One woman tweeted that her 80-year-old grandmother slept in her car to keep warm because she didn’t want to risk catching COVID-19 by staying with family. Water pipes are bursting, causing homes—and hospitals—to flood and roofs to cave in.

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Due to Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, asylum-seekers living in tent camps along the Texas border must survive the blistering cold so they won’t lose their spots in line to enter the country. Those incarcerated in the state’s prisons, some of whom have COVID-19, are without heat and other necessary supplies. It’s unclear what is happening inside ICE detention centers.

The public health implications are staggering. No water means people can’t engage in basic hygiene practices. Prisons and detention centers are a public health catastrophe outside of pandemics and power outages. Already strained hospitals now have to manage COVID patients as well as anyone needing assistance due to frostbite, carbon monoxide poisoning, car accidents due to icy roads, or any other incident that could occur due to a winter storm and mass power outages. Even the vaccine distribution process has been further disrupted: The health department in Harris County is figuring out how to administer 8,430 doses of the Moderna vaccine after a backup generator failed and freezers holding the vials began to thaw out.

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In the event of a mass public health crisis, the already vulnerable will suffer the most. Yet Lone Star officials are recusing themselves from the issue and relying on individualism, a marquee excuse employed by politicians who don’t want to do what needs to be done in order to protect the health of their constituents.

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“No one owes you or your family anything; nor is it the local governments responsibility to support you during trying times like this! Sink or swim, it’s your choice!” said Tim Boyd, the now-former mayor of Colorado City, Texas, in a Facebook post. “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn hand out! If you don’t have electricity you step up and come up with a game plan to keep your family warm and safe.”

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He added: “Bottom line, quit crying and looking for a handout! Get off your ass and take care of your own family!”

Boyd has since resigned.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott blamed sustainable energy sources during an appearance on Fox News, implying that Texas was a case study for how the Green New Deal would be devastating for America. (This is not true. Failures within the natural gas supply chain are the most significant reason for the blackouts. Abbott knew this beforehand and still spread the lie on national television.) His predecessor Rick Perry in a quote given to House Leader Kevin McCarthy’s blog—which McCarthy described as being delivered “partly rhetorically”—said: “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business, Try not to let whatever the crisis of the day is take your eye off of having a resilient grid that keeps America safe personally, economically, and strategically.”

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And Sen. Ted Cruz, facing devastation all around him, thought it was a good time to go on vacation in Cancun. Despite some right-wing pushback that he is powerless to help on a state level, there is plenty he could do to help out.

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As power begins to return across the state, communities are relying on themselves and mutual aid funds to help those who are still suffering. Twitter users are offering advice on how to survive an extended power outage in low temperatures. One furniture store owner has turned his business into a shelter. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and his team, unlike many of his onetime political peers, have conducted welfare calls, connected people to rides and food services, as well as shared resources across the state—unofficially doing the work that officials have abdicated.

“We are nearing a failed state in Texas,” said O’Rourke on MSNBC. “And it has nothing to do with God or natural disasters. It has everything to do with the leadership and those in the positions of public trust who have failed us.”

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