Unprecedented snowfall and record-breaking cold temperatures have hobbled the normally winter-averse cities and plains of Texas since Sunday. Changes to the jet stream ushered the Arctic air above the U.S.-Canada border all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border. Dallas was colder than Anchorage, with temperatures ringing in at -2 degrees, and cities such as McAllen along the border—in the 70s this time last year—were in the 30s. A winter storm warning was issued for all 254 Texas counties. Dallas-Fort Worth saw more than 7 inches of snow, the first time the area had more than an inch of snowfall in six years. Parts of Travis County, where Austin is located, saw almost 8 inches. San Angelo saw 10. The cold and snow have wreaked havoc on a state largely not equipped to handle either.
Freezing temperatures surged energy demands beyond what state supply could meet, and on Tuesday morning, over 4 million in Texas were without power (and heat). Texas’s electric grid, operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, is different than everywhere else in the country, so most of Texas can’t import energy from neighboring states, as would otherwise be standard practice. Just producing more energy is not an option, as instruments at nuclear, gas, and coal facilities froze, and the plants had to be taken offline. ERCOT began rolling blackouts, purposefully shutting off power in neighborhoods to make sure no area is without power for too long, but outages that were scheduled to last minutes rolled into hours.
The storm in Texas—and its resulting blackout—has also enveloped the state in an icy hell. There were 100 car crashes on the slippery roads of San Antonio in one night. The Houston Chronicle halted its printing and delivery services, which had continued even through Hurricane Harvey. H-E-B, the state’s largest grocery chain, shuttered in major cities, and fast-food restaurants closed their doors too. Frozen water pipes and frozen water treatment plants have left people without access to water or any safe enough to drink. Power outages and a failed backup generator forced Harris County public health officials on a midnight mission to deliver 8,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine before they spoiled. 400,000 additional vaccine doses, scheduled for delivery this week, have been delayed. Emergency responders in Austin attended eight toxic exposure calls in seven hours, as people desperate for heat were sleeping in parking garages with their cars running. Multiple people have died from the cold.
The National Guard and state officials have been deployed to transport people to warming centers, 135 of which have been set up across the state. On Sunday, Biden declared a federal state of emergency, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to funnel money and resources to Texas. ERCOT said on Tuesday afternoon that it’s restored power to almost half a million households, though over 3 million still remain without it. The same storm system also froze large portions of the South and Midwest and brought a deadly tornado to North Carolina. New storms are expected to pummel the state with freezing rain and snow through Thursday, with temperatures in the teens on Friday morning.
Frustrated Texans are looking for a scapegoat for the widespread failures. Gov. Greg Abbott shifted blame from himself, reasoning that there was no way to prepare: This is coldest weather the state has seen in 100 years. Politicians used this storm for fodder in the energy debate. Texan Republicans praised fossil fuels for keeping them warm while Democrats cited expert claims that most of the blackout came from thermal energy sources. Dade Phelan, the state speaker of the Texas House, called for a hearing on the blackouts and on Tuesday, Abbott named reforming ERCOT an emergency action item for the legislative session. Climate change can also be blamed for the storm’s intensity and the power grid’s failures—and showcased what’s likely to come.