The man on the other end of the phone line was named Isaiah and lived in Arlington, Texas, a massive suburb between Dallas and Fort Worth. Isaiah had a thick Caribbean accent and a spotty phone connection, which made it difficult for me to understand his answers to my questions about how he was doing. At the end of our conversation, after we sorted out whether he had power (yes) and water (no), I finally heard Isaiah loud and clear: “Please, yes, I need help. I’m doing really bad.”
I had called Isaiah on Thursday as part of phone banking sessions to check on and get help for elderly Texans, spearheaded by Beto O’Rourke, whose loss to Ted Cruz in 2018 was the closest any Democratic candidate had come to winning a U.S. Senate seat in Texas in 30 years. On the day Cruz sheepishly returned to Texas from his escape to Cancún, the man he defeated had rallied thousands to do constituent outreach befitting a sitting senator. It was a small glimpse at what a better, more humane emergency response might look like, in a crisis that never should have happened.
When I hung up with Isaiah, I collected my notes, copy and pasting his name, phone number, and address into a chat room where hundreds of other volunteers were sharing similarly heartrending stories. Someone in Hereford hadn’t eaten in a couple days. A man in Houston didn’t know how to get to a warming shelter. With millions of Texans still under a boil order, dozens more needed bottles of water to get through the next few days.
My wife and I had joined the volunteer effort because our “how y’all holding up?” texts and phone check-ins to family members and friends back home in Houston felt insufficient, if not trite. My mother had sent our 94-year-old grandmother to an uncle’s house when the power went out at home. My father was bathing himself with water from a stack of water bottles in a storage closet. One of my aunts spent almost an entire afternoon idling her car in a Walmart parking lot just to feel some heat and get some Wifi. And they were all so much more fortunate than millions of other Texans trying to hold on through the storm, not to mention the dozens who have died so far.
“Make sure to smile while you’re making these calls,” an organizer reminded us at the end of the short orientation, an odd instruction for the phone but one that I understood once I heard the voices on the other end of the line. “You will be helped in the process,” O’Rourke told us. “You will feel really good.” And one more piece of advice: Just say you’re a volunteer, O’Rourke said. Avoid mentioning his name.
“I’m a little concerned that if I say Beto O’Rourke,” he said, “they’ll hang up the phone right away.”
My first call was to a woman named Olive in the Dallas suburb of Duncanville. Olive and her husband had just returned home a few minutes earlier after spending the night at a friend’s house. She was in a good mood — the power was on again. “Thanks for checking on me, baby,” she said.
Next I was talking with Harold from Kingsbury. I stumbled through the checklist, trying to click through the online prompts while paying just enough attention to what he was saying. Do you have power? Yes. Water? Of course not. Do you need any other help? I’m doing fine. He had apparently stocked up on crates of bottled water over the years. Living in Texas had taught him that he’d better be ready for disaster.
Others were similarly doing fine, though I couldn’t tell if they would tell me if they weren’t.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Jerry of Missouri City told me, hanging up before I could even sneak in that I grew up there.
“What can I do for you?” Lamar in Fort Worth asked, throwing me off just a little. He had power, water, and was caring for family members who sought shelter at his home. “I got everything I need, bro.”
Of those who stayed on the line long enough to ask for help, their frustration was palpable.
“I always brag on Texas,” a woman in Spring, a suburb about 20 miles north of Houston, said. “But I’m embarrassed now.”
She told me that her elderly uncle—a disabled Vietnam veteran—had been released from the hospital only a week earlier, having been there almost two months while battling a nasty case of COVID-19. He’d been sent home with a portable oxygen tank. But within days, the power went out at his home and he had no way to keep the tank going. He was forced to go to a warming shelter. “Can you imagine?” she said. “He just had COVID, now he’s around all these other people at the shelter. But what can he do? Everyone don’t get to go to Cancun.”
My wife Jenee, who was making calls in another room of our apartment, reached a woman in Houston who was out of water and worried about her 103-year-old mother, who lived with her. Jenee entered their information into the chat room, but couldn’t shake the feeling that they needed more immediate help. She reached out to a friend in town, who offered to brave the icy streets and drove over a couple of 24-packs of bottled water.
My last call was to a woman in Odessa who didn’t need help but wanted me to call a relative who did. I entered the relative’s information into the chat room, and wondered if Isaiah was going to get the help he needed.
“You are a cause for hope,” O’Rourke told us at the end of the night. We’d only spent a couple of hours on the phone from the comfort of our warm homes, but it was a seductive line, a kind of practiced political enthusiasm that once convinced millions of Texans that he might topple Cruz.
Of course, he didn’t. And despite his prediction, I didn’t “feel really good” after making the calls, knowing that the state’s mostly Republican political leadership had misled the public about the cause of the power outages, completely dropped the ball on crumbling infrastructure and left millions of Texans in need of our phone calls from a different state. I guess hope is no substitute for good government.