Texans Can’t Catch a Break

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S1: Hayzlett podcast listener, you can help us make a better slate. It’s real simple, just answer our survey. It’ll only take a few minutes and you can find it at Slate Dotcom survey. And if you’re a sleepless member, we are especially eager to have you fill this thing out. Help us understand how to make Slate plus indespensible go to Slate Dotcoms Survey.

S2: How’s it going? Last week, our producer Davis headed out from his neighborhood in Houston to meet up with a guy named Andrew.

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S3: How are y’all? What’s going on? Oh, we’re just planning out the weekend, trying to get things going and trying to find farmers for reasonable prices to do work, which, you know, it’s a farmer’s market right now.

S2: Andrew Barley helps lead an organization called West Street Recovery. He’s helping people repair their homes after a winter storm knocked out power for so many Texans when Andrew and Davis met up. It was nearly 80 degrees out, a huge change from a couple of weeks back when many Texans were shivering under coats and blankets, weeding out a deep freeze and a utility shut down. But after the cold let up, what was left behind was a mess of plumbing, burst pipes, walls sagging full of leaking water.

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S1: Andrew says there simply aren’t enough hands to do the work.

S3: Additionally, we’re at the mercy of the market when it comes to supplies right now. We’ve had to go all the way as far as Louisiana to get some parts. But we’re also not the only people from Texas with the idea of going out of state to get parts. So, you know, it’s getting back out there, too. Unfortunately, it might be this way for the next few months.

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S2: Andrew was working with several plumbers trying to figure out what it would take to fix the burst pipes of a woman named Seans, a branch.

S4: I’ve been living here for since 2009. My husband’s been here since 1975. When I said I was going to be cold, I didn’t think it would be like it was, you know. So I look for a room for like two days. But I had to sleep in the cold because my, my, my, my heat source was my air conditioner. And so I had sleep in my coat, Macklowe Boots, you know, and on top of that continues use bathroom.

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S2: Ten days later, she can use the bathroom if she pours some of her bottled water into the tank. But she can’t do laundry, can’t shower.

S4: We can’t continue to stay here and not take a bath. You know, we have drinking water, but we don’t have enough water to wash our tails. I wash my face with bottled water, but I can’t wash my whole body without them. Right. Yes.

S2: You might be wondering why is Schanzer relying on this local nonprofit to get her out of this mess? Isn’t FEMA down here and FEMA is here? But Sean Zeno’s, the government aid probably isn’t going to fix her house, at least not fully. Her house is still damaged from Hurricane Harvey nearly four years ago.

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S4: I mean, we have kind of we had wind and rain damage and we went to FEMA and FEMA. FEMA only gave us so much. And I appealed to they told me I’m going to build them. So the walls in my bathroom, I have a piece of tape over the light switch because when we cut it down, it was shoot electricity and then the water ran down that wall. And is mold in the wall is still in there, you know, in my towel racks and stuff fell off the wall because of the wall was so soft and rotted. So.

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S2: So for someone like Chancer, February’s cold snap has become another layer of damage, another natural disaster, blocking her way back to some kind of normalcy. Andrew, a guy who’s helping her deal with the pipes. His group got started when the hurricane struck. And back then, some colleagues came up with an estimate of how long it would take for the city to fully recover. They gave it ten years now.

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S3: And that ten year time span, we’ve had a lot of these 100, supposedly 100, 500 year events. The whole idea is they’re supposed to be rare. They’re not so rare anymore. You know, we were having these freak weather patterns, we have government institutions who just aren’t prepared and don’t have the resources to deal with them today on the show.

S5: What the slow slog of recovery is beginning to look like in Texas, many of those most impacted by last month’s weather are still getting back on their feet after the last climate disaster. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: Understanding the toll of the winter storm that caused the lights to go out in Texas is going to take months. So far, dozens of people are reported to have died from the impact of a winter storm. Yurie but I called up a Malamed from the Texas Observer to understand the recovery process for everyone else.

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S6: The people left behind after living through that kind of chaotic week where everything felt like it was falling apart. Some people still don’t have water now. They’re living in a pandemic. They may have lost wages, right?

S1: Like you called it, cascading disasters.

S7: Yeah. Yeah, I think I think that’s a good term. I mean, I think that’s that’s kind of the best way that I’ve heard it described or thought of it so far. I mean, it’s just like one thing after the other, right? It’s just, you know, a crisis within a crisis, within a crisis for a lot of people.

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S1: Among covers, environmental crisis in Texas, hurricanes, flooding. In the days since this winter storm, she’s realized the damage from an electrical failure. It actually looks a lot like what Texas has seen before.

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S6: You know, having talked to people who’ve been stuck in their own homes, unable to repair them for years, I think as soon as I started hearing, like, homes flooding from pipes, I was like, oh, that is a disaster recovery story, right? Like a flood from a burst pipe versus a flood or a real flood. Like the damage is kind of the same in a lot of ways. Right. Like you’ve to rip up flooring and insulation. So I think for me, it was just kind of as soon as I heard, like, burst pipes everywhere, like it just clicked for me.

S1: People like Chancer, that Houston woman Davis spoke with who’s still recovering from a hurricane that struck four years back. Amol says she looks a lot like the people who are most at risk right now. She’s low income, disabled, and she can’t seem to get a break.

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S6: I mean, you think about who still has like a blue tarp on their house, right from Harvey. Like it’s not someone who had the money or the savings, you know, or whatever or the homeowner’s insurance. Right. It’s people who had pretty much no money coming in, had to make do with the best that they could. Right. So to think about like the pipes bursting in a house that was never rebuilt after Harvey, I think that kind of explains it, right. Like, why do we let these areas kind of flood over and over and again? Right. And then, you know, something like this happens, which again, happened everywhere, but sort of compounded, you know, in areas where they’re still rebuilding. Harvey, I think it just you know, it’s just indicative of, like, just how slow again, like how slow recovery is.

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S1: So for the Texans you’ve been speaking with who are just really digging out from the aftermath of this freeze, what are their options now? Like, I assume FEMA is down there. I know President Biden visited last week. What are they sorting through?

S7: You know, for a lot of people, people who work hourly wages, people who had to take time off or, you know, sick days or whatever and didn’t get paid when they couldn’t get to work because of the icy roads and power outages. Right. Like, I think you’re dealing with a situation of lost wages, you know, in addition to the costs of recovering from this.

S1: So the storm kind of put them in a hole and now they’re going deeper.

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S7: Yeah, right. So, I mean, to just kind of think of an example, right. Like if you were working like an hourly wage job, you know, you didn’t work several shifts, like you might be about a week’s worth of wages, depending on you know, it just seems to me from what I’m hearing, that a lot of companies were not understanding of like this is a crisis. And, you know, the last thing on people’s mind is getting to work right. Like even though that paycheck is essential. So for people who are already living paycheck to paycheck, you might be seeing, you know, even more shortages. We’re also in a pandemic. So they’re already probably underemployment, unemployment issues. Right. You know, for renters, like, again, another big thing is like, where do you go if you can’t stay in your apartment? Right. Like if your apartment is now becoming moldy, how do you pay for a hotel bill? How do you pay to sort of get out of that situation and stay somewhere else? Right. In terms of also being able to recover property damages. Right. Like that in other disasters we’ve seen, that is very difficult for a lot of people. Right. Like you typically have to have things like receipts for all the furniture that got destroyed. Most people don’t keep that for years and years. Right. So in terms of just being able to kind of immediately recover financial costs through insurance, like, that’s going to be really difficult for people.

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S1: I mean, I know you’ve covered other environmental disasters and their aftermath. So are you anticipating what’s going to happen now in terms of trouble with recovery?

S6: So one of the researchers I talked to in the story that I published last week, he said, I kind of expect it to take four years for low income people to come out of this winter storm. And I have you know, I had to say, did you just say it’s going to take four years for people to come out of this winter storm? Like, I don’t understand. Right. He was like, yeah, well, we’ve seen that. We’ve seen that happen every single time, you know? And now we’re on top on top of that. We’re in a pandemic. We’re in a situation where it’s dangerous to like.

S7: Go to a shelter right during something like that, right, like people are worried about their health, their, you know, underemployed, unemployed, there are all these issues just happening all at once. But now what you’re seeing is this is in all 254 counties of this state. Right. So in addition to, you know, just the individual kind of told that’s going to take. Well, now, you also have things like supply chain shortages and a lack of, you know, plumbers who are available to come out and fix things for for people. So just the scale of this is certainly unprecedented, I think.

S1: Yeah. I mean, you’ve alluded to the fact that in every disaster, it seems like people with more resources are just better off and people with fewer resources. And I was struck by the fact that in November, FEMA itself released a report saying that the way it helps communities after a disaster is skewed, that they help more well-off people and leave other people behind. Have you seen that in your reporting?

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S6: Oh, absolutely right. Yeah.

S7: And so in addition to the FEMA report, I think there was some research out of Rice University that that delved into this as well a couple of years ago.

S6: You know, the idea being that a lot of disaster relief money is probably going to homeowners.

S7: But if you’re a homeowner, you already have equity right in your home, most likely. So you’ve got that. Then you’re getting money to fix things. You’re eligible for things like the Small Business Administration loans to fix things right in your house. So there are many more avenues for you to receive funding through the government. There’s also, I think, believe the rates of homeowners insurance is higher than renter’s insurance. So in terms of like private money, you’re also more likely to get it if you’re a homeowner.

S1: Yeah, and that FEMA report noted that even the emergency cash program, which like I hear about and I think obviously you want that to go to people who just need money to get by, to go get groceries or whatever. It’s more accessible to people with time and income and access, which of course it is. But obviously, that might not be what you should be prioritizing in a program like that.

S7: Yeah, we’ve got to think about who’s applying for this money. Right. Like, there are all sorts of sort of, you know, gaps in accessibility. So are these applications being translated into a bunch of different languages? Not always. Are there efforts to help folks who don’t know how to do this online, who don’t have all the paperwork, who didn’t have time to go find, you know, a ton of documentation while their house was flooding. Usually not. Right. And there’s just never been enough help, I think, to to really do that. You know, they’re not to say that there aren’t amazing nonprofits doing this work, but I think they are stretched thin, you know, in the face of every crisis that we’ve seen in the past.

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S8: And again, this is not unique to this storm. Like if you ask people who’ve lived through Harvey and all the floods in different parts of Texas, like, I think this is something that a lot of people have experienced. Right. Like it takes so long for these systems to really help the people that need it the most. A lot of that is red tape and stuff, but a lot of it is also just, you know, we’re not prepared for the kind of disasters that climate change are going to bring in.

S9: We haven’t done the kind of reforms and work to really think about who’s most vulnerable, who’s going to need the most help, how do we get it to them? The fastest rate at the government level like that is just not there. And I certainly don’t think it’s it’s this storm is not the only time that this has happened and it won’t be the last.

S2: When we come back, the Texas legislature is trying to figure out who is responsible for this latest disaster. We’ll talk about why that might not be so easy.

S1: Amal says, When you think about what went wrong in Texas during this storm, you have to think about it as a big web of failure, multiple systems each collapsing in its own individual way, but all interconnected. So you’ve got the Electric Reliability Council of Texas or Bercot, which controls the grid. You’ve got the Public Utility Commission, which regulates Erhart, and you’ve got the state government, including the governor who appoints the utility commission. Amol says each of them played a role in leaving Texas vulnerable to this storm. Has anyone truly accepted responsibility for the failures that happened here?

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S7: Kind of would think the answer to that is no. Right. So the House and the Senate in Texas have both, you know, done hearings with our court and the Public Utilities Commission and, you know, brought in a lot of other agencies like the Railroad Commission, which which regulates oil and gas. Right.

S6: So they’ve you know, they’ve brought in a lot of people from these different agencies, a lot of, you know, CEOs of energy companies and whatnot. But yes. So I think a lot of reporters who’ve covered energy for quite some time have made this point. I think it’s important to highlight this right, that the legislature also kind of has an interest in deflecting blame. Right. Because they ultimately are the ones that have built the kind of atmosphere in which it exists. So the legislature definitely has, you know, an interest in deflecting this, as does Urca, as does the Public Utilities Commission members.

S10: Next, we have Bill Magnis, president and CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

S2: At these hearings, representatives from Bercot have insisted they did the right thing.

S1: Bercot CEO Bill Magnis told the Texas Senate that grid operators had less than 10 minutes to start turning off people’s power to keep the grid from going into a complete blackout, which would have caused equipment to fail and operators to do something called a black start.

S11: And if you want to know more detail, I can tell you what we’re talking today. But it is a very difficult process and is at a minimum weeks. There’s no way it’s not weeks and it could be months. And imagine even in good weather, if it was today, what we’d be saying if it had been 10 days, 15 days since we’d have power, the suffering that we saw last week would be compounded, wouldn’t have a real good idea when it was going stop.

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S1: My producer, who lives in Texas was like, it feels like being gaslighted, like told I should be thankful for what we just went through.

S7: Yeah. I mean, it’s it’s kind of like if I took my mom’s favorite base and I broke it and I glued it back together, I could just be like, well, I fixed it for you. I mean, you know, I also broke it. So to me, that’s kind of yeah, it is very circular logic. And the thing is, I think something that’s important to remember is like, yes, this was an unprecedented storm. Yes. The scale of it, you know, the temperatures to which it dropped, the geography of which the storm reached, right. Yes. These things were unprecedented or own. Meteorologists warned them of the possibility of this level of an extreme winter in November.

S1: And last November was not the first time Texas was warned that a winter storm could be potentially devastating. Back in 2011, after a similar freeze, federal regulators told Texas to fix its electrical system, saying these kinds of events were likely to occur about once a decade. But state officials across agencies failed to act. And like clockwork, 10 years later, the state was plunged into darkness for amale. It’s just one more example of how the energy grid in Texas is stubbornly refusing to plan for the way the world is changing.

S6: Or does it use climate data right and climate modeling to to do its assessments for supply and demand. It uses historical data so they don’t project forward. They use data from the past to sort of inform what’s coming next. So, you know, in some, you know, the most you’re getting is like obviously summers are getting hotter. But if it’s like an extreme event that’s not being factored into it, right, if they’re not using the best available climate, they’re not using any climate modelling. Right. Not to say nothing of like the best available climate modelling.

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S1: The thing I worry about with this story is that there is so much blame to go around and in some ways it protects the institutions that have to change. And you can see it in that testimony in front of the legislature where it was so easy to pass the buck and say, well, actually, we saved you guys from a worse fate or, you know, the problem’s really over here, not with me. And I wonder if you think about that.

S6: I certainly think that’s true. I mean, I think also, you know, it’s certainly interesting to see, you know, somebody who’s just kind of been a nerd about like energy systems and whatever. And I’ve been thinking about this stuff for, like just, you know, for a while in terms of like reporting, but just also kind of interesting and complicated there. It’s sort of interesting to see everyone now knows what Urca is. Right. Where is like a month ago, if you said that in a sentence like, you know, the start of the story when I was talking about or got my sister was like, what is that? But I do kind of wonder if now that we know about this, now that it has become a very widespread discussion, it’ll be interesting to see how long that anger lasts and how much people can sort of use that to push for real change.

S1: I wonder if you feel a difference in terms of the level of emotion you’re hearing from people right now, like a natural disaster like this. It’s always tragic and it leaves people feeling devastated. But I wonder if you feel like you’re seeing more anger now from people and whether you think that’s something that might even be harnessed.

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S7: Yeah, I mean, and some calls that I’ve had so far for some stories that I’m reporting out. I was surprised at the level of kind of candor and anger that I was hearing from, you know, folks. You know, one thing is that we’re now also starting to see death tolls come in. And I think the anger is that some of these deaths could have been prevented. Right. If you could have gotten people to safety ahead of time, you know, they may not have been in a situation where they were dying of hypothermia in their own home or, you know, putting things in a fireplace that caused carbon monoxide poisoning, not knowing when these blackouts were going to happen, when they were going to hit certain neighborhoods. You know, that left sort of the complete inability at the government level, at the individual level, to get people out of that harmful situation to think about like your own home.

S12: Becoming a death trap, I think, is really painful for a lot of people who’ve lost loved ones like that. Sort of the last place where you think this should be happening, you know, dying of hypothermia in your own home. So there was, you know, and again, like if there had been some forewarning maybe at the state level or something. Right. Like or even like emergency alerts. Right. So, you know, every flash flood around here, you get an alert on your phone. Right. Like, it just starts beeping and it’s like flash flood alert from, like, you know, 7:00 a.m. to like eight, whatever. Right. I didn’t get one right. I don’t think anyone that I’ve talked to you got any of those alerts about, like, hypothermia. Right. Like nothing. So if you didn’t know how to deal with that and you were left stranded. Right. Like there was no one coming to help you, I think there’s a lot of anger at how some of those deaths were preventable. Emolument Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you.

S2: Malamed is a reporter for The Texas Observer, and that’s the show What Next is made by Mary Wilson, Daniel Hewitt, Davis Land and Eleanor Schwartz, Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. Keep the clocks running on time. And I’m Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.