The Frozen Debacle

Millions of Texans experienced crippling power outages and water shortages for 12 to 72 hours in freezing temperatures.

Hello everybody, today’s post is an account of the last four days in Texas as we dealt with power outages and water shortfalls. My family being in the hotel business, we saw firsthand how people braced the winter storm, longed for warmth & water, and just wanted a tolerable place to sleep after losing power for anywhere between 12 to 72 hours.

Between our state’s questionable power grid and lacking leadership in a moment of a crisis, I wanted to shed some light on how far-ranging the disaster really was.

Nothing but admiration towards my fellow Texans for pulling together and persevering together.  

A Texas-Sized Frozen Debacle

There are those rare stretches of life when everything goes by slow, then immediately speeds up. Where every minute, for hours on end, is spent in chaos, confusion, and disorder. 

That is what this week has felt like. 

On Saturday, February the 13th, local news warned us of severe winter weather for the upcoming week. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, we were warned by local news to “protect our pipes” and to not do “unnecessary travel”.

Nothing was mentioned about a potential power outage, let alone one that would last for three to five full days. Yet here we are.

We knew massive amounts of snow and frigid weather were coming the week of February 14th. Our leaders knew it, our energy agencies knew it, and our local authorities knew it.

Somehow, we were all blindsided for what would follow.

28 Hours of Frozen

My aunt, cousin, grandmother, and uncle were left powerless when they woke up on February 15 in sub-zero-degree weather in Fort Worth, Texas. In Austin, my coworkers and friends were without electricity. The same was happening across the Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio metroplexes.

Everyone assumed the lights would be out for a few hours. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) insisted that these were just rolling blackouts to diversify energy usage across all regions.

By noon, most of the residents in the Fort Worth area were left without energy. Mysteriously, we still had energy. We checked in guests from all over Fort Worth as they rushed in for shelter and warmth. It was short-lived; we were out of power at 5:30 PM, joining everyone else in the darkness.

We scrambled to handout additional blankets and water bottles, especially to older guests as night temperatures were set to dip below freezing with three more inches of expected snowfall. No restaurants in the area were serving food and our grocery stores were closed besides a Wal-Mart five miles away.

After snacking on dry snacks for dinner and taking precautionary measures for our hotel’s guests, my parents and I sat down for about thirty minutes before the madness began. Our fire alarm went off at 10 PM because our hotel's pipes were frozen and nearly burst due to pressure build-up. Hotel guests sleepily scurried out of their rooms, completely rattled, and dashed to their cars. Elder guests were confused and scared in the pitch dark (no power) and frantically asked if there was a fire. We told them we didn’t know yet. After sprinting through the entire property we didn’t smell or see any smoke. Firefighters came and made their rounds, eventually concluding that our pipes were the culprit with freezing temperatures forcing the alarms to ring in case of a water emergency. 

After finally getting in bed around 11:30 PM, we awoke to a second-round of blaring emergency alarms at 3:15 AM. I scrambled to find my glasses, grabbed my puff jacket, and ran outside to crowd control again. All of our hotel's guests, half-awake, half-terrified, came out of their rooms and ran to their cars or peeked outside their door.

When the firefighters arrived for the second time, it was the same drill. Walked around the entire property, checked attics and water-heater rooms, and found the reocurring issue: our main water line was frozen and sounded the warning alarm.

My dad and I rushed into the water heater room and we had to decide whether or not to shut off the water to prevent a second burst (thereby forcing all forty-nine hotel guests to leave) or roll the dice and keep the water on so all the guest could stay. It was a no-brainer. Everyone stayed and reentered their chilly rooms, thankful they had somewhere to stay.

The firefighters left, my parents and I retreated back into our apartment, and we got some quick shuteye before relieving our front desk man Terry at 7 AM so he could get some sleep.

The next day was filled with even more pandemonium. No power, slowed water flow inside the building, and another set of fire alarms going off as pipes were pushed to the brink of their functioning ability.

Roads were still icy, so several guests stayed.

At one point, while manning the front desk, I counted more than forty cars that came by, filled with entire families, asking if we had rooms available. I had to say no to all of them due to the lack of power and soon-to-be water shortages. Looking someone in the eye and being unable to offer help because of your own limited resources is beyond brutal.  

The worst was when a Vietnam war veteran, in his early 80s, drove in and walked up to the front, asking if we had power or water. It broke my heart saying no knowing he had nowhere else to go.

Around 4:30 PM, power flashed on and off like a concert’s opening for over 20 minutes. Our fire alarms went off because of the sudden power shock and guests were scared once again as we ran through the property making sure nothing was broken. The lights would come on for two minutes, only to go dark a minute later. My mom and I ran through the hotel unplugging AC’s, TVs, and fridges so the rapid power shocks wouldn’t short our appliances.

Power stabilized at 5 PM until 6:45 PM. I took a quick nap to be awakened with no power yet again. At this point, it felt normal to be powerless. One more round of fire alarms ensued and my dad, the all-in-one package he is, circled around the property fixing things like a man on a mission before slipping and falling in the ice. Thankfully, he was okay. Turns out there was a newfound pipe burst inside our lobby/office area. We all split getting rags, moving items, and minimizing damages the best we could. The power was on at this point and we turned up heaters and vacuumed the mess before it went out again.

Running water was no longer usable and our home city of Lake Worth issued a water boiling notice like millions of others at 8:30 PM on Tuesday the 16th. 

Thirteen million-plus Texans are still being forced to boil water.

Texas’s questionable energy plan

The state prides itself upon being energy-independent. Some residents famously joke about secession because we have the economy and resources to actually pull it off. But this week, like 2011, was another alarming reminder of how unprepared we are for accelerating changes in the environment and its correlating effects on our energy dependence. 

Nearly 4.5 million homes were without power at one point and as of this writing, 3.3 million still don’t have a steady source of light. Our power grid serves only the State of Texas, whereas the rest of the country is evenly split into the eastern and western grids.

I’ll spare you the complicated history lesson, but to summarize, Texas finessed its way out of federal regulations since 1935 by stating that “by not crossing state lines, Texas utilities avoided being subjected to federal rules.” 

When major power blackouts happened in 1965 and 1970, The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) was formed to “manage grid reliability in accordance with national standards” still devoid of federal oversight. ERCOT has taken on the role of managing 90% of the state’s power, using a combination of natural gas, wind, coal, nuclear, solar, and hydro.

With ERCOT’s pivotal decision in deregulating electricity providers and creating a market that has random pricing run-ups, an unpredictable variable of market instability is formed.  Hodgepodge players act in a space where there should be strict oversight to provide citizens with the power they need. 

To add insult to injury, ERCOT’s board of directors features individuals from Michigan, Canada, Maryland, and Germany. Yes, an American state’s non-profit energy council has two international board members. 

An investigation was done in 2011 when 2.7 million Texans were in an energy crisis just like this week. The report concluded that energy reserves weren’t properly allocated even as weather forecasts signaled imminent demand spikes. 

“The massive amount of generator failures that were experienced raises the question of whether it would have been helpful to increase reserve levels going into the event. This action would have brought more units online earlier, might have prevented some of the freezing problems the generators experienced, and could have exposed operational problems in time to implement corrections before the units were needed to meet customer demand…”

What followed was ERCOT’s team making PR statements and promising actions would be taken to prevent future issues. 

Clearly, this didn’t happen. 

The road ahead

I do have a problem with Governor Abbott spending 30 minutes of his day on Fox News shifting blame to 'green energy and the green new deal' for outages across Texas.

I do have a problem with my U.S. Senator Ted Cruz catching a flight to Cancun while millions of Texans need help and resources.

I do have a problem with Texas's energy supply being deregulated and separated from the rest of the continental United States without the proper oversight.

I do have a problem with people not being told the truth in a time of chaos and desperation.

I do have a problem with older people suffering from the brittle cold and not having electricity for their dialysis machines or other health conditions.

I do have a problem with failed planning and leadership.

These last eleven months during the pandemic have taught us how real consequences can be - loss of life, hunger, mental health, and economic instability. Macro black swan events like a pandemic or inclement weather cannot be mapped out in perfect timelines, we’re all well-aware.

But I also know we have the brightest minds and best resources to get ahead of and stay prepared for moments just like these. Instead, we're reactive. Leaders let us get smacked across the face and then attempt to shift the blame elsewhere.

That has to stop. We're imploding from within and shooting ourselves in the foot.

How is it that the most essential need of power was deregulated by our state? How is it that people don’t have access to clean water OR weren’t alerted to buy water beforehand?

The most basic of questions are left unanswered and people are left to fend for themselves.

I'll never forget the eighty-something-year-old Vietnam war veteran trying to get a room at my parent's hotel because he needed somewhere warm to stay with his wife.

I'll never forget fire alarms going off in the middle of the night with guests running to their car thinking a fire happened only to later be told it was our alarm system being hypersensitive to the cold.

And I'll never forget feeling helpless that we couldn't do more, even though we had about fifteen extra rooms to at least provide some indoor shelter to all those who had nothing.

As we haphazardly walk into this era of climate challenges and irregularities, we can no longer be reactive to environmental calamities. In 2020 the devastation of wildfires reached a disheartening new peak of 10.3 million acres burned in the United States, steadily increasing every year since 2007. In 2021, historic freezing temperatures in the south pushed our infrastructure to the brink and showed us how behind we really are.

Being proactive is our only chance. We have a lot of work ahead.

The weather has slightly improved, power has been restored to many Texas cities, and water is expected to be back soon. Huge shoutout to Simone Brathwaite and Lyle McKeany for the rapid edits and feedback.

Seeing my parents and our longtime employee Terry work together in providing our hotel guests a livable experience amidst chaos was inspiring. Texans, we’re almost out of this.