What about next time?

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Well, that was something, wasn’t it? The gorgeous weather this weekend was surreal. Had the frigid chaos of the previous week just been a bad dream? I was certainly tempted to think so as I sipped a margarita in a friend’s yard yesterday afternoon.

Unfortunately, there remains plenty of evidence that it was not merely a dream. Empty grocery shelves. Broken water pipes. Dead bodies.

One reader who emailed me about the issue described the power and water outages as a “minor inconvenience” for most Texans. While he conceded that some had genuinely suffered, he described the outrage expressed by the rest of us as “too much whining.” After all, he pointed out, there are millions if not billions around the world who endure similar deprivation on a daily basis.

One part of that is obviously true. Hopefully experiencing that level of hardship will raise people’s awareness of the suffering that exists around the world, including in our own neighborhoods. And hopefully that awareness will inspire greater compassion. Just think: even when there aren’t extreme weather events, there are still people sleeping outdoors when it’s either far below or far above a reasonable indoor temperature. And there are families sleeping in cars or in homes where the power and water has been cut off because they can’t pay their bills.

As I saw one person aptly comment: After last week, how could it possibly be controversial for the city to provide housing to people who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets?

But back to the “whining”: it was very much justified. And it should continue unabated until the state of Texas does what it needs to do to make sure this never happens again.

What happened last week is not what is supposed to occur in a developed country, let alone the richest country on Earth. Guaranteeing electricity and clean water are two of the most basic expectations people of all political stripes have of their government.

Unless state government makes changes, there is good reason to believe the next crisis will be worse. Officials at ERCOT say that we were within minutes of a complete grid collapse.

Just ponder that for a moment. Power would have gone out everywhere, including hospitals, police and fire stations, the warming centers where people were seeking refuge. Experts predict it would take weeks, perhaps months, to get the grid running again. Everything we depend on — food, water, telecommunications, gas — would suddenly disappear or become extremely scarce. During that time, Texas would become a giant refugee camp, likely prompting an unprecedented federal mobilization — FEMA, the National Guard, perhaps other branches of the military — to prevent starvation and chaos.

Apologists for the status quo — Rick Perry comes to mind — dismiss last week’s disaster as a fluke. It was a once-in-a-century storm, for God’s sake. What is a few days without power every 100 years?

There are two big problems with this logic. The first is that due to climate change, extreme weather events are going to become more frequent. The second is that, again, there’s no reason to assume the next time won’t be worse and the consequences of a grid collapse are so great that it warrants sacrifice in the good times — potentially in the form of higher electricity prices — to prevent it from occurring. Whatever good comes from the current system (and it’s not even that good) is a pretty weak justification for the misery inflicted upon millions last week, let alone the prospect of a grid collapse that could easily result in tens of thousands of deaths.

I will end this on a slightly more optimistic note. As shameful and embarrassing as it was that Greg Abbott’s initial response to the crisis was to go on Hannity to bash the Green New Deal — a bill that has zero chance of passing in the foreseeable future – it’s encouraging that he has since pivoted to requiring utilities to winterize. The cheap ideology that state leaders have used to paper over their other derelictions of duty — their refusal to expand Medicaid, for instance — isn’t going to work this time. This time, it wasn’t just poor people getting screwed. Even their campaign donors were freezing.

This is just a small sample of what you get every weekday if you subscribe to the Austin Politics Newsletter

One thought on “What about next time?

  1. Jack, you didn’t mention a cyber attack causing grid issues. Between the solar winds hack, Russia’s extremely successful grid attacks in Ukraine and derugalation in Texas I think this is just as possible as another huge storm.

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