The dangerously cold temperatures in Texas create a terrible dilemma for millions of residents: stay in heatless homes or ignore all official advice and venture onto the state’s treacherous highways.
The Texans woke up to a second day of blackouts Tuesday morning. Many had lost power more than 24 hours earlier. Weekend rolling outage warnings have turned into an open crisis that sparked frantic phone calls to elderly relatives, last minute hotel bookings, propane canister shopping trips, and emails sent from the car.
The extent of the crisis affecting the state threatens to take on a darker dimension. The National Guard was deployed to bring old people into thermal protection rooms. Air traffic to and from Houston has ceased and Covid-19 vaccination efforts may have been disrupted. City officials ran for more than 8,000 doses of vaccine after a warehouse lost backup power.
“It should only take an hour or two, which seemed manageable,” said Isha Elhence, a 26-year-old Dallas resident, who lost power around 2 a.m. Monday, summing up the general mood of unhappiness. “Now it’s indefinitely with no updates so we’re not sure what to do.”
The risks of driving in current conditions were highlighted last week by a cluster of more than 130 cars on an icy Texas highway, killing six people. In Houston, clear skies began to melt snow on streets and highways on Monday, but officials warned that once the sun went down, it would freeze. Sure enough, on Tuesday morning, ice covered more than 200 streets in the city, and traffic officials declared black ice a major hazard.
Still, Elhence was torn between driving to her aunt’s house, which still has electricity, or bundling up in a cold apartment. In College Station, home of Texas A&M University, 19-year-old Luke Leifker waited for updates as his parents in Austin ventured down the freeway and over an overpass to fetch his grandparents, who lost power overnight had. Leifker’s 80-year-old grandfather uses an oxygen machine that needs to be recharged every few hours.
“You could only charge it from the car. It’s just not sustainable and you have to be outside in the cold,” Leifker said by phone. “I really wish they had just kept warning us about what to expect so we could take proper security precautions.”
Ercot, the state-owned network operator, said during a chaotic emergency press conference on Monday that the outages would continue into early Tuesday.
There is little immediate prospect of relief. The temperature in Dallas was 3 degrees Fahrenheit Tuesday morning, with a high of just 23. In Houston it was 14 degrees. It was similarly cold in San Antonio, with Austin temperatures dropping to 9 degrees.
“This is extremely dangerous,” said Eric Berger, a forecaster with Houston’s Space City Weather.
The wind chill in Houston and elsewhere makes the temperatures feel even colder and worsen the impact on humans. Major cities had opened thermal insulation rooms before the storm, but in Houston some of those facilities lost power early Monday afternoon, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. For those with the means and skills, finding a hotel room remains a mystery.
“We had consecutive mornings this morning – about 10 calls an hour – with requests for room and availability,” said Erica Gonzalez, general manager at a Best Western near downtown Houston that still had Power Monday.
Dave Berry, a 72-year-old Vietnam War veteran, had already experienced three blackouts in the middle of Monday morning and was reliant on a gas fireplace that kept the temperature in his living room around 60 degrees while he stayed wrapped in blankets with his wife by the fireplace.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t get the coffee made before the power went out,” said Berry from his home in suburban Dallas. “We could really do something now