Those of us who’ve called this region home for any extended period of time are familiar with the challenges of living along the Gulf Coast. Whether it’s the barrage of tropical storms, flooding or the coronavirus pandemic – Fort Bend County residents are a resilient bunch.
But for all of the challenges and struggles, the one thing we thought we could count on was that the lights would stay on.
February proved a cruel awakening for many of us. Hours after my wife and I celebrated a quiet Valentine’s Day at home, our apartment (along with countless thousands across the region) was plunged into darkness – the result of the near-catastrophic failure of the state’s electric grid.
Each hurricane season, my wife makes a point of buying supplies for our hurricane kit. Luckily, those supplies weren’t necessary for the 2020 season. But they came in handy as temperatures plunged, and we collectively wondered when power might finally come back.
Over the course of the next several days, some estimates are more than 700 people would die from hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning and other issues related to the failure of the state’s electric grid. The damage estimate would far exceed that from even Hurricane Harvey, which caused catastrophic flooding in 2017 across the region.
Almost immediately, Texas leaders began the finger-pointing game. Gov. Greg Abbott swore he’d get to the bottom of the problem. Legislators added the need to fix the power grid to their list of priorities.
At the time, I remember being shocked that temperatures in the 20s and 30s were enough to knock out power for millions of Texans and cause blackouts that lasted for days. Growing up in Amarillo, snow and freezing temperatures weren’t exactly unusual – yet they never meant going without electricity in our homes.
My wife kindly corrected me. Something very similar had happened in 2011, when I’d been living abroad, she explained.
But it turns out we were both right. For many residents in my hometown of Amarillo, the power never faltered in February. That’s because that part of the Panhandle, along with El Paso and some parts of East Texas, receive power from different sources.
If all you’d read in the intervening months were the press releases, then it might have come as a surprise earlier this week when officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which governs about 75 percent of the state’s power grid, began asking residents to conserve power because of tight grid conditions.
The warning was enough to give many of us who’d been through February’s winter storm a panic attack.
Social media has turned into a steady stream of gallows humor about the instability of the state’s grid, and therapeutic vent sessions.
“Good morning to everyone except ERCOT (again),” County Judge KP George tweeted on June 15.
It’s hurricane season. We’ve already been keeping a steady eye on weather reports, anxious over any news of possible tropical development in the Gulf. Now, we are also faced with the prospect of the lights going off once again, this time as temperatures are spiking in excess of 100 degrees.
The fact of the matter is, for all the talk from the state’s elected leaders about getting to the bottom of the issue in February, it was, to quote Shakespeare, all “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Preventing another disaster like February’s winter storm might be one of the few things that exceeds partisan politics in 2021.
“Do I really have to agree with Don Huffines?” asked Joe Deshotel, a progressive activist from Beaumont, retweeting Republican candidate for governor, Don Huffines.
“A governor who keeps the power on shouldn’t be too much for Texans to ask,” Huffines wrote.
Stressing through hurricane season, possible flooding and the coronavirus pandemic is enough anxiety on an annual basis to take at least several years off our lives. It shouldn’t be too much to ask that we not add the possible failure of the state’s electric grid to that list.