When Texas Froze Over, There Was Hell to Pay

Icicles hang off the State Highway 195 sign on February 18, 2021 in Killeen, Texas. Winter storm Uri has brought historic cold weather and power outages to Texas as storms have swept across 26 states with a mix of freezing temperatures and precipitation. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

When Texas Froze Over, There Was Hell to Pay

In the face of a winter disaster, when it came to taking care of the state’s citizens, GOP leadership was clueless and counterproductive. As usual.

I've been thinking a lot about water. And power. And Texas.

You know from the news they've been grappling with a crisis there brought on by unexpectedly wicked winter weather. And made worse by an incompetent, ill-prepared Republican state government that, as LBJ used to say, couldn't pour sand out of a boot, even if the instructions were printed on the heel.

Snow, ice and cold caused power outages affecting four and a half million all over the state - some intentionally were triggered to keep the entire system from collapsing. The big chill that shut down the power plants also froze and burst water mains and pipes. This led to flooding in streets and homes, but also caused people to have to prime their toilets with water from ponds and swimming pools and to melt snow for cooking and washing dishes and clothes. Fires went unfought because there just wasn't enough water pressure to put them out. In many places where the taps are back on, water has to be boiled for fear of contaminants and disease. As of this writing more than a million Texans still don't have a potable supply of fresh running water.

"Proof that when you put in charge of government people who hate government in the first place--except as a power saw to slash budgets, advance a far-right agenda or personal ambition--the results are a nightmare."

My mother's family is from central Texas, certainly not the most arid part of the state, but water was precious there, no matter the season. So was electricity -- Mom remembered the momentous day in the 1930s when the lights came on for the first time in her small rural community.

You always have to be wary when dramatically bad weather hits Texas, but throw in a bumbling state government, stir and you have a recipe for catastrophe. If Republican Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, a triumvirate of dopiness if ever there was one, spent on proper governance a fraction of the time they've spent these last months trying to deny or even overthrow the November election of President Joe Biden, they'd be in far better shape than they are right now.

Which also had me thinking about the late great Molly Ivins, the wildly funny and acerbic journalist and columnist who suffered the fools of Texas politics gladly because they provided such a depthless reservoir of comedy material. "I think of Texas as the laboratory for bad government," she wrote and once suggested that all news stories about its government should begin, "Look out! They're about to smack you around again."

But she also believed that, "Government is a tool, like a hammer. You can use a hammer to build or you can use a hammer to destroy; there is nothing intrinsically good or evil about the hammer itself. It is the purposes to which it is put and the skill with which it is used that determine whether the hammer's work is good or bad."

So imagine how she would have reacted to this report from The Texas Tribune on the February weather chaos:

Limited regulations on companies that generate power and a history of isolating Texas from federal oversight help explain the crisis, energy and policy experts told The Texas Tribune.

While Texas Republicans were quick to pounce on renewable energy and to blame frozen wind turbines, the natural gas, nuclear and coal plants that provide most of the state's energy also struggled to operate during the storm. Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas [ERCOT], the energy grid operator for most of the state, said that the state's power system was simply no match for the deep freeze...

Energy and policy experts said Texas' decision not to require equipment upgrades to better withstand extreme winter temperatures, and choice to operate mostly isolated from other grids in the U.S. left power system unprepared for the winter crisis. Policy observers blamed the power system failure on the legislators and state agencies who they say did not properly heed the warnings of previous storms or account for more extreme weather events warned of by climate scientists. Instead, Texas prioritized the free market.

Tim "Smitty" Smith, former director of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, told the Tribune, "We need to change our regulatory focus to protect the people, not profits... Instead of taking any regulatory action, we ended up getting guidelines that were unenforceable and largely ignored in [power companies'] rush to profit."

Yippee-ki-yay--thanks in part to that free market, deregulation, a feeble public utilities commission and the corporate dash for cash -- mother's milk to the Texas GOP - too many good people of the Lone Star State were left cold, thirsty, hungry and homeless. Among the other delightful side effects that roared into view with the lousy weather, it was discovered that many of those buying their electricity wholesale instead of in the retail market--which is allowed in Texas because, you know, freedom!--suddenly owed thousands and thousands in electrical bills because the dwindling supply could not meet demand.

Rates soared 7400 percent. That's not a typo. One woman in the state's Chambers County, Lisa Khoury, has filed a billion-dollar class action suit because the week of the storm her bill went from the usual $200-$250 per month to more than nine thousand dollars.

Proof that when you put in charge of government people who hate government in the first place --except as a power saw to slash budgets, advance a far-right agenda or personal ambition -- the results are a nightmare. "It's like, duh," Molly Ivins once said. "Just when you thought there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the two parties, the Republicans go and prove you're wrong."

She also knew what she was talking about back in 1995 when she wrote, "It's all very well to run around saying regulation is bad, get the government off our backs, etc. Of course our lives are regulated. When you come to a stop sign, you stop; if you want to go fishing, you get a license; if you want to shoot ducks, you can shoot only three ducks. The alternative is dead bodies at the intersections, no fish and no ducks. OK?"

More than 25 years after she printed that, in today's Texas, there are dozens of dead bodies from this plague of awful weather. Millions were left shivering in the dark, in part victims of an ill-prepared state government that has so deregulated utilities that when a giant natural disaster arrived, because they weren't ready, public and private infrastructure crumbled.

Another huge part of the problem is the Texas GOP's refusal to accept the reality of climate change--that unless drastic action is taken, extreme weather events like the February freeze--and hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires, drought and floods--will be more and more common until our very survival is in doubt. Ashley Thomson of Greenpeace USA noted, "Climate denial is not a victimless crime, and lives are already being lost because of Texas politicians' refusal to acknowledge and prepare for the realities of the climate crisis."

Beholden to the deregulated oil, coal and gas industries that help fuel the state's economy while fouling the environment, powering its inadequate electrical grid and feeding politicians with campaign money, Governor Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick, State AG Paxton and Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz (the noted Cancun beachcomber who tried to flee his state when things got tough) struggled manfully to deflect blame and point fingers at others, with the governor attempting to shift responsibility to what he falsely announced was an overreliance on solar and wind power. He claimed that the current calamity showed "how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America."

Honest--as his constituents suffered, he really said that, especially bizarre since the Green New Deal has not even been debated or voted on in Congress. And if it somehow became law it actually would work to create millions of clean, non-fossil energy jobs and spark a national drive that would create sustainable energy systems and "resiliency against climate-related disasters."

Sadly, the inaction of Texas' GOP leaders isn't surprising. Remember how the national GOP had virtually no party platform for last year's convention - just that whatever Donald Trump wanted was hunky dory with them? Therein lies the problem, in Texas and across the nation. Scroll through the Twitter accounts of the Texas GOP, then the RNC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Other than their fulsome praise of Fearless Leader you will see almost nothing but negative tweets and retweets--ad hominem attacks on Democrats but not a single message that talks about programs and solutions, about building, about making our lives better.

In short, nothing about community. That's because you can't build a community on grievances, anger, hate, fear and a lust for totalitarian authority. And yet we did see communities at work in Texas as charities, churches and private citizens went out of their way to help others, raising money, providing food and clean water, blankets and air mattresses, generators and shelters, coordinating information on warming centers and supplies.

Sam Miles, a University of Texas student who used social media to create a clearinghouse for help and information told a reporter, "It's really amazing to see the power that the people have, especially--or maybe in spite of--the lack of leadership or the lack of our state doing anything to really help us. It's just a really good reminder that people genuinely are so good."

Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke delivered water and solicited contributions for those in the cold (and yes, he has an eye on challenging Abbott for the governorship next year) New York's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the target of so much right-wing scorn, raised millions for Texas relief and volunteered at a Houston food bank. Ted Cruz, who was a no-show for Friday's Texas visit from Biden (Abbott, Cornyn and other GOP pols were there), passed it up to make a snarky appearance at CPAC where he made fun of his Mexican overnight and insulted Rep. Ocasio-Cortes. Senator, I knew Don Rickles and you're no Don Rickles...

In a book she wrote more than three decades ago, You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You, Molly Ivins had some good advice: "Listen to the people who are talking about how to fix what's wrong, not the ones who just work people into a snit over the problems. Listen to the people who have ideas about how to fix things, not the ones who just blame others."

Molly died in 2007 but I can imagine her chuckling from the grave at what fools these Texas Republican officials be--and taking good notes.

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