The dangerously cold temperatures gripping auto-reliant Texas present a terrible dilemma for millions of residents: Stay put in heat-less homes, or ignore all official advice and venture forth on to the state’s treacherous highways.
Texans awoke Tuesday morning to a second day of blackouts, many having lost power more than 24 hours earlier. Weekend warnings of rolling outages have turned into an open-ended crisis, triggering frantic calls to elderly relatives, last-minute hotel bookings, shopping trips for propane canisters and fielding work email from the car.
The scale of the crisis gripping the state is threatening to take on a darker dimension. The National Guard was deployed to get old people into warming shelters. Air travel in and out of Houston was halted, and Covid-19 vaccination efforts faced potential disruption, with city officials racing to utilize more than 8,000 vaccine doses after a storage facility lost back-up power.
“It was only supposed to be for one to two hours, which seemed manageable,” said Isha Elhence, a 26-year-old Dallas resident who lost power around 2 AM Monday, summing up the general mood of haplessness. “Now it’s kind of indefinite with no updates, so we’re unsure of what we’re supposed to be doing.”
The risks of driving in the current conditions were highlighted last week by a pile-up of more than 130 cars on an icy Texas interstate that left six dead. In Houston, clearing skies began to melt snow on streets and highways on Monday, but officials warned that as soon as the sun set it would freeze over. Sure enough, on Tuesday morning, ice covered more than 200 roadways in the city, with the transportation authority declaring black ice a major hazard.
Still, Elhence was torn between braving the drive to her aunt’s house, which still has power, or bundling up in a cold apartment. In College Station, home to Texas A&M University, Luke Leifker, 19, waited for updates while his parents back in Austin ventured down the highway and across an overpass to get his grandparents, who lost power overnight. Leifker’s 80-year-old grandfather uses an oxygen machine, and it needs to be charged every few hours.
“The only way they’ve been able to charge it is via the car. That’s just not sustainable, plus they have to be out in the cold,” Leifker said by phone. “I really wish they had just given more advanced warning as to what we could expect so we could have made proper safety precautions.”
Ercot, the state’s grid operator, said during a chaotic emergency press conference on Monday that the outages would continue into early Tuesday.
There’s little immediate prospect of relief. The temperature in Dallas was 3 degrees Fahrenheit Tuesday morning, with a high of only 23. In Houston, it was 14 degrees. It was similarly frigid in San Antonio, and Austin temperatures dropped to 9 degrees.
“This is extremely dangerous,” said Eric Berger, a forecaster with Houston’s Space City Weather.
Wind chill in Houston and elsewhere is making temperatures feel even colder and worsening the human impact. Major cities had opened warming shelters ahead of the storm, but in Houston, some of those facilities lost power by early Monday afternoon, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. For those with the means and ability, there’s a scramble to find a hotel room.
“All morning today we’ve had back to back-to-back — about 10 calls an hour — with inquiries for rooms and availability,” said Erica Gonzalez, a general manager at a Best Western near downtown Houston, which still had power Monday.
Dave Berry, a 72-year-old Vietnam War veteran, had already experienced three black-outs by the middle of Monday morning and was relying on a gas-burning fireplace that kept the temperature in his living room around 60 degrees while keeping wrapped in blankets along with his wife by the fireplace.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t get the coffee made before the power went out,” Berry said from his home in suburban Dallas. “We could really go for some right now