As Texas faced record-low temperatures in February 2021 and snow and ice made roads impassable, the state’s electric grid operator lost control of the power supply, leaving millions without access to electricity. As the blackouts extended from hours to days, top state lawmakers called for investigations into the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and Texans demanded accountability for the disaster. The Texas Tribune covered the impact of the storm in real time and continues to bring accountability coverage as officials address the issues exposed by the storm.
Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
More than 100 low-income older and disabled residents of an Austin high-rise apartment building were stranded without power and with dwindling food supplies for more than two days after the electricity went out and the property’s emergency generator shut down on Monday.
“Please help us, please,” Farah Rivera, 58, a resident of the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center in East Austin, said early Wednesday. “We need whatever help we can get.”
Help arrived a few hours later as Austin firefighters evacuated residents who wanted to leave, carrying them down long flights of stairs, in some cases, to CapMetro buses waiting to transport them to a church shelter a few miles away, said Sergio Amaya, executive director and vice president of DMA Properties, which manages the site.
Shortly after the evacuation began, the emergency generator was restored and one elevator began working, speeding up their efforts to get people out of the freezing tower.
February Winter Storm 2021
When will my water come back? How can I get water in the meantime?
We do not know. State and city officials are urging patience — and telling Texans who have running water to boil it. Take whatever measures you need to prepare for several days without water. Officials in Austin, for example, said Feb. 19 that restoring water services would likely be a multiday process for the whole city. We have some resources here, but your best bet to find free water is to check your local media.
Will I get a large energy bill?
You shouldn’t immediately. Texas officials have signed an order temporarily preventing electricity providers from sending bills to residents. The order is a stopgap measure to give officials time to address a spike in some residents' bills. Officials also signed an order to stop utility providers from cutting off service to residents who haven’t paid a bill. Read more here.
I was without power for more than a day. Why are people calling these rolling outages?
When the state’s electrical grid operator began implementing rolling outages at 1:25 a.m. CT on Feb. 15, these were intended to be a temporary measure to deal with an extreme winter event.
Instead, some Texans are going without power for much longer, facing days without electricity instead of the originally planned 45 minutes at a time
The electricity grid was designed to be in high demand during the summer, when Texans crank their air conditioning at home. But some of the energy sources that power the grid during the summer are offline during the winter. So when Texans stayed home during the storm on Sunday and demanded record amounts of electricity, the state’s power grid could not keep up.
Wait, we have our own power grid? Why?
Yes, Texas has its own power grid run by an agency called ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The history is long, but the short version is: Texas has its own grid to avoid dealing with federal regulations. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with overseeing interstate electricity sales. But Texas’ utilities do not cross state lines. ERCOT was formed in 1970, in the wake of a major blackout in the Northeast in November 1965, and it was tasked with managing grid reliability in accordance with national standards.
Note that Texas is not all on this same power grid. El Paso is on another grid, as is the upper Panhandle and a chunk of East Texas.
I read online that wind turbines are the reason we lost power. Is that true?
No. The lost wind power makes up only a fraction of the reduction in power-generating capacity that has brought outages to millions of Texans.
An official with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said on February 16 that 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, mostly wind generation, were offline. Nearly double that, 30 gigawatts, had been lost from thermal sources, which includes gas, coal and nuclear energy.
“Texas is a gas state,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now.”
How can I stay warm? How can I help others?
The National Weather Service encourages people to close blinds and curtains, gather in one room if possible and close doors to others, and stuff towels in the cracks under the doors. Wear loose-fitting layers of warm, lightweight clothing. Eating snacks and staying hydrated will help to warm the body up. Some cities are providing warming centers and transportation as needed — find local resources here. If you have resources or are able to offer financial donations, find nonprofits who are helping people here.
Residents bundled up in blankets and head scarves and layers of clothing, some using walkers and carrying red and white H-E-B grocery bags filled with belongings as they boarded buses or left with family.
“We are, right now, going floor to floor with the Austin Fire Department determining who wants to go to the warming center and helping us bring them down from their floors,” he said.
Millions of Texans were still without power on Wednesday, some of them for the third straight day, as the partial collapse of the state’s power system plunged them into darkness during a storm that saw inches of snow and ice and wind chills below zero.
Particularly hard hit are vulnerable residents, those that can’t leave their homes or can’t afford hotels or have otherwise limited resources and mounting medical needs.
Home to about 150 residents, the tower is run by the nonprofit Austin Geriatric Center to provide affordable housing to especially vulnerable populations.
The electricity at the tower has been off since before dawn on Monday, said Rivera, whose organization, the Serafina Food Pantry, operates on the first floor of the center.
The outage means the elevator was not operating in the 16-story building and only flashlights, headlamps and windows were providing light. The complex still has water but no way to heat it for showers or other needs because appliances are all electric.
“Everybody’s in the same boat, we understand,” Amaya said. “We’re just trying to get by and do what we can to make things as best we can here in these difficult times. Our staff has been here 24 hours a day, some of them aren’t going home at all.”
At the RBJ Center, staff and residents were looking for any signs of relief, with frigid temperatures inside the building, water pooling in hallways and the difficulty in evacuating disabled residents in electric wheelchairs down long flights of stairs.
The food pantry was out of non-perishable items to take to residents, many of whom seemed confused about the situation or worried about the outage, calling out to staffers from their rooms, asking about the darkness or wondering if Meals on Wheels would be arriving.
“It’s miserable. We’re so cold,” said resident Joyce Kelley, 69, who was trying to decide whether to go to a shelter because she was worried about the coronavirus.
Kelley has been dressing in layers, piling blankets on her bed and eating canned food all week, she said.
“It’s a good thing that the hallway is a little warm so I can visit with my three other friends, otherwise it’s really so boring and depressing, you feel like crying,” she said. “But at least I’m not on the street. This apartment is cold but it’s not unbearable.”
Rivera said she spent the last two nights worrying about her neighbors in the building. She lives with her husband in an apartment there, she said, “so we have each other for support.” “It’s scary for them,” Rivera said. “There are people that are very impaired, and you think, ‘How are they spending the night? Who’s helping out, what’s going on? Are they still having a phone charged in case there’s an emergency?' All that goes through your mind.”
About four staffers who were able to get to work, along with volunteers from nearby neighborhoods, were running up and down flights of stairs to take food to residents and do welfare checks for worried families who are unable to get to their loved ones due to snow and ice, Amaya said.
Emergency responders have been called to bring at least one resident to the hospital after a fall in the darkness, Rivera said.
Amaya said his company believes the main generator failed because the diesel fuel powering it froze. He picked up a portable generator from another property, and on Wednesday afternoon, workers could use it to warm up the main generator and restore the service of emergency lights and a single elevator.
“Which is great,” he said. “One elevator is better than nothing. But residents are still without heat.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Austin city officials offered hope for some areas with long-lasting outages, saying the Electric Reliability Council of Texas is allowing them to temporarily restore power to some parts of the city. They did not specify which areas but said circuits that had been out of power the longest would be the priority.
Rivera said the entire neighborhood around the tower, which is just east of I-35 in downtown Austin, is without power.
Disclosure: H-E-B has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Quality journalism doesn't come free
Perhaps it goes without saying — but producing quality journalism isn't cheap. At a time when newsroom resources and revenue across the country are declining, The Texas Tribune remains committed to sustaining our mission: creating a more engaged and informed Texas with every story we cover, every event we convene and every newsletter we send. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on members to help keep our stories free and our events open to the public. Do you value our journalism? Show us with your support.