Here in Houston, we are no stranger to natural disaster. Our addiction to the petrochemical industry should qualify us as masochists. I lived through Tropical Storm Allison, Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Harvey, and countless flood events in-between. I have come to navigate these disasters without much fear. However, this storm, the 2021 “Winter Storm Uri,” has challenged our rugged and survivalist attitudes.
For over 100 hours, I only had about 15-20 hours total of both heat and power, spread across 3 “bursts.” That is what they meant by “rolling outage”: most of us lost power for around 20-24 hours, then we would get it for 4-8 hours. Since no one planned for this, and travel was immediately very dangerous, I was entirely alone. Since I am not immune to the bootstraps ideology that structures much of Texan life, I have been kind of determined to do it myself. We are still on a boil notice (where the city declares water must be boiled for safe consumption) for what may be another week, and generally aren’t in the clear quite yet. But as I finish writing this, I have managed to have power for over 24 hours, which I hope means this is over.
The snowfall has been mild to moderate by more northern standards, and temperatures, while being below freezing, are not sub-zero Fahrenheit. So, what’s the problem? Most people in Texas do not even own winter gloves. Many of us do not have winter coats. There is usually only one freeze per winter, and you can get by with hoodies. We don’t have a lot of snow plows. We do not have snow chains for tires. Houses are designed to release heat, not store it. That is why this is catastrophic.
The evenings are the scariest, and it is somewhat telling why. When the power went out, it was not just a power blackout, but a cellular and mobile data blackout. This made it impossible to ask for help, check on each other, and figure out what exactly was going on. No one has landlines anymore, which used to work in these situations. This means that for once, we had fewer technical solutions than grandparents did. There was a bit of desperation in the cold dark nights, just a hint of powerlessness and helplessness. Staring out my window to what is usually a city with bright lights, only to find a sea of darkness, felt a bit too much like something out of a horror movie.
Facing this grim landscape, I have found myself coming to a series of compromises and bargaining. Do I conserve my batteries, or waste them hoping for those short 2-minute bursts of mobile data? Do I go outside for a cigarette, a cigarette most definitely deserved and owed myself, or do I conserve the heat in the room by keeping the door shut? How much water can I spare? Meanwhile, the clock was always ticking until the power came back on. I felt the room get colder until I started to see my breath. I exhausted the battery on my laptop, knowing my phone was next. My pile of Clif Bars is not growing any larger. Even when the power comes on, the dilemmas do not go away: do I use my power before it goes out, or do I try to get needed sleep that is warm and comfortable and not frightening?
My blackout candle-light reading list? First is Stafford Beer’s Designing Freedom lectures, and Cybernetic Revolutionaries by Eden Medina. What better context for thinking about schematics of autonomy and viable systems than a power grid collapse in the middle of a pandemic and economic suffocation? Next is Sun Tzu’s the Art of War, an essential book I am constantly returning to these days, part of a trinity also including Das Kapital and Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction. That is for the get-back to come, because we are going to make sure someone pays for this. The final book was Grant Evan’s and Kelvin Rowley’s Red Brotherhood at War: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Since 1975. I found myself wondering how people marched from Phnom Penh to the countryside, and if they saw the same deeply black darkness as I did.
America is a ticking time-bomb, as Hard Crackers editors will be quick to remind you. Texas is no different, perhaps the perfect Balkanized state in the union to look to as a powder-keg. I fear the worst has yet to come. This cannot be the last blackout, and the next one will be longer. Atomwaffen, the nihilo-fascists in my backyard, planned attacks on the Texas Power Grid and discussed its structures. While I hold no sympathies with them, I wonder if they are motivated by a hatred of the kind of people who suggest that Texas deserves this because we are not a “blue state.” What kind of “unity” can we expect in America when we die, and people chastise us for electoral outcomes? America is doomed.
In the face of this doom, Houston is rather resilient; this is part of what I love so much about it. When disaster strikes, we instinctively pull together and rescue each other, muck and gut our houses, and begin eating communally to save resources. However, it is making the leap from resilience to resistance that I am holding out for. We are increasingly burdened to save ourselves in these situations, like when our Democratic Mayor slashes and cuts our Fire Department because the union is in a wage fight with it, we have nothing left but to take up rescuing efforts in a crowd-sourced way. The sad thing is that people then praise our government for this.
Whenever this happens, you hear calls from all over to “Turn Texas Blue” as if we’ve never known anything about living under the rule of Democrats. The Democrats have run the local governments of the increasingly urbanizing Texas for decades. For years, they sold our cities to oil and gas. People want to make deregulation and cuddling up with oil and gas the domain of Republicans, but that’s not the case. The reality is Democrats have been more than complicit with the current problems. These ghoulish bloodsuckers are not a part of what I love about my city. They were never going to fix the power grid, whether we elected them at the state level or not.
All of this comes with the icing on the cake as I swiftly return back to work the moment power has come back to me: a $200K bill from CenterPoint Energy. When I saw it, I could not help but laugh. Full disclosure: I do not have $200,000 dollars. If I did, I’d buy my mom a house. Turns out mine was a computer error, but there are real efforts to push high electric bills upwards of $17,000 onto the consumer, given that the demand for electricity has risen significantly, and what’s more American than obeying the laws of supply and demand?
As miserable as the dark, cold nights have been, returning to work immediately upon power being restored reminds me that this “normal,” “electrified” world is not anything to really miss either. A different kind of misery has begun to set in, the realization that all they really want is for us to get back to work. We’re still in a pandemic, economic crash, and a very desperate situation even without power grid failures. I wonder how long emergency and collapse can be protracted, how much the working class can continue to bear such immense burdens, and how sadly pathetic it is that all people can think about is how to “Turn Texas Blue.” I guess hell really has frozen over.