When I first saw the winter storm warnings for Austin and Travis County on TV last weekend, I felt pretty good about how my household was positioned. My wife and I had stocked up on a few hundred bucks worth of fresh and frozen food that could be heated on a gas stove. We had a massive, 1,500-watt-hour, solar-charged battery/generator that we’d purchased after the 2021 failure of the electric grid that left more than 4.5 million homes and businesses in the state without power and resulted in as many as seven hundred deaths. We’d stockpiled plenty of blankets. And we had a Siberian husky who loves to snuggle and who’d treat the onset of a winter freeze as the best thing that could possibly happen to her.
When the storm finally descended on Austin on Wednesday morning, we didn’t panic. But around 10:30 a.m., we joined the nearly one third of the city that lost power. And while most of my friends whose lights went out saw theirs restored later that day, or maybe early the next, we were still in the dark as Wednesday rolled into Thursday, then Friday, then Saturday. My wife and I, fortunate to have savings that let us take on some extra expenses, boarded the dog overnight and found a hotel that still had a handful of rooms, so we could charge that big battery we’d bought.
For tens of thousands of Austinites, however, things weren’t so easy. While the storm hit other parts of the state, what was elsewhere an inconvenience was, in the capital, a crisis. Power lines in Austin and much of Central Texas, unlike in some of North Texas, aren’t buried and were exposed to falling tree limbs; meanwhile, temperatures in the Capital City were a few degrees colder than in San Antonio and towns to the south, which left the ice on trees for many more hours. By Thursday night, nearly half of the 325,000 power outages scattered throughout the entire state of Texas were centered right in Austin; nearby rural communities were also hit hard. As of Wednesday morning, around 2,500 households remained in the dark. But it’s also hard to return to the status quo even for those whose lights are back on—because the lesson of the first week of February 2023 is that this is just going to keep happening.
Our governments—local, statewide, and federal—have spent the past several years running headlong into crises for which they’ve failed to prepare at any level that would have been considered remotely adequate in earlier decades. In 2020, when COVID-19 shut down society, it struck everywhere more or less at once, and everyone struggled to adapt to unprecedented circumstances. The situation was bad nationally and worse in Texas, which quickly pivoted to a “public health is your individual responsibility” plan of action. Texans were left to deal with the crisis on their own, without institutional support—in the form of, say, a statewide testing strategy, or state resources for those who’d tested positive for COVID and couldn’t return to work safely. It was difficult (and occasionally terrifying), but you could also grant our leaders some latitude as they navigated a once-in-a-lifetime disaster. Sure, our institutions failed us, but they’d never been tested like that before.
Then, a year later, the Texas grid was unprepared to weather Winter Storm Uri, a cold spell that blasted a huge swath of the central U.S. Every other state in the country avoided widespread power outages, thanks largely to their adoption of common-sense winterization requirements for gas and power plants—regulations that Texas lacked, and still lacks. Legislators, who’d neglected to heed warnings about the grid’s stability during a freeze in 2011, spoke of the disaster as a perfect-storm event, unlikely to be repeated. They then passed mostly cosmetic bills that did little to address the crisis and moved on.
This year’s winter storm, though, wasn’t unprecedented in any way. It’s not hard to predict that cold weather will come every year—or that the winters we’ve been experiencing lately have been harsher than the ones in years past. This storm wasn’t even big enough to warrant a name. There was no stunning imagery of widespread destruction, beyond pictures of trees that lost some big limbs. It wasn’t even all that cold! Overnight temperatures during the week bottomed out in the high twenties, and most of the ice that accrued melted within about 24 hours.
Still, Austin officials were woefully underprepared. Austin Energy, the city-owned utility, initially promised all problems would be addressed within 24 hours. Four days later, representatives informed those still in the dark in a now-customary late-night Twitter thread that some might be stuck without power for another week.
There were all sorts of missteps along the way, but hardly any messaging about them. On Wednesday, the first day that much of the city spent without power, no city leaders or Austin Energy officials held a press conference, and the social media channels for the utility provided almost no useful information about where to go, what to do, or how long the outage might last. (Instead, followers learned that “we are prepared & have dispatched crews to restore power” and that “icy conditions may slow this work.”) Some city leaders provided slightly more information on their personal accounts, if you happened to follow them—Wednesday evening, Austin City Council member Paige Ellis posted that she’d had conversations with folks at the utility and they expected power to be restored citywide by Friday evening, which at that point was still two days away. The next day, at a press conference, that was walked back—officials were no longer comfortable offering any specific timeline.
Some Austinites got a text from the city informing them that their power had been restored even as they sat at home in the dark. Many tried to use the automated system to notify Austin Energy that the outages were still ongoing, only to receive a message that their report had timed out and could not be logged. There was no way to get solid information, even if the lack of electricity meant that you had nothing else to do to fill your time besides refreshing the outage map every ten minutes, watching as the numbers changed. The lack of information made it impossible to make good decisions: If your power was going to be out for a day, you’d probably stay home. If it was going to be out for a week, you’d probably hit the road—for a hotel, a family member’s place out of town, or maybe a trip to Cancún.
As Austin residents without power awaited answers, they were left to fend for themselves without much in the way of resources. The city set up warming centers for those who were “unable to secure alternative accommodations,” but it didn’t do much to communicate where the centers were or what you were supposed to do when you arrived at one. And navigating to an unfamiliar part of town was risky on its own—throughout the city, traffic signals were dark. If you had a tree come down on your block, well, time to fire up the chain saw and become an amateur lumberjack.
Eventually, communication got a little better. Kirk Watson, who was elected mayor just months ago, attempted to channel some of his constituents’ frustration on Friday, insisting that “the situation is unacceptable to the community, and it’s unacceptable to me” and offering an apology, swearing that “going forward, we will do better.” But after days without power, without useful information about what to do in the short term, and without clarity about when things would go back to normal, Watson’s declaration felt hollow. Austinites already knew the situation was unacceptable. Their question was what city leaders were going to do about it.
It’s possible that there could have been a version of the crisis that wouldn’t have felt quite so bleak. The city could have come out the gate with a clear explanation of what was happening—a complicated series of power outages from downed lines that, for many of us, would take many days to rectify—and what resources were available to those without power, be they shelter or food assistance. It could have generated a feeling that we were all in this together, and that the institutions we count on were aware of our priorities.
The worst part wasn’t just being without power—it was feeling abandoned. On Saturday, my wife and I left the hotel in the morning and came home to a freezer full of thawed food, as temperatures had climbed outside. That evening, we went to see M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin, and the surprise twist at the end was that when we left the theater, we had a series of texts from neighbors who told us that the lights were finally—79 hours later—back on. We went home, tossed a couple hundred dollars’ worth of just-purchased food into trash bags, and pretended that things were back to normal.
The person I was in 2019 would be shocked by the extent to which I’ve come to accept that we’re all on our own in a crisis. But I’ve seen it firsthand, over and over again, for years now. If there’s a pandemic, you can buy a mask, stay home as much as possible, and hope for the best. If there’s an unprecedented statewide freeze, you can buy a generator, boil water if you’re lucky enough to have a gas stove, and hope for the best. If there’s another mass power outage because of some fairly ordinary weather that the city was somehow still unprepared for, you can—if you’re in a position to do so—save up for a better generator, get a chain saw, stock up on shelf-stable food, and hope for the best. If you haven’t become a prepper, you probably haven’t been paying attention.