HOUSTON – Texas Governor Greg Abbott has called for an overhaul of the agency that oversees the flow of electricity through much of the state. Prosecutors have opened criminal investigations into the power outages that affected millions of Texans. And several lawmakers have called for the Texas Utilities Board chairperson to resign, as energy officials summoned to Austin for marathon hearings on what went wrong during the winter storm. destructive last week.
Over the past week, Texas has been gripped by a wave of accusations and blame after the powerful storm nearly collapsed the state’s electricity grid, leaving millions of people in dark, unheated homes for some of the freezing temperatures in state history.
The outrage displayed by state officials reflected the anger and anguish of residents, who continued to boil over feeling stranded with no power during the storm, burst pipes destroying their homes and electricity bills. surprisingly high that some consider depleting retirement accounts to pay them off.
“I want someone to be held to account,” said Toni Anderson, whose husband, Carrol, died in his truck outside their home in 19 degrees.
In the days that followed as the storm blanketed much of the state in snow and ice, resignations were proposed and lawsuits were filed. The future of the electricity grid has been listed as a top priority by the state legislature, and policy and energy analysts have said there is political will to pursue at least modest changes. in the management of the energy industry.
But many wondered how far state officials would be willing to go, beyond questioning and blaming.
“We’re going to be hearing a lot of cheap talk over the next few months,” said Mark P. Jones, professor of political science at Rice University. “But I would look for concrete legislation that would change the rules of the game.”
There have been calls for tighter oversight, and some have questioned the wisdom of the stand-alone, resilient approach to energy regulation that Texas has long taken. Researchers said the blackouts, which came as the storm pushed the power grid to the brink of collapse, showed the state did not have sufficient reserves and facilities had not been beefed up enough to withstand the conditions. winter.
“The colossal failure of our power grid was not an unforeseeable event – it was the result of unsustainable and reckless negligence on the part of the leaders,” said the political arm of Deeds Not Words, an advocacy group progressive women, in a statement.
Governor Abbott quickly turned to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the power grid, when assigning blame. He said the council had “repeatedly assured” officials that it was prepared for the winter conditions. “These assurances have turned out to be false,” he said.
The board, known as ERCOT, was also criticized for having a board of directors made up of several members who did not live in Texas. Five of those board members, including the president, resigned this week.
“A lot of you are angry,” Abbott said in a televised address Wednesday. “You have every right to be. I too am angry. At a time when essential services were most needed, the system collapsed. You deserve answers. You will get these answers.
In some ways, the timing of the disaster was fortuitous, coming just as the state legislature, which meets every two years, began its session. This week, a line of officials from ERCOT, the Texas Utilities Commission, energy officials, electricity providers and others faced a barrage of questions about the outages.
“Who turned off my device?” Todd Hunter, a nine-term Republican lawmaker from Corpus Christi, asked energy officials during a hearing this week.
“Gentlemen, we have a lot of people watching,” he said, adding, “This is the question I think most people want to ask you.” His voice rose. “Who is at fault? I want the public to know who fucked up, ”Hunter said. “I want names and details.”
Many lawmakers have been unfazed in their criticism. “This is the biggest train wreck in the history of electricity deregulation,” Senator Brandon Creighton, a Republican, told Bill Magness, CEO and Chairman of ERCOT.
Mr. Magness acknowledged the devastation caused by the power outages, but in his testimony said that even in hindsight, ERCOT would not have acted differently. He said the network was heading for a collapse – it was at four minutes, 37 seconds, to be exact, as demand rose and supply fell. The consequences of that, he said, would have been even more devastating.
“Now it didn’t work for people’s lives, but it worked to preserve the integrity of the system,” Magness said of the decisions made by network operators, adding that if the system had failed completely, “We would always be talking about how we would turn on the power. “
Disaster is no stranger to Texas, where hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast, powerful tornadoes scratch begging, and wildfires burn ranch lands in the Hill Country. Even winter storms delivering snow and ice are nothing new.
But the level of consternation the recent winter storm sparked in Texas reflected the scale of devastation that swept through much of the state.
In the days that followed, much of Texas returned to the kind of winter that locals experience. The snow and ice melted. In Houston, the highs reached 80 degrees. Yet the aftermath of the storm remains in the piles of lumber and drywall left in front of the houses with shattered pipes. They are seen in the plumbing-hungry trades on social media and, in a community, at a local bar, with such items not found in stores.
Valerie Williams was spared damage to her home, but she and her family faced an electric bill of $ 8,100. She was among the customers using services like Griddy, where the cost of electricity is tied to the fluctuation in the wholesale price. She had written to Mr. Abbott and had received no response.
“I was just suggesting to the governor that we get some answers,” said Ms Williams, who lives in Burleson, a suburb of Fort Worth, saying she hoped for relief as the storm presented a situation she did not have. never anticipated and left her. beware of state leaders.
“Honestly, I feel like we’ve lost faith in the people responsible for making sure we have what we need to be healthy and safe in our own homes,” she said. “This is the hardest part. I never thought that in Texas we couldn’t have what we needed, and unfortunately it is.
District attorneys statewide have said they have opened investigations to determine whether anyone – including state officials, agencies and power companies – could be held criminally responsible for any part of the consequences of the storm.
“We will not forget the horror our community went through,” said José Garza, the Travis County District Attorney, who includes Austin, in a statement. “We will do everything in our power to empower powerful actors, whose action or inaction may have led to this suffering.”
Lawyers also expect an avalanche of lawsuits that will rival those that always arise after major hurricanes. “I think you’re going to see more litigation from this event, definitely more than Harvey and even more than Ike,” said Tony Buzbee, a lawyer in Houston.
For Ms. Anderson, the storm has not passed.
In his kitchen in Crosby, just outside Houston, the drywall was soggy and the floors warped from the downpour from a burst pipe in the attic. Still, that was nothing compared to the gaping absence of her husband, who likely went to his truck for a spare oxygen tank. Its main tank was electrically powered and the power had been cut the night before.
Ms Anderson filed a lawsuit against CenterPoint Energy, her electricity supplier, arguing that the outages the company described as rotating instead lasted for hours, leading to her husband’s decline. (CenterPoint said the company is not commenting on the disputes.)
Mr. Anderson had attempted to plug a vacuum into a generator to clean up the damage caused by the burst hose. He became exhausted and had difficulty breathing. As he went out for the spare oxygen tank, his wife continued to clean. She later found him slumped over the console of his truck.
Mr. Anderson, 75, was a Vietnam veteran who had held the same job for decades with the Port Terminal Railroad Association. He might be a little gruff, said Anderson. But when she called her old colleagues on the railroad, they told her stories about his kindness, how he had helped them in their work.
“I’ve seen him every day for 30 years, and now all of a sudden I’m alone in a house,” Ms. Anderson, 75, said, her words punctuated with tears. “He should be here today.
David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.