In some ways, the North Wind that brought the Big Freeze to Texas the day before Valentine’s Day was a storm of more than a century. The below zero temperatures that swept across the state broke records going back to 1899.
But in more important ways, Winter Storm Uri was just another blast of ice and snow, just a little bit worse than similar big storms in 2011 and 2014.
The 2011 cold wave came so close to overwhelming the Texas state grid that power was imported from Mexico, something some Mexicans recalled bitterly when Texas refused to export power to Mexico during the extended freeze of 2021.
After the close call on a statewide shutdown in 2011, and another one three years later in 2014, state and federal studies said the many power providers on the Texas grid needed to step up the winterization of their equipment and the state needed to toughen up its enforcement of standards on the power industry. Neither recommendation was accepted.
So when the February storm struck, insufficiently weatherized facilities froze over and some four and a half million customers were left in the cold and the dark for days, and were told to boil their water for days after the lights came back on.
And some of the lucky ones, whose power stayed on, saw rates go up from around $35 per megawatt hour to $9,000.
The state agency that set those soaring prices, the sadly misnamed Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has become the whipping boy of the crisis for Texas politicians like Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Public Utilities Commission, both of whom have started investigations into ERCOT.
A good place for investigators to start would be why the PUC — which is in charge of ERCOT — would need an investigation after the fact of their own failures of management before the fact, and why the governor would need to investigate a commission whose members he appointed.
But we’re talking Texas here, where ineptitude masquerades as political philosophy, and where Rick Perry, who was governor during both the 2011 and 2014 ice storms and the inert legislative non-response to the lessons those storm should have taught, has philosophized on the 2021 disaster, made much worse by Texas’ disconnection from the power grids of the United States: “Texans,” he said, “would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.”
How long would you guess Rick Perry froze in the dark?
Jeremy Schwartz has been an investigative reporter in Texas for nearly a decade, covering issues including voting rights and border security for the Austin American-Statesman and USA Today Network. His work has resulted in the overhaul of Texas’ inspection process for farmworker housing, sparked Congressional investigations of a failed Department of Veterans Affairs research program and uncovered misleading border arrest and drug seizure statistics maintained by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Schwartz won the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Latino Issues award for his 2017 investigation into the political underrepresentation of Latinos in Texas cities and counties, and the Headliners Foundation of Texas Reporter of the Year award, among other honors. He previously served as Cox Newspapers’ Latin America correspondent in Mexico City from 2005 to 2009, and before that, he covered the U.S. Border Patrol and immigration at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.