When meteorologists begin talking about the possibility of winter weather, a familiar sense of panic falls across Texas. Millions flock to the grocery store to stock up on essentials. Schools close for several days in anticipation of dangerous driving conditions.
Most of the time, these preparations are overexaggerated. As a lifelong Texan, I can remember very few instances when the temperature dropped below freezing, let alone when it actually snowed.
This past weekend was different. All 254 counties in the state were placed under a winter weather watch and several cities were blanketed with snow and ice. Texans diligently followed safety guidelines, staying indoors and off the slippery roads.
Despite the fact that state leadership was aware of the possibility of winter weather, the power grid was not equipped to handle the increased demands as millions across the state sought warmth. Since the beginning of the storm, hundreds of thousands of Texas residents have been left without power and water, forced to find some way to stay warm as the temperature within their homes plummets below freezing. Three people died of hypothermia in their homes in Harris County. A woman and her 7-year-old daughter died of carbon monoxide poisoning after using their car for heat in their home’s garage.
As thousands struggled to survive this past week, many began to question what went wrong, prompting a statewide conversation about Texas energy policy. The majority of the intercontinental United States is served by two power grid connections: the Western Interconnection and the Eastern Interconnection. Of course, Texas is the exception. The majority of the state gets its power from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). You might find yourself asking, why does the state have its own power grid? Wouldn’t it be easier to connect to one of the already existing country-wide power interconnections?
Well, because the Western and Eastern Interconnections cross state lines, they are subject to federal regulation. To avoid the interference of the federal government, Texas opted for its own, unregulated power grid, a choice which is proving to have profound implications for the state right now.
Officials at ERCOT were aware of the winter storm system that was descending upon Texas well before this weekend, but they chose not to equip additional technology in preparation for the increased demand that comes with winter weather – especially in a state that is so unfamiliar with cold temperatures. Because ERCOT is largely unregulated, power companies had no incentive to ‘winterize’ their equipment, leading to the power outages that have dominated the news cycle.
Why protect almost 29 million people when you can signal your allegiance to the free market?
State leadership has proved both unable and unwilling to meet the needs of its constituents. Governor Greg Abbott appeared on the Sean Hannity Show and blamed solar energy for the crisis in Texas, using it as an opportunity to take a cheap shot at the Green New Deal. While hundreds of thousands struggled to find a warm place to stay or secure their next meal, Texas Senator Ted Cuz flew to Cancún before releasing a bizarre statement blaming his daughters.
In the absence of compassion and human decency from our elected leadership, mutual aid groups have stepped up to the plate, providing warm meals, water, and a place to stay for those in need. Mutual aid work emphasizes solidarity, not charity. Members of local mutual aid collectives work together to identify the needs of a community and work together to meet those needs, especially when institutions fail to provide for those they serve. Many, myself included, were introduced to the concept of mutual aid during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the protests against police brutality that took place this summer. But organizers have long used mutual aid tactics to mitigate the harmful impacts of crises and inaction by those in power.
As soon as word hit that thousands were struggling, organizers began mobilizing their communities. In Dallas, Feed the People Dallas Mutual Aid began collecting money and dry goods items for those in need of food. Austin Mutual Aid is currently raising money to secure hotel rooms for the city’s unhoused population, in addition to accepting food and water donations. Organizers with Para Mi Gente are working to provide groceries and emergency housing to San Antonians in need. In the state’s biggest city, Mutual Aid Houston is collecting funds to help its community locate food, housing and transportation, collaborating with several other local organizations.
People are organizing for their communities outside of formal mutual aid collectives, too. At my university, The University of Texas at Austin, students fortunate enough to have access to power are offering services to fellow students (and the Austin community at large). My Instagram and Twitter feeds have been full of students offering their apartments as a place to stay or asking if anyone needs food delivered.
As I watched mutual aid efforts spread across the state, I found myself struck by the Jewishness of it all. I’m not a super observant Jew — my connection to Judaism is grounded in the religion’s social justice teachings. Tikkun olam teaches us to repair the world through compassionate social action. Mutual aid embodies tikkun olam. Organizers are working to repair their communities from the harmful effects of hunger and power outages, often braving freezing temperatures and tapping into their own resources.
There is no mistaking it — mutual aid is tikkun olam. If you are able, I strongly encourage you to donate what you can to any of the above organizations. A quick Google search will pull up additional organizations that are on the ground in Texas. Donating is a simple way to honor the social justice teachings that are not only an integral part of our religion, but our history.
I love Texas. I am so proud to be born and raised in the Lone Star State. I am horrified that elected officials are turning their backs on the place that I love, ignoring the suffering of even those that voted for them. Still, the surge in mutual aid activism that I’ve witnessed over the past few days fills me with immense hope. Even during a historic snowstorm, communities are turning both inward and outward to wrap strangers with radical love and care.
Repairing the world, indeed.