UT community shares frustrations over government response to Winter Storm Uri

Caroline Culberson, Life and Arts Reporter

On Feb. 14, many Longhorns went to sleep anticipating an overnight winter event, but the following tragedy of Winter Storm Uri surpassed what anyone could have imagined.

Nearly 220,000 Austin Energy customers lost power in the early hours of the next morning. Despite promises of rolling black outs from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) — who operate the state’s isolated power grid — many faced days of freezing temperatures inside of their homes.

“It’s disappointing that our government officials failed us,” said Emily Vo, a government and international relations sophomore. “I’m trying to be optimistic (about) change this upcoming year.”

Vo said her experience living in Jester West during the storm was fraught, despite the power remaining on. The dining hall rationed food because icy roads made fresh deliveries impossible. To make matters worse, the sleet made the walk to restaurants on Guadalupe Street too dangerous.

“We were just eating to eat,” Vo said. “They shut off the water for over a day (and told us), ‘Don’t shower or use the bathroom.’”

As another winter approaches, the emotional fallout of the traumatic week remains with students. Angela Cox, a social work and dance sophomore, said she balks at the apathy Texas government and energy management authorities have demonstrated in the 10 months after the catastrophe — a frustration many Texans share.

“(On the news), they were talking about how the entire grid of Texas was seconds from collapsing, and it blew my mind,” Cox said. “Why wasn’t anyone doing anything about it?”

While it came as a surprise to some students, architecture assistant professor Juliana Felkner said she knew the grid was insufficiently prepared for a storm of this magnitude, and she recognized that officials were unmotivated to make dramatic improvement so as to not interfere with Texas’ booming economic growth.

“There was a blackout in 2011 that revealed a weakness that, especially for the natural gas power plants, (required) weatherization for cold temperatures they didn’t expect to see in Texas,” Felkner said. “And that was not done sufficiently.”

Cox admits she hopes to leave Texas after graduating if the political tides don’t turn in the next gubernatorial election.

“I’m so mad about it because I feel like nobody talks about it anymore,” Cox said.

The urgency to keep the conversation going isn’t lost on Zachary Krakauer Ganz, a communication and leadership sophomore who said he always carries with him the memory of his 65-year-old aunt, who passed away in West Austin during the storm. Hers was one of more than 100 lives lost in Travis County as a result of complications of the disaster, many of them elderly or vulnerable.

“Those in office have had the chance to prove that they want to save us,” Ganz said.  “And unfortunately, that’s not the case.”

Ganz interns with Jasmine Crockett, a progressive state legislator from Dallas who passionately pursued energy reform in response to the grid failure. Although her legislation failed to pass the house, Ganz said he remains undaunted.

“I’m someone that believes in staying with the sinking ship,” Ganz said. “I’m always going to want to live and vote in Texas … I’m always going to call Texas home.”

Felkner lacks confidence that the limited weatherization of the natural gas electricity generators will be enough to stop another black out this winter. She recommends keeping flashlights, bottled water and portable chargers handy in case of another crisis, as well as using one’s vote to choose candidates dedicated to energy reform.

“Much of (the necessary change) depends on legislation,”  Felkner added. “While that may feel like it’s out of our personal control, collectively, we can demand better — more renewables, less reliance on fossil fuels. We have the power, right and responsibility.”