Texas was freezing, and Sen. Ted Cruz was looking forward to sizzling his way to a Cancun vacation. People didn’t have drinking water and were advised to boil anything that came out of their faucets. That’s easy enough to do when you have no power. Some resorted to burning their furniture, fences, and anything else they could get their hands on. A woman and her two grandchildren perished from flames when they lit a fire in their fireplace to stay warm. Children died from the cold, and Texas’s Electric Reliability Council (ERCOT) is being sued. They’ve sent people five-figure electricity bills, and the absentee governor says power cannot be cut off for nonpayment.
The rest of the nation is looking at Texas (and Louisiana and Oklahoma, but Texas is in the worst shape) with shock and horror. People have queued up for food, water and heat. Many have left their homes to shelter with friends, only to return to frozen pipes and flooded floors. Others have thronged to Gallery Furniture, where the civic-minded “Mattress Mack,” Jim MCIngvale, opened his store so people could rest in warmth. People slept on high-end beds, recliners, sofas and other furniture, ate snacks and drank water that they could not find at home.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called the crisis the result of “20 years of bad government.” He criticized state leadership for the situation and said the state, not individuals, should be responsible for excessive bills. Other mayors, leaders, and Congressional representatives talked about the lack of planning. They seemed resigned to the crisis, which can’t be resolved until people have running water and their homes are repaired. Could this happen in Washington, D.C., New York, Denver, or San Francisco? What can we learn from the Texas calamity?
Firstly, we must acknowledge that our infrastructure is crumbling. The American Society of Civil Engineers reports that our infrastructure — our highways and bridges, water systems and dams — has long been neglected and is crumbling. President Biden has an excellent opportunity to generate jobs and repair our aging infrastructure, and it is an effort that should garner bipartisan support. Texas reminds us how fragile our infrastructure is and how much it will cost us, both in money and human misery, if we continue to ignore it.
The Texas debacle should also remind us how intertwined we are. The Texas swashbuckling “go it alone” attitude kept them disconnected from national electric grids that might have been able to help when ERCOT could not. In the end, even though former Gov. Rick Perry said he would prefer to freeze than have the federal government involved, President Biden declared Texas an emergency and ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to direct resources to Texas.
The National Guard is delivering food, water, shelter and other emergency relief. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez crossed both state and party lines to provide emergency supplies. I don’t think former Gov. Perry would turn this assistance down. What a difference an administration makes! While the previous president would have undoubtedly gone to one of the places where people have lined up to throw water bottles at them, just like he threw paper towels in Puerto Rico, President Biden has eschewed the spotlight and quietly directed resources to Texas.
Ted Cruz provides a lesson from Texas regarding class, race and access. He had the money to jump on a plane and take his family with him. Too many don’t have that access. Disasters hit most people hard, but they hit some people harder. When we develop disaster relief, we must be mindful of the inequalities that every disaster reveals. Those who are privileged should not be allowed to exert their privilege during a disaster.
Kudos to AOC, Beto O’Rourke, Sheila Jackson Lee and others who have stepped up to help. Texas is a tragedy, but it is also an opportunity to learn more about planning and prevention.
Malveaux is an economist and author.