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The Deadly Winter Storm In Texas Has Exposed The State's Deep Inequalities

In a state that prizes self-reliance over government assistance, those with the least are left to fend for themselves.

Posted on February 18, 2021, at 8:17 p.m. ET

Police wearing face masks carry plastic-wrapped blankets and pass them out among people experiencing homelessness who huddle near a fire
Jon Shapley / AP

Houston police officers hand out blankets to people under the Interstate 45 overpass.

In Houston, Verónica Trancoso has been traveling from house to house for days, chasing electricity as each location loses power, like dominoes. “The house where I am now, we are also losing power,” she told BuzzFeed News in Spanish on Wednesday night.

The pandemic had already put Trancoso under a lot of financial pressure — she hasn’t had steady employment since last March and has been selling food and cleaning houses just to live in a place that has holes in the walls, which she has stuffed with pillows and clothing to keep out the rats. The storm and rolling power outages are stretching thin whatever remains of her resilience.

“I have had a lot of stress and anxiety. I can't sleep, and I’ve gotten to the point of drinking cough medicine at night to sleep,” said Trancoso. “It’s very difficult and I know that a lot of people are going through the same things.”

As Texas faces down the threat of yet another winter storm on Thursday, with hundreds of thousands still left without power and water, the suffering of some of its most vulnerable residents has exposed a deep chasm between who can afford to escape the deadly cold and who can’t. In a state that promotes a sense of independence and self-reliance, those with the least have been left to seek help on their own amid life-threatening circumstances.

While wealthier residents made use of their backup generators, booked pricey hotel rooms, and swiftly traveled out of state, the most vulnerable residents had few options. People experiencing homelessness or who don’t have stable housing are seeking shelter in crowded indoor spaces as thousands of new cases of COVID-19 continue to be reported in Texas daily. Many older people and those with disabilities are stranded at home with no access to food and supplies, and often unable to communicate with anyone for help. And people who are incarcerated in some jails and prisons are being forced to survive without running water, heat, working toilets, or anything to warm them beyond a single blanket.

Across the state, at least 10 people have died from exposure, fires, carbon monoxide poisoning, and car accidents triggered by the frigid conditions. “I’m very fearful that we're going to learn about more,” said Eric Samuels, CEO of the Texas Homeless Network, expressing particular concern for the 28,000 people in the state who are homeless. “I don't think there's any doubt.”

A line of more than 200 people, wearing beanies and hoodies and wrapped in blankets, outside a convention center
Karen Warren / AP

City officials opened a convention center as an emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness who needed to get out of the freezing temperatures.

As the storm took down energy plants, Texas’s grid manager, ERCOT, has been implementing rolling blackouts to manage the supply of electricity until power is restored.

Carolyn Riley, a 31-year-old who lives in an apartment complex in Dallas, had only one hour of electricity per day on Monday and Tuesday. She scrambled to heat up food and take a warm shower during what she called “power hour.” She didn’t have an internet connection, which as a work-from-home employee at a freight logistics company meant she was losing income. In a cruel twist, the one place in her home insulated from the intense cold was her refrigerator; her food went bad despite the bags of snow she piled inside.

When it got too cold in her unit, she turned to her car for warmth.

“You’ll go into the garage and everyone’s kind of sitting in their cars,” she said. “That’s really the only place you go for heat.”

Riley has lived in Texas for most of her life, and she said she has never seen anything like this — from the winter storm to the power failure to the stunning lack of preparation from the government.

The weather emergency in Texas has affected residents across the board. Hourly workers are losing out on pay, and people have reported possible price gouging for hotels and basic supplies. A spike in wholesale electricity prices in Texas may also lead to an increase in electricity bills for consumers.

Experts and community organizers fear the impact of the storm will be worse in low-income neighborhoods, which will likely go longest without power, the New York Times reported. With poor infrastructure and fewer resources, low-income communities have historically waited longest to receive aid after a crisis; after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, for example, the government response in low-income, racially diverse neighborhoods was slower compared to whiter, wealthier communities.

For Texans who are already familiar with navigating disasters on their own with little help from the government, how local and city officials have responded to the storm so far is merely the latest chapter in a long pattern of neglect.

Some people who spoke to BuzzFeed News deemed government officials absent or unhelpful as the crisis unfolded. As millions lost power, Gov. Greg Abbott went on Fox News to decry the Green New Deal. On Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz admitted to flying to Cancún, Mexico, with his family after being spotted at the airport the day before. Tim Boyd, the mayor of Colorado City, Texas — whose population is around 48% Latinx — resigned this week after backlash over his Facebook post telling people to “stop looking for a handout” during the cold.

“No one owes you [or] your family anything; nor is it the local government's responsibility to support you during trying times like this! Sink or swim it’s your choice!” Boyd wrote. “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!”

The first time the power in Alondra Chavez’s home in Pasadena went out was on Sunday at 2 a.m. It didn’t come back on until Tuesday afternoon — so when it did, Chavez, 23, and their family charged their devices and cranked the heat up, unsure of how long it would last. It went out again after six hours.

Their mom forked over $45 for three cases of water at a nearby corner store for their family after their pipes burst, cutting off their water supply. Although a case normally costs $1.99, it was the only place their mom found that had any bottled water left to sell.

“I was like, ‘Why did you do that?’” Chavez said. “And she was like, ‘Because we need water.’”

Chavez is no stranger to local officials who do not represent their community’s best interest; Pasadena — which is part of the Houston metro area — is a heavily segregated city, with a lower-income Latinx population living in one area and a white affluent population in another. Chavez said they have not received guidance from local agencies.

“They’re normally silent on every issue, I feel — whether it’s the hurricane, whether we’re having a very high heat index, and now during this weather,” Chavez, who works at a nonprofit that services the Houston area community, said. “The mayor of Houston has given some updates but I don’t think it’s been very helpful. It’s essentially been, ‘Hey, it’s cold, stay inside.’”

Chavez also expects their community to be one of the most impacted by the crisis. They pointed to how long it took low-income neighborhoods to receive aid after Hurricane Harvey.

“As a Texan, I don’t think I’m surprised, honestly,” Chavez said. “We’re seeing that again now.”

A person wearing a hoodie holds sweatshirts and looks through piles of clothing inside a furniture store
David J. Phillip / AP

People select shirts and sweatshirts being given away at a Gallery Furniture store in Houston after the owner opened his business as a shelter for those without power at home.

In the absence of adequate government services, community organizers have stepped up, but advocates say they can only do so much without ongoing support from local and state officials.

Virginia Williams Trice had been awake for 29 straight hours by Wednesday afternoon, overseeing the flood of people coming in for shelter at Code Blue, a warming station. The high temperature that afternoon was only 10 degrees and soon would fall to near zero. The warming station wasn’t scheduled to open until 7 p.m., but as the sun set, a line of about 50 people had already formed outside with more heavy snow falling. So the staff opened the doors at 5:30 p.m.

People spilled into the lobby, sat on benches, and lay down in empty corners. “Places that we hadn't used before were occupied by people last night,” she said.

On a normal night, Code Blue takes in about 55 people. But the night of Feb. 16, the facility took in 105 people. “Our systems are very broken” for getting people the resources they need, including in emergency situations like this, Williams Trice said. “Mental health is one way, and also low-income support. There's just not enough to spread across the whole community.”

Mutual aid organizers in Texas echoed her comments about the lack of aid from the government, both during and prior to this weather emergency.

“Other than the warming centers that are opening up, I haven’t seen much response to the crisis from our city, county, state government compared to mutual aid organizations that are actually on the ground and talking to houseless folks, and trying to get food and water and heat over to elderly populations,” Tammy Chang, a co-organizer with Mutual Aid Houston, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s a trend that we’ve seen from the start of the pandemic until now.”

Vanessa Wilmore, the founder and lead organizer of Feed the People Dallas Mutual Aid, said she does not believe government agencies have done enough to protect people and prepare them for this crisis, and that city and state officials “kind of just dropped the ball.”

“It’s almost like the pandemic 2.0,” she said, adding that the aftermath of the storm will be disastrous. “The government — both local and federal — they just haven’t been doing a good job with the pandemic and emergency services in general.”

Chang said they were the only one out of nine core volunteers with Mutual Aid Houston who had power on Wednesday, and as a result could not do much work on the ground. Instead, the group, which received so many donations over the past few days that it is no longer accepting money from the public, directed funds to other organizations and shared requests for community volunteers.

Though the support is heartening, Chang said they are angry that it has fallen to community groups — including Mutual Aid Houston’s twentysomething-year-old organizers — to do the government’s job of supporting people in need.

“Since the very beginning of the pandemic, I’ve seen so many failures of our city, county, state government to provide meaningful assistance to their constituents,” Chang said. “It’s really disappointing, and I think throughout this entire ordeal I’ve learned that we can really only rely on each other.”

How Texans recover from this disaster will likely reflect these inequities as well. “There's a lot of that ‘pull your own bootstraps’ mentality,” said Williams Trice. “And it's applied to people that never really even had bootstraps.”

Salvador Hernandez contributed reporting to this story.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.