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Bill Whitaker: Thawing Texans deserve solutions, not hot air, after Big Freeze

Bill Whitaker: Thawing Texans deserve solutions, not hot air, after Big Freeze


Former Texas governor and Trump energy secretary Rick Perry offered a remarkable declaration last week about Texans shivering in the Big Freeze that crippled coal- and gas-fired power plants and wind turbines across our state: “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business. Try not to let whatever the crisis of the day is take your eye off of having a resilient grid that keeps America safe personally, economically and strategically.”

Resilient? Safe? Perry might get an argument about that — and from thawing Texans who otherwise count themselves as conservative, whatever that even means anymore. His commentary is all too typical of today’s ideologically bankrupt Republican politician, even as millions of fellow Texans question how a state that loudly boasts it produces more energy than it needs and could boldly go it alone as the republic it once was wound up in the cold without power and in many cases without water. The answer involves a state-monitored power grid independent of those pesky federal regulations that, in hindsight, might have ensured such precautions as effective winterization of fossil-fueled power plants and wind turbines. Cheap is the operative word permeating coming state legislative postmortems.

The former governor’s myopia pales alongside that of Tim Boyd, mayor of the West Texas town of Colorado City where, as elsewhere, some residents went days without power or running water amid freezing temperatures. When citizenry raised questions about community warming centers, Mayor Boyd exploded in a social-media tirade about personal responsibility, socialism, God, handouts and limited government. Repeated here with most grammatical landmines intact, it neatly preceded his resignation from public service for possibly obvious reasons:

“Let me hurt some feelings while I have a minute!! 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! The City and County, along with power providers or any other service, owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout! If you don’t have electricity you step up and come up with a game plan to keep your family warm and safe. If you have no water you deal without and think outside of the box to survive and supply water to your family. If you are sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are sitting there waiting for someone to come rescue you because your lazy is direct result of your raising! Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish. Folks, God has given us the tools to support ourselves in times like this. This is sadly a product of a socialist government where they feed people to believe that the FEW will work and others will become dependent for handouts. Am I sorry that you have been dealing without electricity and water; yes! But I’ll be damned if I’m going to provide for anyone that is capable of doing it themselves! We have lost sight of those in need and those that take advantage of the system and mesh them into one group!! Bottom line, quit crying and looking for a handout! Get off your ass and take care of your own family!”

Pride and powerlessness

Such rants, normally the province of right-wing crackpots on social media and drunken louts at the end of the proverbial bar, are built on the enduring notion that real Texans tough it out, just as our state’s forefathers did amid droughts, blizzards, Indian attacks and Yankee aggression. Yet such pride sits uneasily alongside the angry exchanges that this past week colored a neighborhood app that serves mostly well-off residents of Woodway, Hewitt and West Waco and is usually focused on such crises as lost dogs and cats and Amazon packages gone AWOL. Some frustrated at outages and corporate indifference quite understandably fumed and vented, along the way illuminating certain falsehoods: First, most of us are indeed frontier-style Texas tough, suffering indignities with stoicism and can-do swagger. Second, government regulations suppress commerce and personal liberty. Third, partisan blame games targeting environmentalists, Trump, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, even Ted Cruz (the latter caught pursuing a quickie Mexican holiday while Texas constituents froze) really does solve problems when huddling in a house where the power is out, temperatures inside are in the mid-50s or below and streets are iced over sufficiently to prevent easy escape. Fourth, politicians and their followers have this climate-change thing figured out and it’s a lot of bunk, no matter what scientists say. Consider now the following local exchange in light of comments by Boyd and Perry:

First Texan: “I am a Texan. The home of energy production. It is inexcusable to be without power this long in these temperatures. Someone has really dropped the ball. I plan on calling ERCOT, Oncor and Reliant to ask questions and let them know what I think. Even though it will probably not matter.”

Second Texan: “The outage tracker and status updates don’t work, website is crap and I have reported through the automated line, but no way anyone is gonna talk to a live person.”

Third Texan: “I implore you to really think about your complaint before you decide to unload your grievances on some poor unexpected customer service rep because your expectations are not being met when it comes to how long or fast your power should be restored to your home in the middle of a pandemic when more than you have been without power. Sometimes we don’t think about the men who are out there working their butts [off] in this weather with limited resources because, hey, this is Texas, and all they get for their efforts are people complaining and griping about how long it took. Compared to the people that went without power for months in Puerto Rico, this is nothing. We all can act very entitled sometimes when we should stop and think, hey, maybe these guys are doing their best. As the wife of a lineman, I know first-hand what these guys are going through to help people get power and it really upsets me when I see how hard they work and read supercilious comments such as this.”

First Texan: “Oh, please. First of all, the linemen and service reps are not who I am talking about. This is not Puerto Rico. This is Texas. It should not be going on here. Do not call me entitled. Keep that liberal BS to yourself and leave me alone.”

Obviously, many fellow Central Texans have met this crisis with grace, charity, even humor. One local resident posted wintry jokes to lighten moods. (“Knock, knock. Who’s there? Icy. Icy who? Icy you!”) Woodway police on foot endured ice and snow over hill and dale to rescue a scared, weak, near-frozen bulldog. The Trib offered the telling adventures of Ronnie and Lisa Jackson, who fled their home in Riesel after it lost power last weekend, stayed in the Executive Inn & Suites in Marlin till it lost power and water, then took refuge at Hotel Indigo in Waco, only to leave Tuesday because of cattle that needed feeding. Which was just as well: Hotel Indigo lost power hours later.

The paper also highlighted Axtell resident Joe Bays, who sent his family to warmer quarters while he remained behind with the barnyard animals, including 48 chickens, five show goats, two dogs, cattle, horses and a cat. Through grit, generators and heat lamps, Bays got the house temperature up to 45 degrees but the barn all the way up to 60. (Yes, let’s reaffirm now what I’ve often found true: Axtell folks really are Texas tough.) And some residents throughout McLennan County took delight, over social media, in offering solutions to household calamities. One, when her husband fretted about the contents of their freezer spoiling if they lost power, said, “Are you kidding? We’ll just put the frozen food on the patio! It’s 2 degrees out there!” To which another replied online: “Thanks for the giggle. I needed that. It is 46 inside the house and I am a very angry 80-year-old.”

No laughing matter

Yet a lot of folks aren’t laughing, and for good reason. More than 40,000 of us in McLennan County were without power at one point last week. As many as 4.5 million of us were without power statewide, according to the website Texans may be proud of their very own power grid in an anti-regulatory environment, but the scheme only works if you actually take care of it and maintain it so it doesn’t falter when extreme weather strikes. Energy experts say that without some regulation to ensure gas-fired and coal-fired power plants and, yes, wind turbines are sufficiently maintained to where they operate in intense cold, the cherished conservative concepts of commerce and liberty mean little when people are reduced to melting snow to flush their toilets and buying lumber to burn in their fireplaces because firewood cannot be easily had.

Certainly, the death, suffering and incompetence we’ve seen on a massive scale represent far greater problems than, say, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s latest tempest over the failure to play the national anthem at sporting events or Republican skullduggery to make voting harder in Texas. And you can dismiss Republican state Rep. Kyle Biedermann’s bill pressing Texas secession, introduced by the lawmaker after marching with pro-Trump supporters to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. For all our big talk, we’re clearly not up to going it alone — not yet anyway.

Two good things about Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan’s request for a Thursday joint hearing of the House State Affairs and Energy Resources committees to “cut through the finger-pointing” and determine why so many residents — plenty of them poor, aged or otherwise vulnerable — were left in the Big Freeze. First, its prompt timing means Texans won’t have lapsed into forgetfulness about this colossal systemic failure amid sunshine and warm temperatures. Second, it could mean a frank discussion about the complexities of our state’s energy production and delivery protocols — but only if state legislators get beyond self-serving Gov. Greg Abbott’s singling out the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and wind turbines for most of the blame. Plenty of scrutiny must be applied to the Texas Railroad Commission, which supposedly regulates the gas lines that froze up, and the Public Utility Commission of Texas, whose board of gubernatorial appointees bears some responsibility for winterizing and modernizing standards that clearly aren’t up to snuff if you ask freshly thawed Texans.

Legislators also need to explain where their own oversight responsibilities have been the past decade or so. In 2011, a similar Texas energy-grid collapse amid wintry extremes prompted lots of outrage by legislators but few fixes of consequence. Republican state Rep. Steve Allison has now filed a bill to compel the PUC to craft weatherization rules for energy providers, even though he acknowledges “the cow is already out of the barn and the current crisis requires far more attention and resolution so we never suffer through something like this again.”

And if anyone tries to blame the crisis on wind turbines, just quit listening. You’re being lied to or you’re listening to an ignoramus.

Given that, by gubernatorial request, we’re now in line to get dreaded handouts in disaster relief from the federal bogeyman so many of us ridicule and dismiss and condemn, we surely owe the American taxpayer a commitment to determine just why matters here went south.

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Veteran Texas journalist Bill Whitaker recently retired as Tribune-Herald opinion editor.

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