8 min read

Trickle-Down Survival in Texas

Trickle-Down Survival in Texas
A snowy winter street
Photo by Jeffrey Blum on Unsplash

I’m pushing the garden post one more week—sorry.

Two things, right out the gate:

  1. There’s little reason to argue about whether or not climate change caused the tremendous cold snap and winter weather across the country recently. Climate change almost certainly helped, if not made it possible. We already talked about how climate change can theoretically help create a polar vortex, and how it strengthens storms.
  2. Climate change isn’t the only actor here. The failures of Texas as a state come from a deliberate cleaving to capitalism, which led to an independent utility infrastructure that made them unable to bounce back. If you think Texas is alone in prioritizing wealth and the wealthy, you are mistaken.

I can’t stress enough that this is not a fluke. This is what our lives look like now. We live in the age of 500 year floods. Record-breaking fire seasons will be followed by new record-breaking fire seasons. Pandemics will come more frequently. And the government—state, local, federal—is not going to always (or ever) be there for you.

So let’s talk about the intersection of state failures and disaster. This is separate from the state being mostly willing but unable to keep up, which has been my general, optimistic assumption in this newsletter so far, one in which you simply have to wait out bad conditions and bad actors. Instead, imagine an active and willful fuck-up—this is trickle-down survival.

What Happened in Texas

The short of it is this: in order to duck regulation and make profits, Texas created its own electrical grid that is not part of the national system. This grid, run by ERCOT, is short-term profits based. With no incentive to gird themselves against extreme cold or to prepare for an increase in demand, ERCOT did what capitalism does—they made their money and fucked off. We’ve been told all our lives that capitalism produces the best and brightest, but it’s becoming clearer by the day that its end state, where we are, is a veiled monopolism, bent on profits over people.

When this extreme cold set in across Texas, demand for electricity (and natural gas) spiked. This created a burden on systems that were already hampered by those cold conditions—under which they are not designed to typically operate. Under this stress, the operating portions of the system were not able to provide enough electricity for consumers, causing an enormous blackout. Due to these conditions, natural gas production has also decreased. It’s important to note that some of these conditions were not forced, but chosen, as “the sudden high wholesale price of electricity may have caused ERCOT’s computers to order companies to ‘shed load’—that is, cut off customers—rather than deal with the spike in costs.” The load shed was not distributed evenly. Rolling blackouts have been instituted since the crisis began, and you’ve probably seen pictures like these that show clear demarcations of who exactly is made to bear the burden of power outages.

More than just lacking power and heat, the cold across the state has been severe enough to freeze pipes (which are generally not as well-insulated as in the north) and necessitate boil advisories—which, when faced with no electricity or gas, means there is no potable water. Grocery shelves in Houston and Austin were bare. The Texas government response has been, needless to say, inadequate. Mutual aid organizations appear to be making up the difference as best they can.

(Here is a thread of mutual aid organizations to donate to.)

Recovery is going to be slow, and it may take a while for power to be restored across the state. Water won't simply spring back from burst pipes, either, and that's a problem with serious complications; beyond the lack of potable water, there is no municipal water pressure, and so when fires lit by folks trying to stay warm got out of control, there was no way to extinguish them. (As of this writing, the weather at least has eased conditions.)

This Is Why We Prep

We knew this storm was coming; the snow, ice, and cold were forecast well ahead of time. But there’s a huge difference between prepping and hitting the grocery store for a second gallon of milk. I don’t say that to cast aspersions on Texans—being utterly let down by your state and power companies is going to hit anyone, even preppers, and climate change has thrown curveballs quicker and harder than expected. So we need to make sure that our preps are up to speed, and that when we hear something like this is coming down the pike, we don’t just stock up: we prepare.

It is literally inevitable that something like this storm happens again. We’ll have more winter storms like this, thunderstorms, derechos, tornadoes, hurricanes, the whole megillah, that test our mettle. But we also have to be ready for the broader-reaching impacts, for the failures beyond our scope. Your state, your country, is absolutely going to fail you. We were failed by the US government in its response to COVID. New Orleans was failed after Katrina. Puerto Rico was failed. It's a matter of time.

As climate change ramps up and capitalism reaches new heights of inequality, we will see more egregious acts from those in power. There will be storms during and after which only poor neighborhoods are blacked out. There will be damaged infrastructure in redlined areas that don’t get repaired. There will be a pandemic or epidemic for which only the rich get to queue up early for a vaccine. Until the underlying cause of these issues is addressed, all we can do is prepare for the failings we know will occur.

Winter Storm Resilience

Out of two life-threatening dangers faced in Texas, we've already prepped for a shortage of water. That leaves staying warm and heating your home in the absence of conventional means.

We've talked a bit about staying warm in winter before. But in light of what happened in Texas, we ought to take this more seriously than just putting up a tent in the living room. Most of what you can do won't require purchases, but if you got a head start on home maintenance and made sure you're sitting pretty for insulation, it wouldn't hurt anything. The idea is to put as much material between the walls and floor and you as possible.

  • Select one small room in which to reside for the duration of the power outage / storm. Ideally, this is centrally located within the home.
  • Stuff rolled towels under any doorways.
  • Hang sheets or plastic insulation over windows. You'll pull back any sheets/curtains for direct sunshine but otherwise keep them covered.
  • Cover the floors with extra blankets.
  • Set up a safe, stable platform for a heating source.
  • Do the tent thing. You're creating a microclimate inside a microclimate. It doesn't need to be a fancy tent—just something that will further insulate you while you sleep. Put more blankets inside the tent—get fluff between you and the floor.

Most alternative methods of heating are going to require either risk, inconvenience, or both. They are, broadly:

  • Propane / kerosene: Purchase a small heater (like a Buddy Heater) that runs off these fuels. A Buddy will keep you comfortable in a small room. The downside to one of these heaters is they’re a fire hazard that can also poison you. Do not run one of these in an unventilated space. If you have no power and it's freezing out, you're probably in an unventilated space; make sure you crack a window. Do not be dissuaded by the company’s language that states the heater is safe for indoor use—you must use abundant caution because carbon monoxide will kill you stone dead, and the situation that makes CO poisoning possible in this instance means it’ll kill you while you’re asleep because you just got comfortable for the first time in 24 hours.
  • Start a fire: You will obviously do this outside. How you make it extra useful is by cooking on the fire and using the passive heat to warm up items that can radiate that heat without threat of fire indoors. The principle methods will be water (indoor condensation can be an issue) and bricks or rocks (perfect). Make a fire pit of brick or stone, or insert bricks into your metal fire pit, and pull them out once heated. Place these bricks in a fireproof vessel and take them indoors. They will radiate enough heat to bump the temperature in a small room.
  • Makeshift heaters: I don’t recommend these except in dire situations, as the fire hazard is quite high, and the threat of oxygen depletion / poisoning returns. That said, if you’re about to turn into a prepsicle, you can use rubbing alcohol (70%), a wicking material (a big wad of newspaper or toilet paper), and a large metal can to create a relatively clean-burning heat source—homemade Sterno, essentially. Burning alcohol is extremely dangerous, as it emits little light and will absolutely spread if the vessel is spilled. Do not refill this type of heater until the can is completely cool. A safer bet is just a bunch of tea candles set away from any disturbances or anything flammable. People talk about setting up a clay pot over the candles for better radiance, but you’re still dealing with the same level of heat. Do what you like with caution.

Mutual Aid

Almost as often as I say you should store water (go buy a few gallons, btw), I say that we need to be thinking about others in our preps. Walk with me for a moment, and imagine a prepper of moderate skill and accoutrement:

This prepper still lives in town, but they’ve got everything they need. Water in barrels, a big garden out back, they have a fully-loaded pantry, guns in the closet, bars on the windows, a generator for when the lights go out. Then the lights go out. It’s freezing. No one can go anywhere by vehicle. The pipes burst throughout the neighborhood. Prepper’s neighbor notices Prep’s still got power—hears the generator running. Knocks on the door. Prep turns neighbor away. Neighbor goes home to his elderly mother, who hasn’t had a drink of water to wash down her meds yet today. Do you think the neighbor does nothing in this situation? Or do you think the neighbor knocks on another neighbor’s door and says, “Hey, seems like Prep’s doing all right. Maybe we should see if they’ve got anything to spare?”

In this scenario, the prepper probably thinks they’re the smart one, the lone survivalist who was meant to get through this trial while everyone around them froze because they didn’t think ahead. But they’re not. They’ve become a villain.

In a disaster, we check on our neighbors. We offer them food, water. Let them sit by our fire a while. It’s as simple as that. If you're not a people-person, you can think of this practically: being nice to your neighbors, building a community, is another insulating prep.

We prep for the broader needs of mutual aid simply: when you have the ability to buy more supplies, do so, with the expectation that it will be needed by others. Contact local mutual aid organizations and find out what they need donated. Don’t just roll up with whatever you have; ask after what's most needed, and buy that. Talk to your pod—you do keep in touch with your pod, right? (This is a fine reminder to get a communication backup and plan in place.) See what they need, if anything. If they’re good, see what you all can contribute for others. Organize a supply drive amongst yourselves.

For most of us, this is a wake-up call. For some, it's the real thing. The clock is running on when a climate disaster comes to our doors, and it's a safe bet that the infrastructure we rely on day to day will fall through, in whole or in part. But with a head start, we can make sure that a disaster doesn't cost our lives or the lives of those around us.