The first day, Melissa Hutchins and her husband burned furniture to keep warm. Friends of theirs burned their children’s toys. A neighbor’s roof caved in.
When the Hutchins lost water because the pipes froze, they went to a hotel.
Three nights and four maxed out credit cards later, they returned to their Arlington condominium when power was restored to Texans after one of the deadliest and costliest disasters in state history.
“Texas is not prepared for weather like that,” Hutchins said. “We’re not equipped for that at all down here.”
State lawmakers responded to February’s deadly power outages during a winter storm with a few key changes to the state’s power grid that experts said will begin to address some issues exposed by the storm — such as requiring power companies to upgrade plants to withstand more extreme weather and creating a statewide emergency alert system.
But they did not provide direct relief for everyday Texans, many of whom lost jobs or loved ones during the pandemic and then went through yet another emotionally and financially taxing crisis.
The storm caused the deaths of as many as 700 people, according to a Buzzfeed analysis. Insurance costs for property damage alone are about $18 billion, Reuters reported, citing Karen Clark & Co., a Boston consulting firm. The total economic damage to the state may be $86 billion to $129 billion, according to The Perryman Group, a Texas economic firm.
Lawmakers approved a bill that will likely increase most Texans’ electricity bills by at least a few dollars each month for possibly the next two decades to bail out the state’s utility and electricity companies. Patricia Zavala, senior policy analyst at Jolt, a Latino progressive advocacy group in Texas, said even a small increase in living costs can put Texans who are “teetering on the edge” into financial jeopardy.
And Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy and climate consultant, said that while the Legislature took positive steps in requiring power companies to prepare for future storms, nothing was done to provide direct assistance to people harmed by the power crisis or to help Texans reduce electricity use to take pressure off the grid during extreme weather.
He and others said the changes this session were not the sort of sweeping reforms necessary to completely avoid another power grid catastrophe.
“There was really no focus at all to address … the millions of Texans struggling to pay their electric bills,” Lewin said during a Friday press conference with Texas environmental advocates. “There’s two sides of the equation: supply and demand. The Legislature has stayed almost entirely focused on supply, and almost completely neglected the demand side.”
Lawmakers made the case in the final minutes of the legislative session that overhauling the board that oversees the power grid will provide the structural change necessary to prevent another grid-related disaster.
“I always get questions, ‘What have y’all done to fix the disaster that we saw in February?’” state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said before the Senate passed Senate Bill 2, which changes the makeup of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ board of directors. “It starts with leadership, and it starts with the structure [of people who] make the hard calls.”
Still, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers acknowledged that they did not do enough this session to aid the people — like the Hutchins and their neighbors — who struggled financially after the winter storm caused medical emergencies, damaged property, spoiled food and sent many Texans’ utility bills soaring.
Melissa Hutchins, 37, estimates that the hotel, food, repairs to their condo and lost work cost them $5,000. Her husband, a manager at a food and beverage manufacturer, made an early withdrawal on his retirement account so they could repair broken plumbing to restore their water and fix their dishwasher. All of this, she said, after a year in which her husband was sick with COVID-19 and missed a month of work.
“It was just crazy,” Hutchins said. “It’s one thing after another. Like water, we can’t live without water. We have to have electricity.”
Lawmakers said the measure they passed to give utilities and electricity companies access to billions of dollars in bonds and loans will prevent a larger financial crisis in the state in the aftermath of the storm. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has called for additional legislation that would provide direct financial relief to consumers.
“The next time, for this Lieutenant Governor, that we’re going to spend billions of dollars concerning the storm, it’s going to be to help the people of Texas and the ratepayers, or I won’t call that bill up,” Patrick said. “We have to help the people of Texas and their electric bills.”
Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to call lawmakers back for a special session later this year to revive certain bills that died during the regular session; in an interview with The Texas Tribune on Tuesday, Abbott said he would likely support a proposal to aid consumers, but he hasn’t announced whether he would add the issue to lawmakers’ plates in a special session.
“Put me on the side of consumers who suffered through this storm,” Abbott said.
Little relief for everyday Texans
Senate Bills 2 and 3, the two major power grid bills that lawmakers passed on Sunday and sent to Abbott, focus on ERCOT’s board and weatherizing the power plants that serve the electrical grid.
Senate Bill 2 reduces the number of ERCOT board members from 16 to 11 and requires that instead of what lawmakers called “industry insiders” appointing the board, Abbott, Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan will appoint a committee to make ERCOT board selections.
Senate Bill 3 requires power companies and some natural gas companies to make upgrades so their facilities can withstand extreme weather and requires regulators to create an emergency alert system, similar to an Amber alert, for power outages and inclement weather.