The limits of disaster capitalism in Texas

Photo of Dallas, Texas
Matthew T Rader/Courtesy
Matthew T Rader, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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In mid-February, images began circulating of an uncharacteristically dark and frozen Texas. An extreme winter storm caused record-low temperatures and statewide power outages, setting off a cascade of disasters such as contaminated water, widespread food shortages and infrastructure damage. As of Feb. 20, 2021, the crisis resulted in at least 70 deaths that are attributed to a variety of causes, including carbon monoxide poisoning and hypothermia — officials say the total death toll won’t be known for weeks. As it turns out, the story of the seemingly innocuous winter storm that led to a mass death toll in the second-richest state in the richest country in the world is actually the story of a a catastrophe 30 years in the making that reflects broader realities about power, inequality, survival and the limits of disaster capitalism.

The winter storm created abnormally freezing conditions across Texas, with some areas experiencing temperatures as cold as 0 degrees Fahrenheit — the coldest recorded temperatures in Texas in the past 30 years. The freezing temperatures shocked Texas’s power grid, with snow and ice overwhelming the energy infrastructure and severely restricting electricity supply, which was at the same time seeing an abrupt increase in demand as Texans tried to escape the freezing cold. More than 4 million Texans lost power for days at a time at the height of the outages.

Unlike most other states, Texas primarily relies on its own internal, deregulated power grid that is supervised by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. In the 1990s, then-governor George W. Bush led the state in undertaking unprecedented steps in energy deregulation, with management of the Texas power grid being transferred to private companies. Although this move resulted in cheaper electricity prices, the free market competition that ensued from deregulation meant that companies did not have financial incentives to maintain a usable reserve surplus of extra power that could be used in emergencies, as most other power grids in the United States do.

Moreover, the absence of oversight of the power grid resulted in a lack of regulations mandating that power lines and natural gas reserves be “winterized,” or protected from extreme cold weather events. The freezing cold weather directly interfered with natural gas pipelines and coal generators, which provide the majority of Texas’ energy.

The power crisis caused the widespread disruption of water services for millions of people as pipes froze and burst. Additionally, power outages at water treatment plants led to boil water advisories, or warnings issued by health agencies that ask people to boil drinking water to kill any pathogens, for nearly 12 million people as tap water became contaminated. Numerous grocery stores were forced to close due to a lack of power, and the ones that were able to stay open had rows of empty shelves as people panic-bought food and supplies.

These circumstances have led to devastating and entirely avoidable consequences. An 11-year-old boy is believed by his family to have frozen to death in an unheated mobile home, and a 75-year-old man died after his electricity-run oxygen tank ran out of power. There were multiple deadly car accidents across Texas caused by icy road conditions. COVID-19 vaccine distribution efforts were thwarted and delayed as freezers storing vaccines lost power. In desperate attempts to stay warm, families resorted to unconventional heating techniques, including burning wooden fences and clothes. Carbon monoxide-related fatalities, many of which were children, rose sharply as Texans turned to dangerous heat sources, such as car engines and charcoal grills, to escape the freezing cold.

The deadly winter storm exemplified the systemic inequality that permeates nearly every aspect of American life. Neighborhoods in low-income, predominantly minority areas were disproportionately affected by the power outages — the view of the Austin skyline on the night of Feb. 15 was a microcosm of broader socioeconomic disparities within the power grid as downtown luxury hotels and skyscrapers maintained power while surrounded by darkened neighborhoods. Austin Mayor Pro-Tem Natasha Harper-Madison described the storm and its consequences as a “Katrina-scale crisis,” referencing the 2005 hurricane that devastated communities — and Black communities disproportionately — in New Orleans.

As ordinary Texans lined up in parking lots to find water and froze to death in their own homes, Texas energy company executives were busy appreciating the results of these horrific circumstances as they saw a sudden, immense increase in their profits. In her 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine,” author and activist Naomi Klein discusses the phenomenon of “disaster capitalism,” in which private companies and powerful corporations profit off of and exploit the trauma generated by ecological disasters. This phenomenon was certainly present in Texas — electricity providers obtained more profit in just two days than they normally do in an entire year as energy prices surged by more than 30,000%. Energy executives were not sheepish or timid about outwardly celebrating. “This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices,” bragged Roland Burns, president and chief financial officer of Comstock Resources, Inc., a Texas natural gas company, to the Dallas Morning News.

Yet, amid the suffering and disruption, the Texas power catastrophe also demonstrates the power of community and collective action in times of crisis. Numerous Texans without electricity or water turned to social media platforms to ask for assistance with the help of donation services such as Venmo and GoFundMe. Mutual aid groups, such as the Mutual Aid Houston collective and Austin Mutual Aid, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and helped distribute meals, water, blankets and warm clothes to vulnerable citizens.

The compassion and generosity provided by ordinary Texans stands in sharp contrast to the sentiments of politicians such as the mayor of Colorado City, Texas, who posted a rant on his Facebook account berating freezing Texans for “looking for a damn handout,” or Senator Ted Cruz, who was widely excoriated after flying to Cancún as his constituents were without power or water. People readily mobilizing to help each other through direct action, such as helping unhoused individuals relocate to hotel rooms or stocking community fridges, represents the very best of human nature and provides insight into the surprising and touching ways in which communities come together in a crisis when they feel abandoned by their leaders.

Contact Sanjana Manjeshwar at [email protected].