Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today
Many across the country are battling the aftermath of a Feb. 13 winter storm as nearly 3.4 million customers around the U.S. are still without electricity or heat. The demand for power overwhelmed power grids unprepared for climate change.
Temperatures hovered in the single digits as snow and ice storms hit parts of Texas where winter temperatures seldom fall below 40 degrees.
The latest storm front was expected to bring more hardship to Texas, Arkansas and the Lower Mississippi Valley before moving to the Northeast on Thursday, according to the Associated Press.
“Most people here have electric stoves so there’s no way to heat or cook food; they heat their homes with electric heat, so there’s no heat,” said Ashley Fairbanks, White Earth Nation.
Originally from Minnesota, Fairbanks lives in San Antonio, where winter temperatures usually hover around 70-80 degrees. On Wednesday morning the temperature was around 28 degrees, she said.
“It got down to 6 degrees during the storm; the week before it was like 80 degrees,” she said
“The ice on roads finally melted today so we left the house in search of food. It really is like the end times out here."
Customer lines at fast food establishments snaked around city blocks and half of San Antonio’s restaurants were closed; grocery stores have run out of essential food and many are closed, Fairbanks said.
“There’s really no letup to some of the misery people are feeling across that area,” said Bob Oravec, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service, referring to Texas.
At least 30 people have died in the extreme weather this week, some while struggling to find warmth inside their homes. In the Houston area, one family succumbed to carbon monoxide from car exhaust in their garage. Another perished as they used a fireplace to keep warm.
Record low temperatures were reported in city after city. Scientists say the polar vortex, a weather pattern that usually keeps to the Arctic, is increasingly spilling into lower latitudes and sticking around longer, and global warming caused by humans is partly responsible.
Utilities from Minnesota to Texas and Mississippi have implemented rolling blackouts to ease the burden on power grids straining to meet extreme demand for heat and electricity. In Mexico, rolling blackouts Tuesday covered more than one-third of the country after the storms in Texas cut the supply of imported natural gas.
Tribes in Texas are working together and handling the challenges well, according to tribal leaders from the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, the Tigua Ysleta Del sur Pueblo and the Lipan Apache Tribe contacted by Indian Country Today.
“Native people are extremely resilient. We’re all kind of tired of the cold weather, but we’re hunkered down and staying warm; at first it was beautiful but now we’re kind of done," said Christi Sullivan, director of media and communications for the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas.
About 600 of the 1,375 tribal citizens live on reservation land about 90 minutes north of Houston.
“We urged people to prepare for the weather before it hit; one of our main concerns is our elders. We are calling and checking in on everyone making sure they’re okay,” said Sullivan.
Fortunately, only a portion of the reservation has been hit by the rolling electricity blackouts.
“So far, everyone is safe,” Sullivan said.
The worst U.S. power outages by far have been in Texas, where officials requested 60 generators from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and planned to prioritize hospitals and nursing homes.
The state opened 35 shelters to more than 1,000 occupants, the agency said.
Texas’ power grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said electricity had been restored to 600,000 homes and businesses by Tuesday night. Many, however, remain without power.
The weather also caused major disruptions to water systems in the Texas cities of Houston, Fort Worth, Galveston, Corpus Christi and in Memphis, Tennessee, and Shreveport, Louisiana, where city fire trucks delivered water to several hospitals and bottled water was being brought in for patients and staff, KSLA News reported. In Houston, residents were told to boil their water — if they had power to do so — because of a major drop in water pressure linked to the weather.
In Abilene, Texas, firefighters were hampered by low water pressure as they tried to extinguish a house fire this week, the Abilene Reporter News reported.
“They had to watch that house burn,” City Manager Robert Hanna said Tuesday at a news conference.
“Last night we were lying in bed without power and we could hear emergency sirens going all night long,” Fairbanks said.
The Texas power blackouts could be a glimpse of the future as climate change intensifies winter extremes that overwhelm utility infrastructures unable to handle unseasonable demands, according to the New York Times.
“Hey, we’re not built for this,” said Robert Soto, vice chair of the Texas state recognized Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas.
The tribe’s headquarters is based in McAllen, just north of Reynosa, Mexico, and near the Gulf of Mexico.
“Homes here aren’t built to handle the cold; for us a cold front is around 60 degrees. With this storm it’s been in the single digits and the 20s,” he said.
Thankfully everyone is safe, according to Soto.
The greatest needs for the tribe now are food and water. “We’re delivering food and water when and where we can; we don’t have a lot of funds but we’re doing the best we can,” Soto said.
Temperatures are expected to rise to the 70s by the weekend.
“We’ll be enjoying life and happy again; in the meantime please keep us in your prayers.”
Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.