When architecture sophomore Diana Fierro Gonzalez got an email that Texas would have some cold weather, she said she wasn’t worried. Cold snaps are common for a Texas winter. When the power shut off for supposed rolling power blackouts, she still wasn’t worried. But then, the power didn’t come back for almost a week.
“I felt really alone in this situation,” Gonzalez said. “I felt like I was the only one going through this.”
On Monday, Feb. 15 around 9 a.m., the power in Gonzalez’s South Texas home shut off, remaining that way until Thursday evening. At the time, it was about 28 degrees fahrenheit, according to Gonzalez.
Gonzalez had been living in San Luis Obispo during fall quarter but stayed home with her parents and siblings in Texas for winter quarter when she realized it would take longer than expected to complete her process for U.S. citizenship.
The one week of what Gonzalez calls “survival mode” was unexpected.
Gonzalez lives in Rancho Viejo, Texas — which she describes as about 20 minutes away from where videos of “all the turtles that were rescued” from freezing waters originated. Their mayor had to push for the power to return because larger cities up north such as San Antonio and Austin were being put first.
“Since we’re not a major city, Texas kind of forgets about us,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez had three midterms last week that had to be rescheduled, as well as Zoom classes and an ASI Board of Directors meeting, but she said her professors and peers were all understanding.
However, she said she wished the university had better communication, such as informing faculty of how many students are from Texas that may be experiencing something unlike anything they’ve experienced before.
Gonzalez said her greatest concern was recharging her devices and having access to Wi-Fi.
As an architecture major, Gonzalez’ work requires a lot of “energy-sucking” software programs that she couldn’t use. She could only attend the first 10 minutes of her Zoom classes — using her hotspot — before getting locked out. She was falling behind.
“I never thought I would have to worry about battery,” Gonzalez said. “But here, I was on survival mode the whole week.”
With poor reception in her home, Gonzalez worked out of her town’s City Hall building that managed to keep their power and stayed open 24 hours, and she relied on her hotspot to work. She wasn’t the only one; Gonzalez said at one point there were about 50 people old and young gathered together — charging their phones, keeping warm and even comparing the temperatures in each other’s homes.
“It was a bit chaotic,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez and her family were getting by on granola and a small camping stove for some meals. The stove is still in use, since some of their appliances stopped working even after the power returned. Meanwhile, she said nearby stores are still experiencing shortages in some products, mainly milk and produce.
One concern, however, is her family’s upcoming electricity bill. Thousands of Texans have been shocked by the post-storm spike in electricity costs—including some of Gonzalez’s friends — but her family hasn’t gotten their bill yet.
“We’re just kind of hoping it’s not the case,” Gonzalez said. “You would think that there would be no charge, just because there was no power. It was also not our fault.”
While there were small-scale efforts from people going out to help the community, Gonzalez said Texans didn’t get the responses from top officials — namely Senator Ted Cruz — that they should have.
“It was not what we expected,” Gonzalez said. “I hope people realize the situation we’re in, because it’s a very red state. I think it’s a great opportunity to shine into light the truth.”
One issue that Gonzalez had overlooked in the past was Texas relying on their own power grid to avoid regulations, now separate from the nation’s power grid that allows states to rely on one another in times like these.
“In this case, it was not a good thing to not rely on other states for help,” Gonzalez said.
Environmental management professor and environmental anthropologist Nick Williams said that the culture of Texas lends itself to poor oversight for these instances.
“It is a place that is known for its deregulation,” Williams said. “What you see in a place like this, is that the sorts of policies that are made by people in power have real implications for people’s lives.”
Williams said that while Texas is a diverse state, environmental conditions can often reveal the socioeconomic disparities that still need to be addressed.
“Texas is a place that is very diverse and has a lot of different people living in very different situations coming from very different historical backgrounds and some of them from very marginalized communities,” Williams said. “Those are the ones that we would think about when we look at this situation and think who’s gonna lose when things like this happen.”
What caused the extreme low temperatures in Texas has to do with the polar vortex, according to PG&E marine meteorologist John Lindsey.
According to Lindsey, the polar vortex is a natural occurrence, where both of the Earth’s poles experience low pressure and cold temperatures. When the polar vortex weakens, cold air from the Arctic escapes and moves South, Lindsey said.
The polar vortex has weakened due to global warming, which has brought warmer temperatures to both poles. This means the warm air is pushing cold air further south — into areas like Texas.
Additionally, Lindsey said that Texas was hit with a heavy rain season, further exacerbating the severe conditions. The warmer the atmosphere, he said, the more water vapor it can hold. Consequently, when that water vapor condenses, releasing latent heat, that becomes the engine that drives a lot of these storms.
Extreme weather conditions are becoming more common. According to Lindsey, in the 90s a cold snap tore through San Luis Obispo, leading to pipe bursts not unlike what is occurring in Texas. What normally would be an instance that happened every 100 years, Lindsey said is happening every 10 to 20 years now.
The snow and frigid weather in Texas has passed, but Gonzalez said that week-long experience has changed her perspective.
Now, Gonzalez’s family knows to have a plan for events like these, and she now has a greater appreciation for electricity — though she’s also worried about relying so heavily on it.
“Once it’s taken away you realize how much we use it, and it’s kind of scary how everything’s connected to it,” Gonzalez said.