Photo by Kevin Mueller

Shape of the Wound

When winter brought Texas to its knees

BEFORE THE STORM, my children and I carried the potted plants indoors. We emptied the linen closet onto the floor and hauled the contents to the yard, where we wrapped the citrus trees in sheets and covered the cactus with a thin blanket. My husband wrapped the trunk of the peach tree in a sleeping bag. That evening, we played a board game and ate stew. My children went to bed excited that—for only the third time in their lives—they might wake up to a little snow.

In the morning we indeed had a little snow on the ground, a “skiff” as we would have called it back home in Missouri. The light was thin and gray, the sky a little overcast, and because the power had gone out during the night, the house was already cold. The cell phone towers were also out of commission, so we had no cell service and very little information. The children went outside to throw snowballs. I lit a fire in the fireplace, and all day the house grew colder and colder. That evening, I turned on the car radio while I cooked dinner over the propane camp stove in the garage and heard we might have days of rolling blackouts, and then that maybe the blackouts wouldn’t roll. We dragged a mattress to the living room, piled the couches with blankets and pillows. That night, when it was twenty-three degrees in Juneau and forty-three in Reykjavík, the temperature in Houston plunged to twelve. It was thirty-five inside my home.

At one point the power came on long enough for us to discover that our pipes had frozen, and for them to thaw just enough to burst. The power went off again just as water began pouring from light fixtures, and stayed off while drywall and insulation sloughed from the ceiling. At the hardware store, lines of people looking for water went out the door. Cars extended for blocks from the only open fast-food restaurant. With burst pipes all over the city, water pressure dropped enough to trigger a mandatory boil order. In a city where most people have electric stoves, how would we boil water without electricity? Some of us dragged burning charcoal grills into our living rooms; others left their homes to get warm in cars, which were left running in garages. An elderly man died of hypothermia in his recliner. A child, just hours after playing in snow for the first time in his life, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his own bed. It felt, if only briefly, as if we were living in a collapsing civilization.

 

IT TOOK WEEKS to learn what had happened. The storm had brought snow, ice, and freezing rain deep into Texas, coating not only streets and trees and power lines with a thin layer of ice but also gas lines and coal transformers and wind turbines (none of which had been winterized). When the equipment froze, producers lost their ability to transform the energy in coal, wind, and gas into power, and the grid lost its supply of electricity. Operators forced outages to avoid catastrophic failure, telling reporters later that they were “seconds and minutes” away from a total uncontrolled blackout that would take weeks or months to repair. The whole disaster could have been avoided, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded, if only operators had been required to winterize after the last power failure a decade earlier. Their negligence left us all vulnerable, but our vulnerability wasn’t distributed equally.

At my home in West Houston, for instance, we lost power for sixty hours over three days, but an acquaintance who lives in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods reported she never lost power at all. Near the Houston Ship Channel—a massive industrial corridor of refineries, chemical plants, storage tanks, and pipeline terminals that form the second largest petrochemical complex in the world—communities were exposed not only to freezing temperatures and longer outages but also to harmful carcinogens when refineries illegally burned off millions of pounds of toxic chemicals to prevent damage to their equipment. Because of lax regulations and enforcement, these emissions didn’t amount to crimes, even if they were tantamount to poisoning.

The freeze made these communities vulnerable to emissions this time, but refineries near the ship channel emit toxic pollutants regularly: when there is a winter storm, or a flood, or a hurricane, or for reasons that are never explained. The accident is a matter of routine. Two tankers collide and an oil sheen spreads across the surface of Galveston Bay. A chemical storage tank near the ship channel burns uncontrollably for days and days, sending a plume of black smoke over the entire city and beyond, extending halfway across the state, visible from space. The violence these disasters inflict isn’t accidental; it’s a feature of the toxic petrochemical infrastructure on which our society is based.

What makes people more or less vulnerable to this violence is structural, a relationship we have been told is inevitable and necessary to protect the comfort of those who are already living comfortably. It’s not only a history of decisions about where to concentrate our most toxic chemical operations, but also of prioritizing prosperity at the expense of people’s health and safety, or sometimes at the expense of entire ecosystems. Vulnerability, as a social structure, makes it possible for companies to force chemicals into the earth to squeeze out more oil, triggering earthquakes and poisoning aquifers; spilling forever chemicals along any of the hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines that span the entire state and sprawl across the continent. When the next freeze or fire or pandemic or hurricane hits us, vulnerability will determine who gets to live, and who will die, and how. The disaster won’t be the weather, but the shape of the wound structural violence has already made.

 

OFFICIALLY, the freeze claimed the lives of 246 people, though some analyses have suggested the casualties are more than triple that. It was deadlier and costlier even than Hurricane Harvey, which was already the second costliest disaster in U.S. history, after only Hurricane Katrina. The freeze came after an already disastrous year: a year of the most active hurricane season on record, the worst wildfire season on record, the driest year on record in the Southwest, one of the wettest in the Southeast; after the hottest ever temperature was recorded in Death Valley, 130 degrees; after the warmest year ever on record for Europe and Asia, a year that ended the warmest decade on record for the globe, and saw a new record for the highest daily carbon dioxide concentration at Mauna Loa Observatory. (In the year since the freeze, that record has been broken again, twice.)

This August, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report predicted that our worst disasters are ahead of us, not behind.

As I write this, in November 2021, Congress has just passed a massive infrastructure bill, with $35 billion designated for Texas, meant to repair the crumbling highways and airports and bridges we’ve built in the past, to winterize our pipelines and power plants. None of this will prepare us for the disasters of the present moment, much less the ones of the future—a failure as much of preparedness as of imagination. I have an excellent imagination for the catastrophic—storm surges, super hurricanes, an act of stupid human negligence that might plunge us forever into darkness—but the freeze helped me to understand, with a little more clarity, that what most needs our attention and repair isn’t the infrastructure our society has built, but rather the structure of its vulnerabilities.

Despite my best efforts, the citrus trees did not survive the freeze. The leaves turned brown and fell, the bark changed from brown to gray. Even after we cut them down, I watched the stumps for signs of green shoots sprouting. None came. We cut down the peach tree and shoveled the liquefied pads of the cactus into a paper bag. Today, outside my window, the sun is shining. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. But I can’t help feeling as though at any moment everything will collapse from under us. Or that maybe it already has, and we haven’t yet realized it’s gone.

 

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Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based professor, curator, and activist whose books include The Reckonings and The Other Side. She is coeditor, with Cheryl Beckett, of More City than Water: A Houston Flood Atlas.

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