City Hall

Lights Out: Texans Scramble to Stay Warm Amid Widespread Power Outages

It's not entirely certain when the state's power grid will be completely stable.
It's not entirely certain when the state's power grid will be completely stable. Matthew T Rader, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Power outages caused by cold weather froze Dallas and neighboring cities.

When Dallas resident Sarah Lamb went to bed Sunday night, she still had power. But she woke up and found the digital clock on her stove was flashing “12:00 a.m.” The temperature in her house was 58 degrees and dropping. Her family’s home lost power. It returned briefly around 11 a.m. Monday, but then nothing.

That morning, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the agency which manages the state’s power grid, declared a Level Three Energy Emergency Alert (EEA 3) as subfreezing temperatures gripped Texas.

ERCOT initially said that people should expect rolling power outages through Monday and possibly Tuesday. They were only expected to last 15-45 minutes at a time, but Oncor, one of the city’s main energy providers, later announced the blackouts could last longer. By Tuesday afternoon, Lamb’s power was still gone.

In a tweet yesterday, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said he was told during a call with Oncor’s senior leadership that a power generation increase expected Monday night didn’t happen. He said more than 280,000 Oncor customers in Dallas County are still without power.

Lamb said her house and her neighborhood were built in the 20s. Because of this, she said her home is more susceptible to power outages. When they lost power again, she said the temperatures plummeted.

They don’t have a fireplace, so to stay warm they bundled up together in bed under several blankets.

Eventually, she went to a friend’s house to charge her devices, get some food and warm up. When she came back, it was in the lower 50s, still dropping. Lamb decided to load her family into the car and head to a friend's house to “brave the cold in the outage.”

Oncor, which distributes electricity in DFW hasn’t given her any indication when her power will be back. She’s called several times and also tried to make a report online, but she said there seemed to be something wrong with Oncor’s website. When she finally did get through, she heard a notification that told her power would be back on by Monday night, which never happened.

She assumes that there won’t be any power until Thursday or Friday. She’ll hunker down at a friend’s house with her family until then.

This has also affected Lamb’s work.

She works as a broker in commercial real estate. Because her office in Uptown doesn’t have power, the network connection everyone has been using to work at home is not online. She said there will be some missed deadlines because of it.

Lamb also sits on the zoning board of adjustment, and they were supposed to hear zoning cases on Tuesday, but the meeting was canceled.

Her children’s school is closed as well, so watching them has also made working more difficult. Despite that, she thinks her kids are enjoying the time out of school. To them, it’s just a prolonged weekend, she said.

The newer houses in the neighborhood, which are across the street from Lamb’s, still have power and have been taking in neighbors. Lamb also said some local businesses have opened their doors to those without power.

There were small operations like this, neighbors helping neighbors, throughout Dallas. Yesterday, eviction attorney Mark Melton helped take stranded residents to the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, where a warming center has been set up by the city.

Additionally, Dallas City Council member Adam Bazaldua announced on Twitter yesterday that two DART buses would be sitting at the Lawnview train station for temporary warming and would depart to take people to the convention center. Other warming centers were arranged across Dallas and the state.

Michelle Espinal-Embler, a Dallas resident and Bazaldua's former campaign manager, said yesterday afternoon that her townhouse complex has been without power for 38 hours since early Monday morning.

Her husband works at a luxury hotel, so they decided to head there with their three kids to get a room. “We figured that was the safest place for us,” she said.

She said there was mayhem at the hotel when they arrived.

“This like super luxury, chic hotel had a lobby full of people carrying grocery bags and screaming children. It felt like it was out of the Twilight Zone,” she said. “Like, a place where it’s normally people in thousand-dollar dresses and sipping fancy cocktails, it felt like a refugee center.”

The power at the hotel has been spotty, too. However, she said the building is new and insulated enough to keep everyone warm when they lose electricity. Espinal-Embler said as soon as the power is back on, they’ll be heading home, but she’s not sure when.

She said her family is going to be fine, but she worries about people who are less fortunate. What has turned out to be a moderate inconvenience for them could be a life or death scenario for others. “This is such an incredible humanitarian crisis,” she said.

The outages have added additional challenges for the city’s homeless populations.

Daniel Roby is CEO of Austin Street Center, a local shelter that never lost power. However, rolling power outages, as well as some other factors, led them to shut down their 130-person operation at a local hotel. Those individuals were shuttled to the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. Roby said consolidating their efforts would be more beneficial.

In partnership with OurCalling, the city opened up the convention center Friday to house homeless individuals while temperatures remain below freezing. Monday night, the city announced the convention center would also act as an emergency warming center for Dallas residents until noon Wednesday.

Jenkins declared a local disaster declaration for the county and signed an executive order along with it. Under this order, residents are asked to not set their thermostats higher than 68 degrees and businesses are asked to delay opening until 10 a.m.

More resources will be available soon. President Joe Biden approved a federal emergency declaration for Texas. Millions of homes and businesses across the state remain without power.

The loss of electricity also interfered with the Eagle Mountain Water Plant's ability to treat water for Fort Worth residents. They were asked to boil their water or buy bottled water to protect themselves from harmful bacteria. This order was still in effect by Tuesday afternoon.

It's not entirely certain when the state's power grid will be completely stable.

On Tuesday morning, Oncor sent out this statement on Twitter: “We recognize the hardships and extreme frustration customers without power face during these historical low temperatures and are ready to deliver power as soon as electric generators are able to provide it. As soon as enough generation is available, we will return to a regular cadence of rotating outages with the goal of providing any temporary relief that we can for those who have been without power the longest.”

Bill Magness, the CEO of ERCOT, told WFAA they hope to get more people's lights on throughout the week but said it depends on the weather. He said as they get more people power, the grid could become unstable again, and power will have to be turned back off.

Gov. Greg Abbott called for an investigation into ERCOT yesterday to find out how the grid became so unstable and how outages like this can be prevented in the future.

"The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours," Abbott said. "Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. This is unacceptable."

Abbott also made reforming ERCOT an emergency item in the 2021 legislative session.

State Rep. Gene Wu, a Democrat from Houston, wrote on Twitter that ERCOT knew rolling outages would be needed as early as last week, but this information wasn't announced to the public until Sunday.

Espinal-Embler said a notice would have been helpful.

"If they were planning on rollouts, why wasn’t there a communication strategy to ensure that we all knew about that?" Espinal-Embler said. "There’s no doubt in my mind that if I’d known even 12-15 hours before the power outage happened, we would still be at home. I would’ve very gladly gone to Home Depot and bought a little generator and made sure I had enough food for us that didn’t require cooking. There was definitely some major shortcomings in communication." 
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn