DALLAS—Millions are without power in the Lone Star State as local and state government officials struggle to respond to the most devastating winter storm in over 100 years.
Perhaps no scene in this city best captures the absurdity of the predicament Texans find themselves in than the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. Capacity approximately 500, it is a “warming center”—the only such center opened in a city of 1.3 million people. No cots on offer, nor any guaranteed food. Sitting room only, despite the fact that less than a dozen individuals occupied the warming center as of 5 p.m. When asked, those managing the center were unsure of exactly how many were expected.
Despite the warming center, perhaps due to the pandemic, most have opted to either remain at home, or seek refuge with friends, family, or at a hotel.
“We were supposed to have rolling outages, so people could stay warm, but I guess my neighborhood didn't make the cut, so I guess we're all supposed to hang out in a warming center all week until they get around to us,” Bobby Woods, a 27-year-old Dallas resident who lives around Oaklawn, told The Daily Beast.
Though he considered the warming center, Woods was ultimately able to stay at a friend’s apartment that still had heat closer to downtown. It’s unknown how many are in a similar situation.
On Monday, the City of Dallas announced the opening of the warming center—three days after Gov. Greg Abbott declared a disaster in all 254 Texas counties. That announcement came a day before heavy snow storms blanketed the state and triggered a cascade of power-station failures that left millions without heat.
But more than 24 hours after Dallas officials made the announcement, the convention center is still the only government managed overnight warming center available in the city. And as state and city government responses have floundered, various nonprofits, faith organizations, and mutual aid groups have stepped into the void that has yet to be adequately filled.
That dynamic may be a mainstay of modern America, when natural disasters often expose the perils of so-called small government. But in North Texas, where even more snow is expected this week and some have gone without electricity for nearly 48 hours—and several are dead—the storm is putting a spotlight on weak, decentralized infrastructure.
And it’s pissing people off.
“They’ve done a horrible job…. If it wasn’t for the local grocery store being open, serving as a safe haven for us to stay warm and grab something to eat, we would be in very terrible shape,” said another Dallas resident, Tiffany Jackson, who runs a blog and had to move to a hotel for the night of Feb. 16th to stay warm.
On Monday, local power distributor Oncor announced that the expected outage estimate of “15 to 45 minutes has been significantly extended,” without providing any clarity regarding how long those extensions would be. Many in Dallas have gone more than two full days without electricity or heat, a deadly mix for a state that lacks the infrastructure to cope with blizzard conditions.
Dallas city government representatives say they are working on getting mobile shelters—heated buses—to other areas of the city. They say they are also working to secure reliable power to other potential warming centers.
“We are trying to make libraries and [recreation] centers available, but unlike the [convention center], they aren’t on the critical infrastructure grid. So we need Oncor to make sure the power doesn’t go out after we’ve put people in them,” Tristan Hallman, spokesperson for Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, told The Daily Beast.
When these additional heating centers will come online is unclear. And even when they do, many Dallasites will likely need to travel to reach them, which makes clearing roadways a further priority.
“We’re running trucks full-time to try to sand intersections, thoroughfares, right-of-ways, overpasses, everything we can,” added Dallas City Council member Lee Kleinman.
Just days earlier, one of the deadliest automobile accidents in modern history occurred a little more than an hour away, outside of Ft. Worth, where over one 130 vehicles piled up and six people died due to snow- and ice-covered highways.
It’s unclear when the outages will stop. Midday Tuesday, five days into the emergency declaration, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas that manages the state’s power grid (ERCOT) announced it had no idea when outages will end.
“I’ve learned more from people online [than from the city or state government],” Katelyn Zuniga, another resident, told the Daily Beast. Zuniga is a designer in Dallas and has opted to stay in place despite losing power for more than 24 hours.
Despite forecasts that suggested disastrous conditions ahead of the storm, the state government only began gathering resources for the emergency on Feb. 11, according to an emailed statement from a representative of the Texas Division of Emergency Management.
Starting mid last week, a coalition of mutual aid groups—including Feed the People DFW, Dallas Stops Evictions, and several others—began raising money to shelter over two-dozen homeless individuals in motels as shelters across Dallas reached capacity. They’ve continued to raise money and provide food for them as the crisis lengthens.
Even prior to the worst of the storm, the crisis was felt by the most vulnerable. By Feb. 12, all of the available homeless shelters in Dallas were filled to capacity. That same evening, Our Calling, a faith-based nonprofit in Dallas that focuses on homelessness, stepped in to operate an emergency homeless center at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.
Now, these volunteer organizations, too, are stretched thin.
It could get worse. Temperatures are forecasted to stay low until the end of the week. More deaths are expected. And residents can’t help but start to wonder how it could have been avoided.
“If this doesn’t wake people up about how the government, especially the state government, treats us, I don’t know what will,” said Vanessa Wilmore, founder and lead organizer with Feed the People DFW.