SAN ANTONIO — Families living in substandard homes lacking proper insulation are often huddling around a single space heater to stay warm in South Texas. Asylum seekers are wrapping themselves in blankets and keeping a community fire ablaze in a migrant camp near the border. Community organizers in Austin, San Antonio and other major Texas cities are hustling to rescue the unhoused as hypothermia and frostbite set in.
While the dangerously cold weather and accompanying power outages sweeping the Lone Star State are touching nearly all Texans in some way, the crisis is especially dire for the state’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities — whose lives have already been threatened by disaster, disease and destitution in recent years. Many were simply trying not to freeze to death inside their homes and cars and on the streets as they braced for another storm Tuesday night.
Texas’s crippled energy system cannot generate enough electricity to power the millions of homes on its grid — from sprawling suburban mansions to the houses and apartments occupied by families already suffering from hunger and poverty. A vivid metaphor for the state’s entrenched inequities emerged Monday night: The illuminated Texas skylines of downtown buildings and newly filled luxury hotels cast against the darkened silhouettes of freezing neighborhoods.
While local governments have maneuvered to open warming centers and respond to acute emergencies, it has often been exhausted neighbors, depleted community and faith leaders, overly taxed nonprofits and everyday people who are meeting immediate needs in the face of a state government that some say has been absent from the lives of those most vulnerable. Offering help now comes with the threat of possible exposure to the coronavirus.
“Texas thinks it’s some big, bad independent state, but we can’t get the power on. We need to rethink how we do things,” said Chas Moore of the Austin Justice Coalition. “When disaster hits, it hits those communities that we historically disregard and don’t pay enough attention to.”
The blanket of snow that had at first seemed like a blessing in San Antonio turned ominous as people experiencing homelessness were thrust into life-threatening danger.
“I didn’t think I’d wake up alive,” said 86-year-old Angel Rodriguez Medina, who spent Monday night in a sleeping bag amid piles of snow. “It was the worst night of my life.”
Morgan Handley, a case manager with Centro San Antonio, welcomed the man into a heated car on Tuesday morning but worried about the many others he had yet to reach. A coalition of social services groups had been driving around the city in recent days and rescued more than 50 people. They were taken to converted gyms and churches — anywhere that had electricity.
“I’m terrified they’re going to die,” Handley said. “Last year I lost six clients. . . . I’m terrified to see how that number is going to increase in the next few days.”
A little more than an hour north, Yasmine Smith spent the weekend trying to coordinate housing for more than 200 people in hotels and shelters. Her own south Austin home has no power, and she destroyed her coffee table to have wood for the chimney. Smith said she does what she can because she can’t bear the thought of someone dying under a bridge.
“I believe in my city as a lifelong Austinite, and I’m proud of Texas,” said Smith, the director of justice and advocacy for the Austin-area Urban League. “But this fell on the shoulders of average people who also had to ensure their own lives were saved.”
Some of the most widespread and longest-lasting power outages hit Southeast Texas and greater Houston, the state’s biggest city. A mother and daughter died after their family of four suffered carbon monoxide poisoning while warming up inside their car in the garage as temperatures plunged into the single digits.
The question of when power may be restored has yet to be answered for those who rely on electricity to survive or recover from severe illness. Ralph Riviello, chair of emergency medicine at University Health in San Antonio, said about a dozen people have come into the system’s emergency rooms needing help to recharge the batteries of their breathing machines and feeding tubes.
In Dallas, Deondre Moore raised a few hundred dollars on Facebook to buy blankets and toiletries for about a dozen people living in downtown streets. Less than 12 hours later, the temperature in Moore’s power-less apartment dropped to 20 degrees, and he had to seek shelter at a friend’s home that was still heated.
Faith leaders have been reaching out to parishioners who may not live in adequate housing or have access to most public benefits. Lupita Valdez, a pastoral associate at Sacred Heart church in west San Antonio, maintains a WhatsApp group chat of more than 200 parishioners who are broken up into smaller groups to help one another.
That is how Kimberly Briseño, 23, an undocumented immigrant from Nicaragua, was connected to a fellow parishioner. She has electricity but no central heat or water in her thin-walled dwelling, which was designed as an in-law suite. She, her husband and her 5-year-old daughter stay in one room with a donated space heater all day.
Her 25-year-old husband hasn’t been able to work for two weeks, and the church is helping Briseño apply for a special rental assistance grant from the city. But their meals and comfort come from a woman at church.
“I’ve never experienced cold like this before. We didn’t have the right clothes or know what we needed,” said Briseño, who layered short-sleeved shirts and pajama pants to stay warm. “If it wasn’t for this lady, I don’t know what we’d do. She has taken us in like we were members of her family.”
Lotus Rios learned early in her youth that when one person in the community falls, everyone falls. It’s a saying her grandmother invoked often.
“When you take care of people, the community takes care of you,” said Rios, who owns a community pantry she opened early in the pandemic. She stopped by the southside San Antonio house of Michael Muñoz late Tuesday to bring him menudo, a Mexican soup.
The power outage “reopens a wound for a lot of these people. The deficiencies that were already existing, all these little gaps, just got wider with covid, and now with this — this is even making it wider,” Rios said.
Four weeks ago, Muñoz learned that his 68-year-old mother whom he cared for full-time had covid-19. Two weeks ago, he watched her casket being lowered into the ground.
Then early Monday, he woke up shivering and learned that the house he and his mother had shared no longer had power. For more than 24 hours, Muñoz has been living in a silent house, with no music to lift his spirits or even the faint hum of the refrigerator, as he processes his mother’s death and what this new obstacle means for his future.
“It’s been hard,” said Muñoz, who had to pause his college studies. “Right now I have nobody here with me, it’s just me. So there’s nobody to say, ‘I’m here with you.’ ”
His mother’s death brought with it a cascading series of financial troubles that left him strapped for cash and pressed for time as the winter storm arrived. Muñoz brought his dogs inside and wrapped the pipes outside his house in cloth and duct tape, but the precautions did little to help him keep warm in an aging, paint-chipped house with little insulation. He said he’s been charging his phone in the car, eating food he bought at the corner store in the dark and has no Internet to check for weather and news updates.
“I’ve been trying to roll with it. But yesterday with no power, and it’s just cold, and the dog’s acting up, and the water heater giving up, one thing after another — I had a little breakdown,” he said.
Muñoz said he is frustrated by the mass outages and criticized local officials who he said are not checking in on people in his Harlandale neighborhood, an economically depressed area with poor plumbing, old houses and many elderly residents.
The 43-year-old aspiring teacher has taken to cleaning the house and sorting through his mother’s old things. Pictures of her still hang on the wall. She called herself a “union, Democrat, Catholic, Mexican American woman” Muñoz said with a chuckle. She drank Jack Daniels on the rocks and led her life independently, he said.
“She raised me to be a strong person,” he said. “I know what I have to do. Hopefully I’ll pull through this and see what the next step is.”