The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas is the latest example of how governments are unprepared for disaster

Volunteer groups are scrambling to deliver food, water and generators to Houston residents, many of whom still lack power in the midst of a crippling storm. (Video: Lindsey Sitz, Spike Johnson/The Washington Post)

The rolling disaster that played out in Texas over the past week is one more object lesson about the role of governments and the responsibilities of the politicians who lead them. This is not the long-debated issue of how much government is too much government but the practical question of how much government and governmental preparedness is enough.

Texas provides the latest example of the chronic lack of disaster preparedness that over the years has plagued government at all levels. The rare combination of winter snowstorms and record cold temperatures brought death, property destruction and hardship as millions lost power, suffered water shortages or were under orders to boil their water before using it.

A year ago, the country experienced the terrible consequences of a federal government that was both unprepared and then slow to respond when the coronavirus began to spread rapidly. Compounding the problem was the performance of President Donald Trump, who denied the severity of the pandemic and then grossly mismanaged the crisis while offering opinions that contradicted health and medical experts in the government and led many citizens astray.

Other such episodes of government caught by surprise are etched in people’s memories. When Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the levies in New Orleans in 2005, federal and state governments were particularly ill-prepared to help the city as the devastation rapidly swept across vulnerable neighborhoods. When terrorists hijacked airplanes and flew them into buildings on Sept. 11, 2001, government was not prepared. In 2008, government was caught off guard by the financial collapse that decimated retirement accounts and homeownership of millions of Americans.

It is rarely the case that these disasters strike without warning. Trump administration officials were told during the transition that one potentially devastating problem they faced was a flu virus for which there was no vaccine and that could spread rapidly in an interconnected world. In Texas, there were warnings dating back years that the state’s power grid needed to be upgraded to ensure that equipment could function in the event of severe winter weather. The state legislature took no serious action to make certain that was done.

That the warnings in Texas were ignored is often typical with the kinds of recommendations produced by outside experts or voices within the bureaucracy whose ideas are unheard or unheeded by those at the top. As many government officials have said, there is little incentive and almost no political reward for investing money to head off a crisis, especially when budgets are tight.

Some of the problems that have afflicted Texas this past week have hit neighboring states, as well. But Texas, by far the biggest and most populous of them, is a special case, a nation-state proud of its heritage, culture and spirit of rugged individualism.

The most egregious manifestation of that spirit came last week from Tim Boyd, then the mayor of Colorado City, who posted a social media rant telling residents seeking heat or safe water to “sink or swim,” declaring that city and county government “owes you nothing” at such a moment.

Boyd is an outlier, and he quickly resigned after widespread condemnation. But Texas celebrates free markets and the light hand of government and is a state that has prided itself on favoring smaller government with limited services, low taxes (there is no state income tax) and minimal regulation on business.

Political leaders have used that small-government culture to appeal to businesses in other parts of the country to shift operations to the Lone Star State, and many have done so. The result is that through most of the past decade, Texas became the leading job-producing state in the country.

But the business-friendly environment has other consequences. Texas has consistently had the highest number of residents without health insurance and a rate of uninsured about double the national average. One big reason is the decision by elected officials not to seek expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Regulating energy companies has proved to be a challenging business at a time when climate change has produced more severe weather patterns in every part of the country. Many Texans were critical of California’s regulatory structure when wildfires and extreme heat forced power companies to institute rolling blackouts.

Among them was Sen. Ted Cruz (R), who blamed California’s problem on policies he said were too environmentally friendly. Cruz, who faced his own political crisis this past week for flying to Cancún with his family to escape the cold and power outages, now says he has “no defense” for his mocking attacks on California.

There are three power grids in the Lower 48. One covers the eastern half of the country; another covers the western half. The third covers most of Texas. The Texas grid has been a separate entity for decades, and one reason has been to avoid federal regulation. Electricity prices are lower in Texas than in many other parts of the country, but they are subject to market forces. Prices shot up astronomically this past week as demand far outstripped supply.

The Texas power grid failure that left millions without power during the week of Feb. 15 prompted calls for a system more resilient to extreme weather. (Video: The Washington Post)

Former Texas governor and former U.S. energy secretary Rick Perry was quoted as saying that Texans would be willing to go without power for more than three days just to keep the federal government out of the state’s energy grid. Many Texas residents who spent part of the week shivering in their homes under multiple layers of clothing and blankets and now are dealing with burst pipes might offer a dissenting opinion.

It was Ronald Reagan, in his first inaugural address, who declared, “Government isn’t the solution to our problems, government is the problem.” That philosophy has guided conservative politicians ever since. With the administration of President Biden now in place, conservative politicians are warning that Democratic policies will lead to a government that is too big and too intrusive, a government that will destroy individual freedom and initiative.

The persistent criticism of government as bloated and inefficient and of government regulations as suffocating the entrepreneurial impulse of small and large businesses has led to a hollowing of government’s capacity to deal with the problems that only government can handle. In Texas, government has always been hollowed-out. The legislature meets once every two years. The powers of the governor were deliberately limited.

Ross Ramsey, the executive editor of the Texas Tribune, wrote that the winter crisis could leave “a lasting bruise on the Texas exceptionalism political and business leaders like to brag about,” undoing all the economic development work of recent years. “Who wants to go to a failed state?” he asked.

It will take months for many Texans to recover from the damage of this past week. By then, the crisis will have sparked investigations, outrage from politicians and, most likely, denials about the consequences of climate change. Will those in power turn the spotlight on themselves to ask what their responsibility should be to assure that necessary changes are made and that government is equipped and willing to take responsibility when the next unforeseen calamity hits?