My Friends Helped Austin While Ted Cruz Vacationed
Before Covid hit, Austin, Texas was a party town. We had festivals and events and a town where people had the skills needed to create a temporary city from scratch. We even had a rockstar who known for his enthusiasm for the art of creative plumbing.
The Texas power grid was strained near the point of total collapse in last week’s freak snowstorm, with multiple un-winterized power plants going offline.
When the Texas electric grid was terrifyingly close to total collapse, it required grid operator ERCOT (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas) to “shed load” or cut power to hundreds of thousands of customers who were then left in unheated homes in subzero weather. This cutting power led to multiple deaths due to the frigid conditions, many of them in unheated homes.
The cold also led to water main breaks and a series of cascading failures related to the lack of power that took down multiple water delivery and treatment systems, leaving a good chunk of Texas without any water at all. Boil water notices were issued across the state—almost an insult for people who have no water to boil and no way to boil it.
In the wake of this disaster, an informal mutual aid system came together in my Austin community. It’s an Austin spin on the Cajun Navy, the teams of private boat-owners who are known for rescuing people from floodwaters along the Texas and Louisiana coast. They’ve already helped a lot of people.
During the coldest days where many people were without power, the lack of heat quickly became the biggest issue. To help with the crisis multiple people banded together to harvest firewood and get it to cold people. Firewood got delivered all around greater Austin by helpful people with pickups.
When the City of Austin’s water system failed, and water stopped being sent to much of south Austin and the less wealthy communities, the mutual aid network pivoted to focusing on the delivery of water.
One of the guys who is the lead planner for my yearly camping trip had filled up the 300 gallon water cube on his trailer that we take camping before the big storm storm…mainly so he’d have water if his family or friends needed water. Turns out everyone needed water, especially elderly, disabled and low income citizens of Austin. So he hitched his trailer to his pickup and started making deliveries. He made so many that he burned out the pump on the water cube and then had to borrow a different generator to power it.
He told the heartbreaking story of pulling up to an apartment complex on Friday… where people had been dipping into the swimming pool for water. They had been doing so since Monday.
Meanwhile Thor Harris, best know as the percussionist for the noise group The Swans and for touring with Amanda Palmer has been busy making videos telling Austinites how to turn off the water at the street when they have a busted pipe. He’s even made videos on how to do simple plumbing repairs, which is good because right now it’s easier to schedule a Covid vaccine than it is to get an appointment with a plumber in Austin. (I literally swiped right on a dating app because the dude had “plumber” in his bio.)
Meanwhile, my neighborhood buy nothing group has been filled with people setting up charging stations in their driveways and making up batches of evaporated milk for strangers –there was no milk to be easily found in Austin this past weekend. They’ve even been putting together wagons with buckets near their spigots so that strangers can get the water they need.
Although I had highly alarmed friends checking in on me from the East Village to Eastern Europe, I’m one of the lucky ones in Austin. Since I live next door to the 10 county blood bank I never lost power. When friends started getting cold, they braved the icy roads to my warm house. I’m lucky that when a pipe under my deck broke it only leaked outside. This meant we could turn the water on and off at the curb, then store non-potable water in everything from the water storage cubes I use for camping to my big pot for boiling lobsters.
During the storm my household had grown to include four adults and a veritable petting zoo: 2 guinea pigs, a spoiled siamese and a dog on hospice care all sheltering in my tiny house. My Great Pyrenees spent a lot of time hanging nose to nose with the guinea pigs a.k.a. “The Beastie Boys” who were sheltering in a crate in the kitchen. This was either the beginning of a beautiful cross species friendship or the start of a fancy dog dinner—it was hard to tell. I made sure the lid of the crate stayed closed. It’s not good dog manners to eat your houseguests.
Meanwhile I was conjuring up dinners for my suddenly large household out of what was in my freezer and pantry. Prettily plated leftovers were presented as disaster tapas. Serving them by candlelight in order to reduce the strain on the Texas electric grid helped with the illusion of it being a passable dinner. I think of it as the hostessing miracle of the fish sticks.
While I was scrounging around my pantry in multiple layers tying to figure out how to feed my surprise guests….we watched as Texas Senator Ted Cruz fled the posh Houston-area enclave of River Oaks for Cancun, then tried to pass off his fleeing to a warmer climate as just being a good father. It was shocking that my friends and neighbors were doing a lot more to help other people than Cruz was. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has raised well over four million dollars and even came down and helped out with the Houston food bank….and she’s not even our representative.
As state and federal programs are starting to fill in and the mutual aid group is starting to work with Austin city officials and services. There are now multiple water pickup locations around town and the boil water notice has been lifted for Austin.
It sucks that my friends needed to step up to help the community, but I’m glad that they had the skills and initiative to get firewood and water to people who desperately needed it. Their skills were developed putting together fun events in the pre-Covid era.
The Sunday after the storm we saw photos from a photo op of Ted Cruz handing out water at a water distribution site in Houston. It’s literally the least he can do after literally abandoning his freezing constituents in a snowbank.