Just as José Loera and his family were beginning to assess the damage to his mother’s home in Houston — a caved-in roof, a living room ruined by burst pipes, flooding throughout the house — the family received more devastating news.
Loera’s father, José Emilio, who had already been in the hospital for three weeks recovering from COVID-19 when last week’s devastating winter storm hit Texas, had lost the ability to breathe on his own. Now the eldest Loera is fighting for his life.
“We got hit pretty hard, not only the winter storm that affected my mom's household but also with my dad,” Loera, 28, told Yahoo News on Monday. “He's currently in ICU on a ventilator.
“Honestly, it has been tough,” he added. “We've been living in a nightmare.”
The Loeras, like many of the most vulnerable Texans throughout the state, have been hit with a double whammy of a rare and catastrophic storm on top of an ongoing pandemic. José Emilio and José Loera’s brother were the two people the family depended on to pay for things. Now, without the father working, money is drying up.
The Loeras have hope that aid will eventually come, but so far it’s not coming fast enough. The family started a GoFundMe page to offset the costs of home repairs and mounting medical bills, but they, and others, say they need help now.
“I believe [help] will come, but that takes a process and that takes time,” Loera said. “I believe that we need that right now, more than ever.”
On Saturday, President Biden approved a major disaster declaration in Texas, unlocking federal aid to individuals in the state. The move provides assistance to 77 counties, including hard-hit Harris County, where Houston is located, but not to all 254 counties as requested. The White House says additional disaster designations may be made after further damage assessments. Texans have to file claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to access the aid, but receiving it could take weeks or longer.
Biden plans to travel to the state on Friday in his third official trip as president.
"For many people in our city with means, with insurance, this week has been a significant inconvenience, but they have the means and ability to quickly transition and move forward," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a news conference late last week. "For many people in our city who are already on the margins ... and were fighting every day just to keep a roof over their head and food in their refrigerator, this past week has been a major, major event and has really disrupted their lives."
More than 14 million Texans in 190 counties have been affected by the winter storm, most suffering water disruption due to freezing pipes and unprepared infrastructure. Last week, over 4 million homes lost power because of rolling outages as Texas’s energy grid, run by the nonprofit agency Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, failed.
No power meant that temperatures dropped to below freezing in many homes, food spoiled as refrigerators stopped working and families could not communicate with loved ones. Over time, water pipes froze before bursting, damaging homes, businesses and apartment buildings alike. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 11,000 Texans remained in the dark more than a week since the storm first touched down, according to Poweroutage.us.
At least 32 Texans have died as result of the storm, and that number is expected to rise as the state continues to thaw out. Of that number, six homeless people have been found dead in the last two weeks because of the storm.
And the threat of COVID-19 persists, particularly in a state that has been among the nation’s most lax on mask mandates.
To date, there have been more than 2.2 million confirmed cases of the virus in Texas, which is second nationwide only to California. There have been over 41,000 deaths across the state since the pandemic began, according to state data.
Many Texans blame inadequate leadership for allowing residents to suffer.
“There’s no way around it — Texas was a failed state,” Janelle Ramon, from the city of Lytle, told Yahoo News. “Failure starts from the top with [Gov.] Greg Abbott. Texas leaders, mainly Republican leaders, are either in hiding or flying to Cancún, Mexico.
“Texans have been hit hard mentally, physically and financially,” she added. “We are at the point where we tell Texas leaders that we could have froze to death and they just shrugged it off and gaslight people.”
Critics say Abbott, a Republican, has been largely absent during this crisis. He blamed ERCOT for the outages, calling it a “total failure” last week, but also went on Fox News to use the disaster as a cudgel against proponents of clean energy.
“This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott said to Fox host Sean Hannity. “Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis. ... It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.”
Texas’s energy grid does not cross state lines, meaning it is not overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. And former Gov. Rick Perry has gone so far as to suggest that Texans would rather suffer blackouts than be on the national grid.
“Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” Perry, who also served as President Donald Trump’s energy secretary, said. “Try not to let whatever the crisis of the day is take your eye off of having a resilient grid that keeps America safe personally, economically and strategically.”
And while millions of Texans struggled with no heat, power or running water, Sen. Ted Cruz flew to Mexico with his family, only to quickly return following widespread backlash. The following day, Cruz posted photos of himself handing out water to Texans, an act mocked as opportunistic.
While residents have been largely disappointed by state officials, some politicians from outside Texas have earned praise for their responses to the crisis. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., raised over $5 million for relief efforts as of Sunday night, with 100 percent of the donations being divided among five to 10 organizations that will provide food support, elder care or shelter assistance.
“Disasters don’t strike everyone equally,” Ocasio-Cortez said while volunteering in Houston on Saturday. “When you already have so many families across the state and country that are on the brink, that can’t even afford an emergency to begin with, when you have a disaster like this, it can set people back for years, not just days.”
One of the organizations on the receiving end of the relief help is the Houston Food Bank, which received $860,000 from Ocasio-Cortez's fundraiser, according to Amy Ragan, chief development officer of the nonprofit. She said another member of the community donated an additional $1 million.
“People are struggling twice as much now as they were, and they were already struggling,” Ragan told Yahoo News. “[This storm] is another huge setback. … It’s like adding insult to injury.”
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lost to Cruz in the 2018 Senate race, has also helped out, leveraging his organization in the state to reach out to senior citizens. His organization says it’s made hundreds of thousands of calls to older Texans.
The donations are helpful, but Ramon added that while the literal storm may have passed, the figurative storm is just beginning. Many residents are now seeing sky-high electricity bills that have soared into the tens of thousands.
“It’s not over, and Texans are going to be hit again with a high utility bill, despite not having electricity to keep warm,” Ramon, 30, added. “The company has the audacity to charge Texans inflated rates despite not having the necessities that we paid for.”
On Sunday, Texas officials blocked utility companies from turning off power due to nonpayment, but when this term is up, residents question where the aid will come from.
“The last week during the snowstorm was like having the world stop. … You felt, quite literally, left out in the cold,” Brian Johnson of Carrollton, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, told Yahoo News. “The only thing we got from our government was ‘Get ready,’ because there was nothing they could do when their failed policies came home to roost.”
With each passing day, Texans are looking for any glimmer of hope during a catastrophe that has been made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson, 58, a self-described “recovering Republican” and “pissed-off patriot,” believes that politicians ultimately failed Texans and are the ones who need to right their wrongs.
“Unemployment has more than doubled in Texas due to COVID,” he said. “Job security is dubious for everyone. People in Texas are hurting. Our senators have failed us. … Our senators do not speak to all Texans. They speak to those who vote for them. I want to be informed. Arguing about a one-time payment is insane to someone who has been out of work for months.
“This isn't a handout,” Johnson added. “We pay into a system that we expect to protect us from homelessness, sickness and death.”
Cover thumbnail photo Illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Loera family
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