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Editorial: Suffering Texans need leadership from Gov. Greg Abbott

By American-Statesman Editorial Board

This week Texans endured an epic, unforgivable failure of state government. Millions left shivering in the cold for days without power. A state power grid that came within minutes of a catastrophic collapse. Regulators who deemed the system ready for winter when clearly it was not. A deepening utility crisis that has left millions without safe drinking water and put some hospital operations in peril. And elected leaders who shamefully failed to lead, with Gov. Greg Abbott absurdly warning Texas was a poster child for the ills of the Green New Deal — really?! — and Sen. Ted Cruz blithely jetsetting to Cancún.

An Abilene man froze to death in his recliner. A Houston woman and her child died from carbon monoxide poisoning after seeking warmth in their car. Others around the state have died from exposure or fires as the lack of heat forced them to make desperate decisions. They died because the state designed a power grid system that prizes cheap energy and corporate profits over a durable, reliable power supply for Texans. Unfazed by the failures of that system, and the widespread suffering and devastation it has wrought, former Gov. Rick Perry declared this week that Texans would be willing to suffer even more just to swat away the pesky hand of federal regulation.

People lined up for propane at Tex Butane Co. in Bastrop on Tuesday, as many residents were without power due to mandatory rolling outages. One man in line said it was the only store with available propane in town.

Seriously. Perry should try that argument with the Texans who spent this week turning furniture into firewood, standing in line for hours to get supplies and scooping up snow and pool water to keep their toilets flushing.

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It took the better part of four days, but Abbott on Thursday finally said what needed to be said: “I take responsibility.” He called on the Legislature to require power plants to harden themselves against the threats of extremely cold weather, and he called for state funding to accomplish the task. That’s a start. Exhausted, angry Texans must demand that Abbott and lawmakers actually follow through, or we’ll find ourselves in the same place the next time a severe winter storm strikes.

As with the breached levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, the calamity facing Texas was an act of nature compounded by the failures of man — in this case, the wholly predictable stalling of Texas’ power plants in the grip of icy weather. After winter storms in 1989 and 2011 also disrupted Texas’ power supply, experts warned providers must do more to harden the gas-powered plants, natural gas pumping and storage facilities, coal-powered plants and wind turbines to ensure continued power production when frigid Texans needed it most.

The technology exists to do such things. Other states that endure more extreme winters manage to keep the lights on. But many power providers in Texas chose not to make the full investment to shore up facilities here. Why cut into profits when Texas rarely gets that cold? Our state leaders — who should have been looking out for the people — shirked their duty by not forcing the issue.

Texans are now living with the consequences of that failure. We are just starting to get a glimpse of the costs: Thousands of reports of broken water pipes in Austin alone. Water damage in countless homes across the state. Spoiled food in millions of kitchens. Lost paychecks from closed businesses. A lost week of school. Experts say the devastation will likely rival the toll from Hurricane Harvey. Once so proud of keeping the feds away from Texas’ power grid, state leaders are now turning to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for aid with this disaster.

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As with the coronavirus crisis, Abbott responded to this disaster first as a finger-pointing partisan, and then, in a distant second, as governor. With much of the state remaining in the dark Tuesday night, Abbott appeared on Fox News to amplify the right-wing talking point blaming frozen wind turbines for Texas’ plight — neglecting to mention the lack of electricity from frozen natural gas plants was far greater. Though he had issued some updates on Twitter, it wasn't until the next day that Abbott held his first press conference to address the public, an appallingly slow response to a major disaster.

Unfortunately for us all, the scale of this disaster is far too great to ignore, and Abbott can’t shift the blame to the feds or local governments, as he's prone to do. The state of Texas owns this problem. Ensuring reliable access to power, especially in extreme weather events, is a core function of a working government. Abbott says he takes responsibility. Now is the time to prove it.