HOUSTON – Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has called for a review of the body that oversees the flow of electricity through much of the state. Prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into power outages that affected millions of Texans. And several lawmakers have called for the chairman of the Texas Public Utility Commission to resign, as energy officials were called to Austin for marathon hearings on what went wrong during last week's devastating winter storm.
Over the past week, Texas has been gripped by a burst of accusations and blame after the powerful storm nearly collapsed the state's power grid, leaving millions in dark and unheated homes during some of the most frigid temperatures in the state's history. .
The outrage from government officials reflected the anger and fear of the residents, who continued to siphon off power during the storm, broken power lines wrecking their homes and astonishingly high electricity bills some of which are considering emptying their retirement accounts to pay them.
"I want someone to be held accountable," said Toni Anderson, whose husband, Carrol, died in his truck outside their home in 19 degrees weather.
In the days after the storm covered much of the state with snow and ice, resignation has been offered and lawsuits have been filed. The future of the power grid has been listed as a top priority in state law, and politicians and energy industry analysts have said there is a political will to make at least modest changes in the way the energy sector is managed.
But many wondered how far state officials would be willing to go beyond questioning and pointing the finger.
"We're going to be hearing a lot of cheap conversations in the coming months," said Mark P. Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University. "But I would look for concrete legislation that would change the rules of the game."
Calls for stronger oversight have been called, and some have questioned the wisdom of the go-it-alone, regulation-resilient approach to energy that Texas has long embraced. Investigators said the outage, which came as the storm pushed the power grid to the brink of collapse, showed that the state did not have sufficient reserves and that the facilities had not been reinforced enough to withstand winter conditions.
"The colossal outage of our power grid was not an unpredictable event – it was the result of unsustainable and reckless leadership neglect," the political arm of Deeds Not Words, a progressive women's advocacy group, said in a statement.
Governor Abbott quickly turned to the Texas Electric Reliability Council, which oversees the electrical grid, in assigning the blame. He said the council had "repeatedly assured" officials that it was prepared for winter weather. "Those assurances turned out to be false," he said.
The board, known as ERCOT, has also been the subject of criticism for having a board of directors with several non-Texas members. Five of those board members, including the chairman, stepped down this week.
"Many of you are angry," Mr. Abbott said in a televised address on Wednesday. & # 39; You have every right to be. I am angry too. At a time when essential services were most needed, the system broke. You deserve answers. You will get those answers. "
In some ways, the timing of the disaster was accidental, just as the state legislature, which meets every two years, began its session. This week, a string of officials from ERCOT, the Texas Public Utility Commission, power executives, power suppliers and others were faced with a barrage of questions about the power outage.
"Who cut my power?" Todd Hunter, a Republican lawmaker for nine Corpus Christi office holders, asked energy officials during a hearing this week.
"Gentlemen, we have a lot of people watching," he said, adding, "This is the question I think most people want to ask you." His voice sounded. "Who's guilty? I want the public to know who screwed up," said Mr. Hunter. "I want names and details."
Many lawmakers were unabashed in their criticism. "This is the largest train wreck in the history of deregulated electricity," Senator Brandon Creighton, a Republican, told Bill Magness, ERCOT's CEO and president.
Mr. Magness acknowledged the devastation caused by the power outage, but in his testimony he said that, even in retrospect, ERCOT would not have acted differentlyHe said the network was on the verge of collapse – it was four minutes, 37 seconds away, to be exact, when demand soared and supply plummeted. The consequences, he said, would have been worse.
"Now it didn't work for people's lives, but it worked to preserve the integrity of the system," said Mr. Magness of the grid operators' decisions, adding that if the system had failed completely, talk about how would turn on the power. "
Disaster is no stranger to Texas, where hurricanes ravage the Gulf Coast, powerful tornadoes scrape the panhandle and wildfires scorch the land of Hill Country farms. Even winter storms that deliver snow and ice are nothing new.
But the level of consternation caused by the recent Texas winter storm reflects the magnitude of the devastation as it swept through much of the state.
In the days since, much of Texas has returned to the kind of winter its residents know. Snow and ice have melted. In Houston, the highs have been pushed 80 degrees. Still, the effects of the storm remain in the piles of wood and drywall left in front of houses with cracked pipes. They are seen in the avid trade for plumbing equipment on social media and, in one community, at a local bar, with such items impossible to find in stores.
Valerie Williams was spared damage to her home, but she and her family were faced with an $ 8,100 electricity bill. She was one of the customers using services like Griddy, where electricity costs are linked to the fluctuating wholesale price. She had written to Mr. Abbott and received no answer.
“I just suggested to the governor to get some answers,” said Ms. Williams, who lives in Burleson, a suburb of Fort Worth, saying she was hoping for relief as the storm presented a situation she never expected. and left her. wary of state leaders.
“In all fairness, I feel like we've lost faith in the people who need to make sure we have what we need to be healthy and safe at home,” she said. "That's the hardest part. I never thought we couldn't have what we needed in Texas, and unfortunately we do."
State-wide prosecutors have said they had launched an investigation to determine if anyone – including government officials, agencies and energy companies – could be held criminally responsible for any part of the storm's aftermath.
"We will not forget the horror that our community has endured," José Garza, the district attorney for Travis County, including Austin, said in a statement. "We will do everything we can to hold accountable powerful actors whose action or negligence may have led to this suffering."
Lawyers also expect an avalanche of lawsuits that rival those that always come after major hurricanes. "I think you will see more lawsuits through this event, certainly more than Harvey and even more than Ike," said Tony Buzbee, a Houston attorney.
For Mrs. Anderson, the storm is not over yet.
In her kitchen in Crosby, just outside of Houston, the plasterboard was soggy and the floors were warped by the flood from a burst pipe in the attic. Still, that was nothing compared to the yawning absence of her husband, who most likely went to his truck for an extra oxygen tank. His main tank was running on electricity and the power had gone out the night before.
Ms. Anderson filed a lawsuit against CenterPoint Energy, her energy supplier, arguing that outages the company described as rotating instead lasted for hours, leading to her husband's refusal. (CenterPoint said the company does not comment on litigation.)
Mr. Anderson had tried to connect a vacuum to a generator to clean up the mess created by the burst pipe. He was getting exhausted and struggling to breathe. While he went out to get the spare oxygen tank, his wife continued mopping. She later found him slumped over the console of his truck.
Mr. Anderson, 75, was a Vietnam veteran who had the same job with the Port Terminal Railroad Association for decades. He could be a bit gruff, Ms. Anderson said. But when she called his old colleagues from the railroad, they told her stories of his kindness, how he had helped them at work.
"I've seen him every day for 30 years, and now I'm all of a sudden alone in a house," said Ms. Anderson, 75, with tears in her words. "He should be here today."
David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.