The Texas Tribune

For some Texans who lost loved ones to COVID, lifting the mask mandate is a 'slap in the face'

What confuses Delia Ramos about Gov. Greg Abbott's recent decision to cast off coronavirus restrictions in Texas isn't his order to let more people into restaurants. The Brownsville school counselor knows people are hurting economically.

But with more than 43,000 dead in Texas — including her husband — is wearing a mask in public too much to ask? At the least, it could take pressure off the medical systems and help prevent more people from dying, she said.

"It's not about taking away anybody's job or making anybody else suffer financially because everybody has their families to take care of," said Ramos, who lost her husband Ricardo to the coronavirus last year.

"People can go pick up groceries, people can go into a restaurant and people can shop around the mall in masks," she said.

Abbott's Tuesday declaration that it was time to "open Texas" has been decried by local officials and health experts, who say it's too soon to become lax with coronavirus restrictions, as just 7% of the state's residents have been fully inoculated against the virus. President Joe Biden likened the decision to "Neanderthal thinking," and an official with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it's not the time to loosen precautions.

But the announcement hit harder with Ramos, and others who have lost spouses, parents or friends to the virus — in some cases, making them wonder if the deaths of their loved ones meant nothing.

It feels like people that think it's "inconvenient to wear a mask" override all the "people that have been lost" to the virus, as well as doctors and nurses working long hours and teachers scared to go to work for fear of being exposed, Ramos, 39, said.

She'll continue to wear her mask "with honor."

"I don't want other children to grow up without a father, the way that mine unfortunately are going to have to grow up without one," she said.

After teasing an announcement for days, Abbott said Tuesday that masks would soon no longer be required statewide, and that businesses could return to full occupancy starting next week.

From a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, Abbott said the state is in a "completely different position" now that vaccines are available and there is broad awareness of prevention measures. He also said there is more protective equipment, testing and treatments, and he cautioned Texans to exercise personal vigilance.

The governor's spokesperson, Renae Eze, said he "joins all Texans in mourning every single life lost to this virus, and we pray for the families who are suffering from the loss of a loved one."

"As the governor has stressed repeatedly, removing state mandates does not end the need for personal responsibility nor the importance of caring for family members, friends and neighbors," she said in a statement.

Abbott's order — which makes Texas the most populous state without a mask mandate — comes as virus variants that are more contagious have emerged in Texas, with Houston becoming the first city nationwide to record cases of every major variant, according to a recent study.

The announcement also comes before a spring break period that could send people traveling across the state, timing that makes Dr. Jamil Madi, in Harlingen, think "we're shooting ourselves in the foot."

"The virus is still here, it's not like it's faded away," said Madi, chief of critical care medicine and director of the intensive care unit at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen. "The virus is just dormant and the way it wakes up is by human contact."

Texas has seen infections and deaths from the virus drop, and hospitalizations are at their lowest point since October. But the state ranks nearly last among states for the share of its population that have gotten a shot, and the number of patients hospitalized with the virus is higher now than it was when Abbott first began a phased economic reopening of Texas last spring.

In the hard-hit Rio Grande Valley where Madi works, infections went into a lull in September and early October but have picked back up, he said. There was a wave after the winter holidays when people traveled and gathered with family members to celebrate, and he's seen patients who had the disease and recovered return sicker than ever.

"Every time we decide to let loose, whether it's gatherings or [changes to] mask mandates, we see a definite spike after an event happens," creating a kind of "roller coaster," Madi said.

"We go back to the same cycle again and again and we're tired, we're all tired, to say the least," he said.

More than 43,000 people have died with the virus in Texas during the pandemic, which has devastated swaths of the state's economy and taken a toll on people's mental health.

Ramos, among those who lost a loved one, found out about Abbott's orders on Facebook. The next post in her feed asked for prayers for two school district employees fighting the coronavirus in the ICU, she said.

She was struck by the "harsh difference in those two realities."

In nearby McAllen, Ana Flores watched Abbott's announcement in disbelief on Tuesday. For the 39-year-old, who works at an adult day care, it immediately brought back memories of when Abbott loosened COVID-19 rules in May — weeks before infections surged and devastated the predominantly Hispanic or Latino communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

She got severely sick with the virus. Her husband of ten years, a truck driver, who was cautious and "knew a little bit about everything," was hospitalized and died at age 45.

"For [those of] us who lost a loved one, for us who survived — because I got pretty sick as well … it's like a slap in the face," Flores said of Abbott's announcement, noting his "happy" tone and the "clapping" people around him.

For Abbott to say "it's time for us to get on with our lives, everything to go back to normal," she said, "normal is not going to happen for us ever again."

She said it felt like Abbott "doesn't care" that counties in the border are "still struggling" even if other parts of Texas are doing better.

Mandy Vair, whose father, a hospice chaplain, died with the virus last summer, saw the order and wondered: Did his death not matter? She and other family members were limiting social activities and wearing masks, but were infected in November and Vair was sick for weeks. Her family still hasn't had a memorial ceremony for her late father because they don't feel it's safe to gather.

She said Abbott's decision made her think, "He got his immunization and maybe all of those that are important to him already got the immunization. So [now] the rest have to kind of fend for themselves until their turn comes up," she said. "We have to be responsible for ourselves — well, haven't we been trying to be responsible for ourselves the whole time?"

Local officials have slammed Abbott's order, saying it's premature and sends the wrong signal to residents who take cues from their leaders about how seriously to take the virus. Some have also expressed worry that front-line workers and communities of color could be left vulnerable to infection if others aren't required to wear masks around them. A CDC website says wearing a mask protects the wearer and those around them, and works "best when everyone wears one."

More than half of the COVID-19 deaths have been Black or Hispanic people, and advocates fear these communities have fallen behind in the vaccination efforts in Texas. In Texas, fatality rates in border areas like El Paso and Hidalgo, where a majority of residents are Hispanic or Latino, were among the highest per capita of big counties statewide.

State Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, said on Twitter that Black people have a disproportionate fatality rate and that the governor lifting a statewide mask mandate amounted to "signing the death warrants of communities of color."

"Today he made it clear Black lives don't matter," Miles tweeted.

Rebecca Fischer, an epidemiologist at Texas A&M University, said she was surprised such a "drastic measure was taken at such a critical time" and thinks the state could face "potentially a devastating trajectory" if prevention measures are relaxed.

Now is "not the time to be dropping our masks or throwing them in the trash can. This is the time really to be stepping up our prevention behaviors," said Fischer, an assistant professor with A&M's school of public health.

Public health experts have recently said two masks may be better than wearing just one, given differences in how they are constructed and fit, she said.

Eze, with the governor's office, said Abbott will continue to work with other officials to "speed the vaccination process to protect Texans from COVID, with the immediate priority of vaccinating Texans who are most likely to be hospitalized or lose their life from COVID." She cited a state initiative that deployed the National Guard to help vaccinate homebound seniors.

She said Texas "has the tools and knowledge we need to deal with COVID and keep Texans safe," and that the number of vaccines is "rapidly increasing" each day and more Texans are protected.

Abbott has also said local judges can reimpose some restrictions if COVID-19 hospitalizations exceed 15% of capacity in their region for seven straight days.

But Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said he doesn't want to wait until that point to be able to take action.

He said he was "very concerned" about Abbott's decision, and did not receive advance notice of the order.

Between the vaccinations and people who have contracted the virus, Cortez estimated about a quarter of his residents have some immunity to COVID-19.

"But we still have a long way to go," he said. "[Abbott] said from the very beginning that he was going to let science dictate his actions. Well, science tells us to have physical distance and separation, facial coverings," and to take other precaution.

Percent of Texans fully vaccinated:

Health experts estimate 75% to 90% of Texans need to achieve immunity to COVID-19 to reach herd immunity. As of March 3, about 7.5% of Texas' 29 million people have been fully vaccinated. One obstacle is vaccines are not approved for children under 16, who make up about 23% of the population.

What was "so special, what was so scientific" about having Texas' Independence Day be the day that the announcement was made, he asked.

In El Paso, city and county leaders urged their residents to practice the unity that helped them weather several recent tragedies, including a mass shooting in 2019 and a flood of coronavirus infections last fall. Just a few months ago, officials had to ask jail inmates to work for $2 an hour moving bodies, because regular staff couldn't keep up with the demand.

County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said COVID-19 patients were still taking up some 14% that of the region's hospital beds, indicating the area isn't ready to reopen.

"The timing is really what the problem is," he said. "If, in fact, it were true that we were ready to open, it'd be exciting for everybody, we'd be celebrating."

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Samaniego last fall after the county judge imposed tighter restrictions than the state on business openings. Paxton won, and in his victory lap on Twitter referred to Samaniego as a tyrant and El Paso County, the state's sixth largest, as a "rogue subdivision."

Samaniego said he doesn't expect that kind of interference again because he knows he's limited in what he can do moving forward.

"We're not going to do anything that is outside of the legal components and legal elements [of the order]," he said. "We're going to look more at trends and we're going to talk to all the leaders and consult with the county-city task force. We're going to check the science before we check the politics."

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said his plea for El Pasoans to continue wearing masks came not just from his duties as an elected official. Leeser's mother and brother died from the disease less than two months apart in 2020.

"My mother was sick and we didn't realize that my mother had COVID-19. But I said 'Guys, make sure you wear your mask,'" Leeser recalled telling his brother and sisters late last year. His sisters listened but his brother didn't, he said.

"My brother did not wear a mask while he was there and unfortunately got COVID-19 and also lost his life," Leeser said. "I am a living testimonial that it works."

Meanwhile, the executive director of Operation H.O.P.E., an El Paso charity that helps families pay for funerals, said he's not talking to a dozen or more families every day the way he was in late 2020, when the border city was the country's COVID-19 epicenter.

But Angel Gomez, the executive director, said he's not optimistic that won't happen again.

"I just hung up with the seventh [family] today," he said. "We should have just waited a little bit longer, but with this governor it's like we take one step forward and two steps back."

"Give it until the end of April and we're going to start seeing a spike again," he added.

Flores, in McAllen, remembers when Abbott loosened the coronavirus restrictions in May. She and her husband were scared. He traveled all over Texas as a truck driver, and would call her saying he'd gone into a store and saw few people were wearing masks. She remembers seeing a newspaper headline describing South Texas as a "Valley of Death" — an apropos description to her at the time.

"Look what happened the first time around, that's when we got hit really bad especially here in the Valley. … All these people that were sick and dying, my husband included. I just feel like it's too soon again."

She's going to keep wearing a mask. If her husband were alive — if he "wouldn't have been taken from" her — she thinks he would, too.

CEO of Texas power grid operator terminated in aftermath of winter storm

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

The board overseeing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the independent nonprofit entity that operates and manages the electricity grid that covers much of Texas, fired ERCOT CEO Bill Magness Wednesday night.

The move by the board to vote in favor of a "60-day termination notice" came after they convened in a private executive session for more than three hours. The board barely discussed its decision once returning to the public session.

The decision is the latest of several recently announced departures from the ERCOT board, which also included Magness. Seven board members resigned after public criticism that many board members did not reside in Texas.

Magness' absence will leave the 16-person ERCOT board with a mix of vacancies and temporary members. Both ERCOT and the Public Utilities Commission of Texas, the regulatory body that oversees it, have been lambasted in recent weeks for failures in preparing for and responding to the winter storm that left millions of people in the dark for days and claimed the lives of dozens.

On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had called for both Magness and the chair of the PUC, to resign. DeAnn Walker, the former chairwoman for the PUC, resigned that same day. She had come under sharp criticism by lawmakers after largely pointing blame for Texas' power outages to ERCOT. Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday named Walker's replacement.

Magness, who endured more than five hours of questioning by state senators Thursday, was criticized for the organization's preparations for a winter storm. ERCOT underestimated the maximum amount of power that would be demanded by homes, businesses and industry during a severe winter storm in its fall projections, and it overestimated the amount of power generation that would be available to the grid during such a storm.

When massive amounts of power began to trip offline in the early hours of Feb. 15, well beyond what was expected, ERCOT grid operators were forced to order utility companies to start controlled outages to prevent the entire system from collapsing. Legislators complained that the grid manager didn't do enough to alert state leaders or the public to the coming disaster.

In his testimony last week, Magness defended ERCOT's handling of the outages, telling lawmakers that if ERCOT operators had not acted as they did, “the suffering we saw last week would be compounded" and Texans would likely be without power for weeks. Magness also defended ERCOT as an entity that carries out what state lawmakers and the PUC direct.

“The commission approves the policy, we implement it," Magness said.

Magness told lawmakers he earns $803,000 annually, which he said comes from Texans paying their electric bills.

Magness did not speak about the board's decision, only that he abstained from the vote because it involved himself. Magness also said he was not present for any relevant discussion in the private executive session.

Walker, who testified after Magness during the hearings with lawmakers, said she disagreed with his characterization of how much oversight the PUC had of ERCOT, and said the commission has “not been given legal authority by the Legislature to require winter weatherization," a primary concern after the power crisis was precipitated by power plants tripping offline. Many power generators are not built to withstand extreme cold weather temperatures in Texas.

Magness worked at ERCOT for more than a decade and became its CEO and president in 2016 after working as its general counsel. He previously held executive management positions in the public and private utility sectors. A lawyer, he also previously worked as lead counsel in state and federal regulatory matters.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/03/02/ercot-texas-bill-magness/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Ted Cruz touts Trumpism in Florida while Biden visits Texas after storm leaves millions without power and potable water

Sen. Ted Cruz declares Trumpism among Republicans "ain't goin' anywhere" at Florida conference" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, in a speech Friday at a major national conservative gathering, joked about his recent trip to Cancún during the Texas winter weather crisis and promised that former President Donald Trump would be a lasting force in the Republican Party.

Cruz appeared at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, as President Joe Biden headed to Texas to see the state's recovery from last week's storm, which left millions of Texans without power and potable water. The Democratic president was set to be joined in Houston by the state's senior U.S. senator, John Cornyn, as well as Gov. Greg Abbott, both Republicans.

Cruz opened his CPAC speech by poking fun at his ill-timed visit to Cancún, which sparked a national uproar late last week. Cruz returned early from his trip, calling it a "mistake."

“I gotta say, Orlando is awesome. It's not as nice as Cancún," Cruz said, pausing amid laughter in the crowd. “But it's nice."

Cruz went on to use the address to rally Republicans against the Biden agenda and for the next two election cycles. At one point, he brought up Trump and said there were some in Washington D.C., who want to move on from him.

“Let me tell you this right now: Donald Trump ain't goin' anywhere," Cruz said, arguing the GOP has become the party of “not just the country clubs" but also blue-collar workers.

“That is our party and these deplorables are here to stay," Cruz added, referring to the term Hillary Clinton used to describe some of Trump's supporters in the 2016 presidential race.

Cruz led up to the declaration by referencing a report Thursday that an old intraparty nemesis, ex-U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, told Cruz to “go f--k yourself" in an off-script moment while recording the audio version of his new memoir.

“Yesterday, John Boehner made some news," Cruz said. “He suggested that I do something that was anatomically impossible — to which my response was, 'Who's John Boehner?'"

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/26/ted-cruz-cpac-trump-cancun/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Over a million Texans still without drinking water as smaller communities and apartments face biggest challenges

Over 1.4 million Texans still faced water disruptions on Wednesday afternoon, more than a week after Texas' winter storms wreaked havoc on the state's power grid and water services.

More than 20,000 people were completely without running water Wednesday afternoon because of water main breaks, mechanical failures, frozen or broken water lines or other issues, a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokesperson said.

Experts estimate that damage from the storm will cost billions. Thousands of Texans are facing damage from burst pipes, which have flooded homes and left many without water. This problem can be especially rampant for apartment dwellers, who live in multi-unit buildings where it can be more difficult in finding the problem areas.

Since a peak of about 14.9 million Texans faced water disruptions on Friday, the state's water situation has steadily improved. More than 1,100 boiling water notices issued after the storm have since been rescinded, including in Houston, Austin, Arlington, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Galveston.

Systems with smaller customer bases make up the bulk of those with lingering problems, TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker said. Approximately 600 communities with populations less than 500 are under boil water notices. Around 360 more with populations between 501 and 3,300 are also telling their residents to boil water before consumption.

"We kind of saw stuff all over the map, from frozen pipes underground to frozen chemical lines, to power that went down," Baker said. Smaller plants aren't required to have back-up generators, which could also have contributed to the initial problems, he said.

"I think we'll continue to see the numbers go down," he added. "At some point we'll plateau, but we're not there yet."

The Texas Apartment Association said that the cold weather has damaged plumbing systems in buildings throughout the state, but the exact number of units that are still affected is unclear.

"We haven't seen any kind of comprehensive damage assessment yet, but we do know that many of our members, just like everybody else, have suffered from having burst pipes and dealing with other consequences from the power outages and the freezing weather," said David Mintz, vice president of government affairs for the apartment association. "The biggest challenge right now is just people working as hard as they can to get properties back up and running and trying to meet the needs of their residents."

Some apartment residents like Dallas educator Tamara Tribble had to find solutions on their own during the storm. On Feb. 16 at 4:45 p.m., the management of her building sent her and other residents an email warning that they would shut off water in less than an hour. The temperature at that time was 18 degrees.

"They told us to fill the bathtubs because they were going to cut the water," Tribble said via phone on Tuesday. "But I didn't see the email until 9 p.m."

Electricity was also gone by then. Cold and without power or water, Tribble and her roommate, who is unemployed, had to leave for a hotel, where they paid $200 for two nights.

Another message from the building later informed them that some of the building's pipes had burst. On the morning of Feb. 19, they received an email that said water was being restored and they went back to avoid an expensive hotel bill.

"I checked out of the hotel. I lost all my food. I'm an educator, I have a limited budget," Tribble said. And, worse, her apartment didn't have water yet.

For the next few days, she had to wash herself with a cloth and a bucket. Stressed, tired and worried about how to clean her place, Tribble said she grew angry and anxious. She left the TV on when she slept — something she never does — just to be aware if she lost power again. She said that whoever is responsible for the power and water outages needs to be held responsible.

"There should be some class-action lawsuit. I don't care if I get two pennies. They need to pay for damages, they need to pay for loss of life," she said.

Mintz said that apartment building managers face a lot of challenges in getting their buildings back to normal. In addition to finding in-demand plumbers and supplies, they need to coordinate with utility companies or the city agencies.

"It can be more complex trying to do repairs at a multi-family property; because you're dealing with buildings that could be several stories, you could have many buildings on a property," Mintz said.

"If there's water coming in through somebody's ceiling, it might be the unit above them, but it could be the units next door or it could be buried somewhere inside the walls. You just have a lot more to go through."

Brad Casebier, owner of Austin-based Radiant Plumbing, echoed the complexity of apartment buildings. He said that single-family homes have individual water valves and issues are often isolated to a particular unit. That's not the case with apartment buildings.

"You get into an apartment, and more often than not, there's one valve that serves the entire community," Casebier said. "And so if one pipe breaks, the whole system shuts down, and this turns into a huge tragedy because you've got so many people affected potentially by just one broken pipe."

Jack Considine, a 26-year-old downtown Austin apartment resident, said he understands the exceptional circumstances that building managers are going through in Texas. But he wishes there could be better communication. He said he is lucky compared with other people: During the storm, he never lost power."

And then on Wednesday, when things were flipping on, a bunch of my neighbors got their pipes burst," Considine said on Tuesday. That day, he got an email from management asking residents to prepare to not have water for 48 hours. "We are almost at seven days now, and we don't have a clear timeline."

Considine said he and his roommate have been getting water from the gutters to flush their toilet and had to ask friends to use their showers. Sometimes, they used bottled water to wash themselves. As of Wednesday evening, they were having water again, but not with the usual pressure levels that they had prior to the storm.

"It would be nice to have people [from the management] here, checking that people are ok, maybe offering water. It feels like a lack of concern now," he said.

Mintz pointed out that many apartment managers and owners might be experiencing the same issues with lack of information or clarity about when they might get plumbers or supplies to fix issues.

"They don't have all the answers for what's going on, so they're facing the same issues that people are trying to fix their houses or their businesses," Mintz said. "They may know that they've got to get a plumber out to the property or they've arranged for a plumber to get to the property and they're working, but may not know how long it's going to take to get it fixed. And they can't give very good information just because they don't have it."

Considine has also not received any information on rent abatements or compensation. The Texas Property Code allows a rent reduction in these cases, but according to housing lawyers it is difficult to apply because it requires a lawsuit and because many apartment leases bar tenants from taking this approach."

The law is very heavily tilted in favor of landlords in this area, and there were no improvements in the law despite the tragedies of Hurricane Harvey," said Nelson Mock, attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, in an email.

The Texas Property Code does establish rules on how the repair process should be handled, but tenants must be up to date with rent. Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid has created a Frequently Asked Questions document for tenants to understand this process.

Renters in counties within the federal disaster declaration area could also get help from the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

Tenants with renters insurance could get some additional relief. The Insurance Council of Texas recommends that tenants with such policies check the details of their plans. These policies can often cover personal property damage and other expenses.

"When filing a claim, it's very important to ask your agent/insurance company or adjuster what is specifically covered under your policy and what is your deductible," said Camille Garcia, director of communications and public affairs for the organization, via email. "In this manner, the customer can make better decisions regarding their claim."

For Texans in smaller communities facing water outages or disruptions, Baker of TCEQ says they should contact their local providers with questions or concerns. They're able to answer questions and set the timeline. But he said to contact TCEQ if they have a complaint against the provider.

The commission is reaching out to systems in smaller communities and trying to connect them with resources, whether it be state support or referring them to labs that can run bacteria tests on their water, Baker said.

While Tribble said her insurance will cover the expenses of her spoiled food, she's uncertain whether she'll get a refund for the hotel. But, at least, on Tuesday night, she got good news. At around 9 p.m. she went to one of her faucets and turned it on to finally find running water.

"No one told me that my water is on. It came out, and I was [like]'Oh my goodness, it's working!'" she said. After a week without water in her apartment, she took a hot shower. "It was such a good feeling."

ERCOT board members living outside of Texas now resigning amid winter storm aftermath

Five board members of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — the entity that manages and operates the electricity grid that covers much of Texas — will resign on Wednesday, according to a notice to the Public Utility Commission. A sixth has withdrawn his application to the board.

All six live outside of Texas.

Sally Talberg, board chair; Peter Cramton, vice chair; Terry Bulger, finance and audit chair; and Raymond Hepper, human resources and governance committee chair, occupy the "unaffiliated" director positions on the board, which mean they must remain independent of any business ERCOT oversees. Their resignations will be effective at the end of the board's Wednesday meeting.

In addition, Vanessa Anesetti-Parra, the market segment director for the independent retail electric provider market segment, will also resign her position as a board member. Craig Ivey, who was slated to fill a vacant unaffiliated director position, withdrew his application.

ERCOT board members had come under fire last week when it was reported that some did not reside in the state. ERCOT officials, during a press conference last week, said it had temporarily removed personal information about the directors from its website because they were experiencing harassment.

The board has been criticized for last week's mass power outage during a winter storm that has claimed the lives of dozens of Texans. More than 4.5 million customers were without power at one point last week.

Gov. Greg Abbott had called on ERCOT board members to resign in the aftermath of the crisis and said in a statement Tuesday that he welcomes their resignations, promising to investigate the grid operator."I welcome the resignations," Abbott said.

"The lack of preparedness and transparency at ERCOT is unacceptable. We will ensure that the disastrous events of last week are never repeated."

ERCOT, a nonprofit, is governed by a board of directors, but overseen by the Public Utility Commission. Fifteen members serve on the ERCOT board, including the five unaffiliated director positions. The vacancies will not immediately be filled.

In order for ERCOT to maintain its certification as an independent organization, the board, which should consist of 16 members, must include five directors who are completely unaffiliated with "any market segment." Ivey would have been the fifth unaffiliated member.

"The board chairman, board vice chairman and both committee chairman leadership roles will be vacant," according to the notice submitted by attorneys representing ERCOT.

Lawsuits have already been filed against ERCOT in response to last week's crisis. It's unclear whether ERCOT, which falls under the PUC's jurisdiction, can be held liable by such suits: The Texas Supreme Court is expected to decide this year whether ERCOT is entitled to sovereign immunity, a legal principle that protects government agencies from lawsuits, after hearing another case that raised the question last year.

The board members were not all immediately available for comment or referred reporters to their resignation letters. In a joint letter to the rest of the board, the four unaffiliated directors cited the public concern that board members did not live in the state as the reason for their resignation. Ivey also cited not wanting to become a "distraction" from the more important response to the crisis in his letter.

"To allow state leaders a free hand with future direction and to eliminate distractions, we are resigning from the board," Talberg, Cramton, Bulger and Hepper wrote in the resignation letter.

The board directors wrote that before they resign, they will launch the review of the power crisis.

"Our hearts go out to all Texans who have had to go without electricity, heat, and water during the frigid temperatures and continue to face the tragic consequences of this emergency," they wrote. "We want what is best for ERCOT and for Texas."

Talberg, a former state utility regulator who served on the Michigan Public Utility Commission from 2013 to 2020, lives in Michigan. Talberg has sat on various state, regional and national boards and committees involving electricity, natural gas, oil, infrastructure and telecommunications issues. Cramton, a professor of economics at the University of Cologne and the University of Maryland, lives in Germany. Cramton has focused his research on electricity and financial markets. He has advised numerous governments and has been on the ERCOT board since 2015.

Bulger worked in the banking sector for 35 years, including various positions with ABN AMRO Bank in Canada, Europe and the U.S., and lives in Wheaton, Illinois. Hepper, a former litigator for the U.S. Department of Justice, retired in 2018 from working for the grid operator that manages the six-state New England electric system and wholesale markets.

Ivey, whose appointment was approved by ERCOT's members but was pending final approval from the PUC, is retired from more than three decades of experience in the utilities industry. He resides in Florida, according to an ERCOT announcement about his candidacy to the board. Most recently, he was the president of Consolidated Edison Co. of New York Inc., a subsidiary of Consolidated Edison Inc.

Anesetti-Parra oversees Just Energy's North American residential and commercial regulatory affairs and compliance division and has two decades of experience in the retail energy sector.

ERCOT representatives did not return calls seeking comment, but in a statement it said: "We look forward to working with the Texas Legislature, and we thank the outgoing Board Members for their service."

Many Texans have died because of the winter storm -- just how many won't be known for weeks or months

By Shawn Mulcahy, The Texas Tribune

As snow blanketed much of Texas on Sunday, an 11-year-old boy in the Houston area gleefully played outside. Seeing the snow was a first for the boy, who came to the U.S. from Honduras two years ago with his mother, she told the Houston Chronicle.

Less than 24 hours later, as temperatures plunged to near single digits and homes across the state lost power, the boy died.

Early that same morning, a San Antonio man left his house for a dialysis appointment — but he never arrived. His wife found him unresponsive nearly two hours later in the frigid weather, according to KSAT. Local authorities said the man's death could have been from exposure to the cold.

In Abilene, first responders found a 60-year-old man dead in his home on Wednesday. His wife, who was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment, said they hadn't had power for three days. Fire department members told KTXS that it felt as cold inside the home as outside.

Across Texas, deaths related to the winter storm continued to mount this week amid freezing temperatures, widespread power outages and a scarcity of clean water. While there have been reports that dozens of deaths are tied to the storm in Texas, experts say the death toll is likely far larger. And it could be weeks or months before the true magnitude is known.

“It's a slow process. We may have preliminary information in weeks, not days," said Chris Van Deusen, a Texas Department of State Health Services spokesperson. A statewide survey of deaths caused by the storm is underway, he said. But the state won't have a good indication until death certificates are filed.

A spokesperson for The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, which conducts autopsies, could not provide the total number of deaths associated with the storm on Thursday, and had no idea when that information would be available.

Likewise in Travis County, a spokesperson estimated a tally of storm-related deaths could be available in 30 to 90 days.

The Houston Chronicle reports that more than two dozen people in Harris County alone have died from events related to this week's icy weather. And the threat is far from over. Thousands of Texans are still without electricity, food and clean water.

As with any natural disaster, this week's storms have left a “disproportionate effect" on homeless people, said Eric Samuels, president of the Texas Homeless Network. He urged Texans with the means to provide help to support local shelters and advocacy groups, which have already been stretched thin by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Unfortunately, in a lot of our communities, [local organizations] are ones who take the lion's share of the responsibility and the burden of assisting people during these times," he said.

Officials reported an uptick in hypothermia as power outages meant people lived for days in below-freezing temperatures. A handful of deaths have already been attributed to hypothermia, including three people who died in their Harris County homes, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences said on Thursday.

Hypothermia is caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, when a person's body loses more heat than it produces. The low body temperature affects a person's brain and can lead to confusion, memory loss or death.

Public officials are also warning Texans about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, citing an alarming spike in emergency room visits due to the dangerous, scentless gas.

Most cases were caused by the indoor use of heating sources like charcoal barbecues and gas-powered generators. These machines release carbon monoxide that, if not used in a well-ventilated area, can be fatal in minutes.

Two people in Houston died, and another two were rushed to the hospital, after the family ran their car for warmth inside a closed garage, NPR reported.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called the spike in cases of carbon monoxide poisoning “a disaster within a disaster."

Dr. Justin Fairless, a board member of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians, also cautioned that the transmission of COVID-19 remains a real threat as people gather in shelters and at the homes of friends and family. He urged Texans to continue taking precautions like wearing masks and socially distancing when interacting with people outside your household or when in large gatherings, such as water distribution sites.

Above all, Fairless warned Texans not to delay seeking treatment if they feel ill.

“If you think you have something going on medically, don't just sit at home and hope it passes," he said. “Get medical care."

Disclosure: The Texas College of Emergency Physicians has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/19/texas-power-outage-winter-storm-deaths/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

'We are resilient people': Texans share how they weathered the winter storm

By Todd Wiseman, Alana Rocha, Justin Dehn and Jackson Barton, The Texas Tribune Feb. 20, 2021

After days without power or running water, many Texans say they're frustrated, but determined to overcome the latest challenge thrown their way. We caught up with several people to hear about what they endured as a historic winter storm with catastrophic consequences swept across the state.

There's Victoria Forton, a new mom trying to keep her baby warm in Pflugerville. And Sara Deraud, a Grapevine woman concerned about her grown son five hours away.

Jose Cabral cozied up with his wife and pets in Salado to stay warm. The lights went out on Lorraine Patino in Manor, leaving her and her husband with little more to eat than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Marcus Wilson lost power in Houston and with it, the ability to work virtually. And Astrid Lang, a Houston Independent School District teacher, worried about her less fortunate students, and her parents, who risked missing their second COVID-19 vaccine doses because of the weather.

Listen to their accounts, along with some harsh criticism for state leaders, in the weekend edition of The Brief podcast.

Start your day with a quick take on the latest Texas politics and policy news. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, Amazon Echo or RSS.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/20/texas-winter-storm-outages-survive/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas was 'seconds and minutes' away from catastrophic months-long blackouts: officials

"Texas was "seconds and minutes" away from catastrophic monthslong blackouts, officials say" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Texas' power grid was “seconds and minutes" away from a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months, officials with the entity that operates the grid said Thursday.

As millions of customers throughout the state begin to have power restored after days of massive blackouts, officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which operates the power grid that covers most of the state, said Texas was dangerously close to a worst-case scenario: uncontrolled blackouts across the state.

The quick decision that grid operators made in the early hours of Monday morning to begin what was intended to be rolling blackouts — but lasted days for millions of Texans — occurred because operators were seeing warning signs that massive amounts of energy supply was dropping off the grid.

As natural gas fired plants, utility scale wind power and coal plants tripped offline due to the extreme cold brought by the winter storm, the amount of power supplied to the grid to be distributed across the state fell rapidly. At the same time, demand was increasing as consumers and businesses turned up the heat and stayed inside to avoid the weather.

“It needed to be addressed immediately," said Bill Magness, president of ERCOT. “It was seconds and minutes [from possible failure] given the amount of generation that was coming off the system."

Grid operators had to act quickly to cut the amount of power distributed, Magness said, because if they had waited, “then what happens in that next minute might be that three more [power generation] units come offline, and then you're sunk."

Magness said on Wednesday that if operators had not acted in that moment, the state could have suffered blackouts that “could have occurred for months," and left Texas in an “indeterminately long" crisis.

The worst case scenario: Demand for power overwhelms the supply of power generation available on the grid, causing equipment to catch fire, substations to blow and power lines to go down.

If the grid had gone totally offline, the physical damage to power infrastructure from overwhelming the grid can take months to repair, said Bernadette Johnson, senior vice president of power and renewables at Enverus, an oil and gas software and information company headquartered in Austin.

“As chaotic as it was, the whole grid could've been in blackout," she said. “ERCOT is getting a lot of heat, but the fact that it wasn't worse is because of those grid operators."

If that had occurred, even as power generators recovered from the cold, ERCOT would have been unable to quickly reconnect them back to the grid, Johnson said.

Grid operators would have needed to slowly and carefully bring generators and customers back online, all the while taking care to not to cause more damage to the grid. It's a delicate process, Johnson explained, because each part of the puzzle — the generators producing power, the transmission lines that move the power and the customers that use it — must be carefully managed.

“It has to balance constantly," she said. “Once a grid goes down, it's hard to bring it back online. If you bring on too many customers, then you have another outage."

ERCOT officials have repeatedly said that the winter storm that swept the state caught power generators off guard. The storm far exceeded what ERCOT projected in the fall to prepare for winter.

“The operators who took those actions to prevent a catastrophic blackout and much worse damage to our system, that was, I would say, the most difficult decision that had to be made throughout this whole event," Magness said.

Nine grid operators are working at any given time who make these sorts of decisions, said Leslie Sopko, a spokesperson for ERCOT.

“At the end of the day, our operators are highly trained and have the authority to make decisions that protect the reliability of the electric system," she said in a statement.

ERCOT made “significant progress" overnight Wednesday to restore customer power to many Texans, and remaining power outages are likely due to ice storm damage to the distribution system. Some areas that were taken offline will also need to be restored manually, according to ERCOT.

ERCOT warned that emergency conditions remain, and that “some level of rotating outages" may be necessary over the coming days to keep the grid stable.

By Erin Douglas, The Texas Tribune Feb. 18, 2021

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/18/texas-power-outages-ercot/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Frozen wind turbines aren’t the main culprit for Texas' power outages — no matter what conservatives say

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Frozen wind turbines in Texas caused some conservative state politicians to declare Tuesday that the state was relying too much on renewable energy. But in reality, the lost wind power makes up only a fraction of the reduction in power-generating capacity that has brought outages to millions of Texans across the state during a major winter storm.

An official with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said Tuesday afternoon that 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, mostly wind generation, were offline. Nearly double that, 30 gigawatts, had been lost from thermal sources, which includes gas, coal and nuclear energy.

“Texas is a gas state," said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

While Webber said all of Texas' energy sources share blame for the power crisis, the natural gas industry is most notably producing significantly less power than normal.

“Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now," Webber said.

Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT, echoed that sentiment Tuesday.

“It appears that a lot of the generation that has gone offline today has been primarily due to issues on the natural gas system," he said during a Tuesday call with reporters.

Still, some have focused their blame on wind power.

“This is what happens when you force the grid to rely in part on wind as a power source," U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, tweeted Tuesday afternoon. “When weather conditions get bad as they did this week, intermittent renewable energy like wind isn't there when you need it."

He went on to note the shutdown of a nuclear reactor in Bay City because of the cold and finally got to what energy experts say is the biggest culprit, writing, “Low Supply of Natural Gas: ERCOT planned on 67GW from natural gas/coal, but could only get 43GW of it online. We didn't run out of natural gas, but we ran out of the ability to get natural gas. Pipelines in Texas don't use cold insulation —so things were freezing."

Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, known for his right-wing Facebook posts that have, in the past, spread misinformation and amplified conspiracy theories, also posted an unvarnished view of wind energy on Facebook: “We should never build another wind turbine in Texas."

In another post, Miller was even more forthright, but also misleading. “Insult added to injury: Those ugly wind turbines out there are among the main reasons we are experiencing electricity blackouts," he wrote. “Isn't that ironic? ... So much for the unsightly and unproductive, energy-robbing Obama Monuments. At least they show us where idiots live."

While wind power skeptics claimed the week's freeze means wind power can't be relied upon, wind turbines — like natural gas plants — can be “winterized," or modified to operate during very low temperatures. Experts say that many of Texas' power generators have not made those investments necessary to prevent disruptions to equipment since the state does not regularly experience extreme winter storms.

It's estimated that of the grid's total winter capacity, about 80% of it, or 67 gigawatts, could be generated by natural gas, coal and some nuclear power. Only 7% of ERCOT's forecasted winter capacity, or 6 gigawatts, was expected to come from various wind power sources across the state.

Production of natural gas in the state has plunged due to the freezing conditions, making it difficult for power plants to get the fuel necessary to run the plants. Natural gas power plants usually don't have very much fuel storage on site, experts said. Instead, the plants rely on the constant flow of natural gas from pipelines that run across the state from areas like the oil and natural gas-producing Permian Basin in West Texas to major demand centers like Houston and Dallas.

Gov. Greg Abbott specified that fossil fuel sources were contributing to the problems with the grid when describing the situation Monday afternoon.

“The ability of some companies that generate the power has been frozen. This includes the natural gas & coal generators," he wrote in a tweet.

Heather Zichal, CEO of the industry group the American Clean Power Association, said opponents of renewable energy were trying to distract from the failures elsewhere in the system and slow the “transition to a clean energy future."

“It is disgraceful to see the longtime antagonists of clean power — who attack it whether it is raining, snowing or the sun is shining — engaging in a politically opportunistic charade, misleading Americans to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with restoring power to Texas communities," she said.

Matthew Watkins contributed reporting.

Disclosure: Facebook and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/16/texas-wind-turbines-frozen/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Why does Texas have its own power grid?

This story was originally published in 2011. If you're looking for the latest updates on the February 2021 winter storm, head over to our homepage or follow us on Twitter.

Why does Texas have its own electric grid?

Texas' secessionist inclinations have at least one modern outlet: the electric grid. There are three grids in the Lower 48 states: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection — and Texas.

The Texas grid is called ERCOT, and it is run by an agency of the same name — the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. ERCOT does not actually cover all of Texas. El Paso is on another grid, as is the upper Panhandle and a chunk of East Texas. This presumably has to do with the history of various utilities' service territories and the remoteness of the non-ERCOT locations (for example the Panhandle is closer to Kansas than to Dallas, notes Kenneth Starcher of the Alternative Energy Institute in Canyon), but Texplainer is still figuring out the particulars on this.

The separation of the Texas grid from the rest of the country has its origins in the evolution of electric utilities early last century. In the decades after Thomas Edison turned on the country's first power plant in Manhattan in 1882, small generating plants sprouted across Texas, bringing electric light to cities. Later, particularly during the first world war, utilities began to link themselves together. These ties, and the accompanying transmission network, grew further during the second world war, when several Texas utilities joined together to form the Texas Interconnected System, which allowed them to link to the big dams along Texas rivers and also send extra electricity to support the ramped-up factories aiding the war effort.

The Texas Interconnected System — which for a long time was actually operated by two discrete entities, one for northern Texas and one for southern Texas — had another priority: staying out of the reach of federal regulators. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with overseeing interstate electricity sales. By not crossing state lines, Texas utilities avoided being subjected to federal rules. "Freedom from federal regulation was a cherished goal — more so because Texas had no regulation until the 1970s," writes Richard D. Cudahy in a 1995 article, "The Second Battle of the Alamo: The Midnight Connection." (Self-reliance was also made easier in Texas, especially in the early days, because the state has substantial coal, natural gas and oil resources of its own to fuel power plants.)

ERCOT was formed in 1970, in the wake of a major blackout in the Northeast in November 1965, and it was tasked with managing grid reliability in accordance with national standards. The agency assumed additional responsibilities following electric deregulation in Texas a decade ago. The ERCOT grid remains beyond the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which succeeded the Federal Power Commission and regulates interstate electric transmission.

Historically, the Texas grid's independence has been violated a few times. Once was during World War II, when special provisions were made to link Texas to other grids, according to Cudahy. Another episode occurred in 1976 after a Texas utility, for reasons relating to its own regulatory needs, deliberately flipped a switch and sent power to Oklahoma for a few hours. This event, known as the "Midnight Connection," set off a major legal battle that could have brought Texas under the jurisdiction of federal regulators, but it was ultimately resolved in favor of continued Texan independence.

Even today, ERCOT is also not completely isolated from other grids — as was evident when the state imported some power from Mexico during the rolling blackouts of 2011. ERCOT has three ties to Mexico and — as an outcome of the "Midnight Connection" battle — it also has two ties to the eastern U.S. grid, though they do not trigger federal regulation for ERCOT. All can move power commercially as well as be used in emergencies, according to ERCOT spokeswoman Dottie Roark. A possible sixth interconnection project, in Rusk County, is being studied, and another ambitious proposal, called Tres Amigas, would link the three big U.S. grids together in New Mexico, though Texas' top utility regulator has shown little enthusiasm for participating.

Bottom line: Texas has its own grid to avoid dealing with the feds.

Got a question for Texplainer? E-mail us at texplainer@texastribune.org.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2011/02/08/texplainer-why-does-texas-have-its-own-power-grid/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

BRAND NEW STORIES

Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.