by John Seidlitz
Last month, Texas got a taste of “real winter,” and we were woefully unprepared. My family was one of the more than 4 million households that lost power and water for days on end. Like many, we woke up to a dark and chilly house on Monday morning, February 15. At first we weren’t too concerned, since we’d been told the blackouts would be “rolling” and likely to last for just 45 minutes or so. But it quickly became apparent that something had gone terribly wrong.
We are fortunate to have a fireplace in our home, but we were low on wood, so my two oldest boys helped scavenge for firewood in the ditch behind the house. Then they chopped it with a shovel in the snow, because we don’t have an axe (we’ve never needed one before). Despite their efforts, by Wednesday the temperature inside our house dipped below 40 degrees. What’s more, we were nearly out of food for my daughter, Anna, whose celiac disease keeps her on a highly restricted diet. We knew the situation wasn’t sustainable any longer, so despite the icy roads, we piled into the car and drove ninety minutes north to Ardmore, Oklahoma, where the power was on, the water was running, and the grocery stores were stocked.
After staying in a hotel for a couple of days with several other Texans, we made our way back to Irving, stopping to pick up bread, milk, and other staples for several of our neighbors who were finding themselves low on food their local grocery shelves nearly empty. When we got home, we discovered the water was still off. The city wouldn’t be able to restore service until the following Monday.
Compared to many of our fellow Texans, we were blessed to face these minor challenges. It is estimated that approximately thirty of our fellow Texans lost their lives to weather-related causes during the storm, and many families who survived had it much worse than we did. Within our company, we faced a similar spectrum of challenges, though we are fortunate that none of us has been permanently displaced from our homes.
But as the days stretched on during the storm, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I wasn’t thinking much about what was happening or what we were doing; I was focused exclusively on keeping my kids fed and warm. But now that we’ve thawed out, I’ve had some time to reflect, both on how fortunate we were to have the resources we did and on what I hope we as a community can do to ensure such needless devastation never happens again.
To that end, I want to share four reflections I’ve been mulling over in the days following the storm.
I admit I’ve very rarely stopped to think about how we get heat and power and water. I’ve always been able to take them for granted here. And I certainly didn’t fully understand the nuances of the Texas electrical grid. But in the wake of the storm, as I read about its utter instability and about all the actions that could have — should have — been taken after the 2011 ice storms, it hit me just how vulnerable we are. In order to survive, we need power, we need heat, we need water, and we need access to food. But winter storm Uri taught us that the systems that deliver those necessities to us are not at all stable. And it showed just how much our access to these things depends on our leaders — both elected and appointed — making the right decisions at every level.
Actually, I have thought about access to electricity a few times, but only in the abstract and only as it relates to someone else. This time last year, I was in Honduras with Dr. Monica Lara. We were working with a school there, and volunteering with a medical mission in the evenings. While the school had electricity, we didn’t have electricity or hot water in our accommodations. We met many families who didn’t have electricity in their homes either, and others who had travelled many, many miles to our health clinic because they didn’t have access to medical care near their own homes.
I also have a close friend who lives in Venezuela. His name is Victor, and it’s not unusual to be unable to get ahold of him during a blackout. I’ve often wondered in passing what that must be like. But now I no longer wonder because I’ve experienced it firsthand, as have many of my Texas educator friends and colleagues.
Many of our newcomers and English learners come from hometowns where the outages we experienced in February were commonplace. Having felt firsthand how that impacts our lives — how it has impacted theirs — I hope we can bring a newfound sense of solidarity into our classrooms.
Despite the fear and frustration and sadness we felt during the storms, my family and I remained aware that we are incredibly privileged. Our experience was not as difficult as that of many of the historically marginalized communities whom the blackouts hit particularly hard, nor did we suffer nearly what migrants on the Texas/Mexico border did during the storm. We had the resources to drive to a different state and pay for several nights in a hotel so we could keep ourselves warm and buy gluten-free food for my daughter. We knew what kind of food she needed in the first place because we’ve always had access to good medical care for ourselves and our children. We were able to get our pipes fixed and restore water on February 22, when even as late as February 23, there were still more than a million Texans without water.
The more I reflect on that week, the more grateful I am for the privilege my family and I had (and have). I’m grateful that I was able to use that privilege to bring groceries back to my neighbors, and I’m inspired and challenged by the stories I’ve heard and seen of folks doing so much more.
And that brings me to my last reflection: hope. The kind of hope I’m talking about is different from mere optimism. A late psychology professor, C.R. Snyder, defined hope as “a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy), and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals).” In other words, when there’s real hope it’s because we have some control. We can take actions — for ourselves or on behalf of others — to make even the toughest situations better.
Looking around in the second half of February, there was a lot to be angry about and a lot to be sad about, but there was also a lot that gave me this kind of hope.
I had so many friends, even my friend Victor from Venezuela, reach out to check on me and my family and offer assistance. I saw people in our neighborhood reaching out to offer support to each other. I saw businesses like HEB giving away free food and water to those in need. I saw leaders and individuals from all over the country lending a hand to help Texas. I saw other southern states weather this storm much better than Texas did, reminding me that there often are solutions, when we are only willing to work for it and invest in them.
What all of this showed me is that our actions can and do make a difference. We can choose to be prepared when a crisis hits. And when it does, we can choose to help one another, both in our communities at large and in our schools. In our work as educators, we constantly encounter students who have come to the United States for their own safety. In the next few months, Texas will be seeing an influx in unaccompanied minors. The choices we make about how we will conduct ourselves in our classrooms, the way we will run our schools, the policies we will support — they will all make a difference for these most vulnerable students we serve. Let’s work together to make sure all our communities are ready to do what we can.
To our friends, both in and out of state who made a difference for Texans in the wake of the storm, thank you. And to those of us who were on the receiving end of that help and support, here’s to paying it forward for our students, in all the ways we can.