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In Texas disaster, low-income people hit hardest

In the midst of the massive Texas storm, last night I was fortunate to stay in a shelter in Sealy, Texas, one hour west of Houston. Driving westward to California after organizing with Tennessee Party for Socialism and Liberation members against utility shutoffs, I tried to make it as far as San Antonio. But the roads turned icy and when a tractor-trailer jackknifed a few minutes before I passed it, I pulled into the nearest town. In Sealy there were no hotel rooms left. 

As I was trying to sleep in my car, the whole town went dark at midnight, part of the rolling blackouts from town to town. In the pitch black and freezing temps, the police drove around town looking for people outside. They approached my car, told me of a shelter run by the Knights of Columbus in Sealy and directed me to the shelter. There the volunteers welcomed me to sleep overnight, where the hall runs with a massive generator.

The men volunteering at the shelter are kind and thoughtful, providing cots, blankets and meals to the families that are here. They raise funds and do volunteer work year-round. In the shelter there are about 25 people, almost all Mexican and Chicano. One large family has young children, including a 3-month-old baby.

This morning, in this large KC hall, as I wait for the outdoor temperature to move above freezing and get back on the road, I spoke with some of the people who have been in the shelter since Monday, three days now. They are like the millions of people in Texas, Louisiana and other states, who have been without electricity or heat. Water is also running low and pipes are bursting.

The people I spoke with said their homes are uninhabitable with no lights, heat or water.

Ricky, a high-school student, is here with his cousins, adults and several little children. They are from Wallis and East Bernard, 20 and 25 miles away. How did his family learn about the shelter? “I called an ambulance because my diabetic mother was sick from the cold. They brought us to the shelter.” 

Estella, here with her adult son, called the Catholic Church where she is a member, to ask for help. They told her of the KC shelter. She has been here since Monday. Another man said he called a former co-worker in Houston, who suggested he call 211 to learn of resources.

Glenn is a 63-year-old Black man living in a hole-ridden shed who came today to the KC refuge. He has a defibrillator and a pacemaker. He has yet to see either the $1,200 or the $600 federal relief payments, even though he qualifies by his SSI income. He said, “I really need help but there is no housing available.”

It is a relief to see these families warm and taken care of. But there are tens of thousands of people in this region alone in the same situation. They are either unaware of this shelter or cannot get transportation, or their phones have run out of power and they cannot call for help. There are people who are homeless. Local TV stations are warning people whose homes are freezing to avoid hypothermia. How can millions avoid hypothermia without heat?

This historic storm is an extreme rarity in Texas, Louisiana and other southern states. The effect of climate change and the cause of this storm are the subjects of another story, although environmentalists say polar vortexes like this storm are going to be more frequent.

But in this weather disaster, as in other disasters like COVID, people in the United States are left alone to fend for themselves. Communities of color have been especially impacted, as well as all low-income people. This capitalist system is not concerned with the population in times of crisis. There is no national civil defense to truly take care of people.

In contrast, with Cuba’s socialist government, the people are organized block by block to help each other in every circumstance under the Committees in Defense of the Revolution. They also have an experienced civil defense system that coordinates with the CDRs. No one is left alone, everyone is accounted for and helped. The “freedom” of capitalism is the freedom of the rich to exploit others, and for the people, it is their freedom to be poor.

According to Texas energy experts, the massive loss of energy is due to a temporary paralysis in gas production which in turn fuels the electrical plants that run in Texas, combined with the unprecedented demand in electricity. 

The main culprit is energy giant ERCOT, Electric Reliability Council of Texas, that failed to upgrade its power system after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 devastated the southeastern part of Texas. That storm exposed ERCOT’s failures and provoked demands for infrastructural improvements. Nothing happened. There was no plan to mitigate a future energy crisis.

This criminal neglect is similar to what happened with Pacific Gas and Electric in northern California. Instead of using tens of millions of dollars designated for infrastructure improvement like burying power lines underground to minimize wildfires, that money was used for executive bonuses. In one example of the effects of that deadly neglect, PG&E powerlines sparked a wildfire that burned down the town of Paradise, killing 86 people.

ERCOT executives can’t explain away its deliberate profit-motivated neglect that plunged 4 million people into freezing temperatures and danger. 

As the New York Times reports, the poor communities, especially Black and Latino towns, are suffering the most. The damage caused by the power outage and burst pipes cost money, money that low-income people don’t have.

Across the U.S., there are many people who step up to help others, who volunteer, who give of themselves to feed the hungry, who step in in times of natural disaster, who give shelter to the homeless and underhoused. There are countless acts of solidarity, as I have witnessed in this shelter. Just think how much more powerful and organized that solidarity will be under socialism.

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