I blame 'blame culture'

There was water on my floor. I'm lucky that I saw it while it was happening, because I acted quickly and was able to warn others and divert the flow away from the building. Maintenance and emergency services were largely unable to respond even to shut it off, and it wouldn't make much difference if they did because the same thing happened in every building everywhere in the city and the entire water system just dumped onto the ground everywhere. As I write this, lots of very overworked people are trying to jerry-rig thousands of miles of pipe on the public and private side hoping to meet in the middle quickly enough to stem what is already a humanitarian disaster.

I write this to give you a glimpse of what this is like. Not that I have it particularly bad. I have a stockpile of potable water. I can write a poorly-thought-out blog post. I never lost power, unlike millions who had their temperature reach 30 or 40 indoors for 4+ days.

This is the kind of event that you hear about happening in the "shithole countries". Once as a child we lost power for a week in 75-degree weather in a remote town with 150 people. Texas is one of the largest economies, has dense cities and produces twice as much energy as the next-largest state. This is nuts. Not that it means much in 2021 to say something is nuts but this feels a lot nuttier than the overlapping pandemic and/or constitutional crisis. Which obviously we also have in Texas.

It is frustrating to see the national conversation so divorced from what it feels like to me on the ground. I want to be clear. It is true that climate change aggravated this storm. It's true that state Republican leaders failed to govern and are giving interviews telling galling lies to cover their ass, that our brand of deregulation is a mistake that kills people, that Ted Cruz is a spineless coward who ought to be recalled, that natural gas is the biggest culprit, etc. But none of this is new. It has been going on 7 days a week for 10+ years. It is merely "a Tuesday" in our society. So the fact that this is what the other parts of the country are told about the problem, while accurate in some sense, in another sense is deeply misleading.

These talking points are the opinions of people who have showered sometime this week. Who have not had a new pillar of civilization fall-over 3 of the last 4 days and are wondering which one will be next. Who did not get a boil water notice while their repurposed gallon jug was frozen solid, who are not melting snow to flush a toilet (surprisingly difficult actually! You won't believe how little water is in snow!) We are a little past debates about windmill policy right now.

The frustrating is that there really is a Wrong Windmill Policy™️ and a Right Windmill Policy and which one we choose does matter. But also in 2011 everything failed in exact proportion and the same will be true in this crisis.

For wind units, 16 percent failed, compared to their 15 percent of total units. For simple-cycle units, 21 percent failed, compared to their 20 percent of total units. For gas-steam and coal units, the percentage that failed exactly matched their percentage contribution of total units.

Depending on which news station you watch this fact is being spun as "wind is unreliable" (lie) or "republicans are lying about wind being unreliable" (true). I don't want to equivocate these because they're not equivalent, one is psychopathic and the other is doing its best to negotiate a hostage situation. Unfortunately either way we are not talking about the real causes.

The real causes are not good primetime TV. They are so boring that they happen at your home and workplace every day. You don't buy an energy-efficient heater for your house because it's only barely cold, only 3 days a year. Power plants don't have cold equipment for the same reason. If they do, it breaks because it's never used, nobody requires drills or conducts inspections. Grid operators rely on unreliable estimates from optimistic middle managers trying to hit their numbers and then surprise, they do not hit them. Operators overwork and underpay their staff and then low-morale employees make mistakes in stressful situations. There's little spare fuel because it's more efficient not to and you have to compete with everyone else who also does that. These are only the problems I had time to stress-read about between separate floodings. You can read them in the technical reports from the 2011 crisis. Some of them are even minor contributors, perhaps they will be bigger in a bigger disaster. We'll find out soon I expect.

These issues aren't political. I mean, I guess they are now because one party took us hostage and we can't get out of the car. And I guess they always have been for many people who are at the wrong end of a government policy and the rest of us are slow to empathy about "other people's problems". But in a state that hasn't failed, the power grid is not a wedge issue, it's not a culture war, it's just stuff you do so people can flush toilets and not be dead.

What I'm trying to say is that "infrastructure week" is a funny political punchline but if you tell it long enough the infrastructure becomes the joke. When we can't talk about infrastructure except as a minor plot point in a broader culture war we have problems that merely winning the culture war cannot fix. Winning matters of course. But so does plumbing.

There is nothing unique about what is happening to us. Texas is actually a deeply divided nation, and the weather came for everybody. You were not spared because you lived in an area that voted for adults instead of children, you had the Right Opinion In The Comment Thread, you bought clean energy from the city or you access Real News. Your water did not check your party affiliation or windmill policy ideas before it turned off, your heat did not ask your personal feelings on Ted Cruz. You were spared slightly if you had survival skills, were paranoid enough to have prepared for the imminent collapse of civilization, had been through a disaster before, had means or luck. Even then, it's a traumatic experience and it's still ongoing.

My advice? Get off facebook and watch plumbing videos. Texas is in the rare circumstance that we might become "scared straight" enough to sort-of get it together. (Or maybe not, we didn't last time and it's too early to tell.) What is clear is that the rest of the country has exactly the same boring problems we do but seems very determined to tilt at windmills.

I'd recommend redirecting that energy into learning not to die. Maybe not as fun but it has the key advantage you don't die. Pro tip: it's much more convenient to watch plumbing videos when you still have electricity.