As Texas Freezes, Amherst Students Struggle to Weather The Storm

As Texas Freezes, Amherst Students Struggle to Weather The Storm
Photo of a barren grocery store in Houston. Courtesy of
Eli Maierson ’23.

As the temperature dropped and blizzards engulfed the area, Amherst students in Texas shivered in their dark, cold homes this past week, unable to turn on the lights or access water. The unprecedented snow storm that began on Sunday, Feb. 14, devastated the state’s power grid and ground natural gas production to a halt. For Amherst students and their families, snow, ice, water-shortages and major power outages have posed insurmountable challenges to arriving at the college and to their remote learning. 

On Sunday morning, when the snow began, students were dazzled by the beautiful and dream-like blanket of snow over Texas. Yet, as darkness cast over the state, and more serious weather approached, the state descended into nightmarish conditions. The power grid of Texas was overwhelmed when the state’s residents turned on heating systems at the same time. To conserve power, The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) began rolling power outages on Monday, Feb. 15. That night, the temperature dipped below zero degrees in Northern Texas. The power grid froze. By Tuesday, Feb. 16, over 4 million Texans were without power amid record-setting freezing temperatures. At least 70 individuals have died from the storm and associated power outages that covered Texas and the Midwest.

“The snow was cute at first, but is putting people’s lives in danger now,” said Kobe Isiah Thompson ’24, a student from Houston. 

“We’re experiencing something mighty terrible in Texas right now. My friend saw people breaking into an El Ahorro supermarket to get groceries not because they were opportunists or anything, but simply because they are hungry.” he said. “In Houston, there’s a boil water notice — we’re not supposed to drink water from our taps, and people have been advised not to use any water at all. Pipes are freezing and people’s roofs are caving in from the busted pipes. Everyone is losing power and wifi randomly. It’s awful.”

Photo of brown shower water in San Antonio. A majority of the state was under a boil notice for several days.  Courtesy of Eli Maierson ’23.

Thompson’s family — along with millions of other Americans — stocked up on food and water ahead of the wintry weather but did not anticipate the severity of the unprecedented storm. The collapse of Texas’s infrastructure resulted in a multisystem failure where cell networks went down, pipes froze, the water system was compromised and 33,000 people lost power. 

Amherst students that currently reside in Texas — many enrolled in classes but living at home due to the coronavirus pandemic — said they stocked up on food and water ahead of the wintry weather, but failed to anticipate the severity of the winter storm. 

The adverse conditions have brought significant challenges for students with family in Texas, who are studying remotely, or are traveling back to campus. 

Eric Ingram ’23, from Austin, has struggled to return to Amherst because his flight was cancelled. Though Ingram managed to make it to all of his zoom classes in the first week, the widespread power outages and the snow delayed his on campus arrival to Feb. 21. Sadly, because this pushed back his quarantine period, he will be unable to attend a week of instrumental music classes at the college.

“Due to the weather, I had multiple travel difficulties and ended up having to fly into a different airport — not Logan or Bradley. Unfortunately, Amherst likely won’t reimburse me for the ground transportation that I needed. It cost my travel buddy and [me] a pretty penny to get to campus from that airport,” said Ingram. 

The Texas blackouts also influenced the studies of high school senior and incoming first-year Rob Williamson ’25. In an interview with The Student, he said that “before power became an issue, we were able to do virtual learning for two days, but after returning from the snowy weekend, we determined that we cannot drive to school. The power outages added another aspect, making it impossible to attend school virtually, and leading to the decision to cancel school for the week.”

Students who arrived on-campus before chaos ensued were fortunate that their schooling was unaffected but still worry about loved ones. Thompson recalled that when he sent texts to family members and close friends, it would take four to six hours to hear back. “I’m very fortunate to have left for campus a day or two before this all happened,” he stated. “But, it’s still bothersome that I can’t contact my friends and family back home.” 

Eliza Brewer ’21 also has also been deeply concerned about her family. She recounted that her “family has experienced power outages, which means no heat, they had to stay with a family friend who has a fireplace for a few days. Luckily they have power now but no water.”

Brewer also frets that the storm will have long-term financial implications for her family. “School was also canceled for the entire week. My mom is a schoolteacher and my siblings are all school age so they’re having to miss instruction which may mean a loss of some income for my family or at the least an extended school year,” she said. 

Other students were also anxious that the weather would prevent their parents from getting to their jobs. Ingram was relieved that his parents had the option to work from home. He said, “My parents were fortunately able to continue working remotely as we were lucky enough to have power, but my other family in the city were not lucky enough to have power.”

The family of Cameron Matsui ’23E was also impacted by the Texas weather. His parents, who fortunately are both vaccinated, were on a trip to celebrate their wedding anniversary when the storm hit. After their flight home was canceled, they were redirected to Dallas where they stayed in a hotel for 3 or 4 days. He mentioned that their “hotel lost power shortly after they checked in, but it came back on yesterday [Feb. 21] and they were able to make it home to Austin.”

Many students were outraged about how the state of Texas responded to the crisis, specifically mentioning Senator Ted Cruz’s decision to vacation in tropical Cancun, Mexico as the disaster unfolded.

Thompson was particularly angry about Cruz’s actions.”As far as Ted Cruz goes, he’s a disgusting feckless coward of a slug. I feel like his skin is sticky and his hands are clammy, and yet, he won’t be up for re-election to be accountable for his actions for years,” he continued, “It speaks volumes of Texas’s partisanship that we’re willing to vote in Ted Cruz over any democrat. It’s not just Cruz, this is the fault of governors, senators, representatives, all stubborn individuals who have sworn by fossil fuels and rugged individualism.”

Brewer felt similarly, “I’m feeling really pissed about the whole situation. Not only did Ted Cruz abandon his state and his responsibilities to it, but he also lied about his motives,” she said.

Mason Chandler ’25 is perturbed by the shortcomings of political figures from his home state as well: I feel what Senator Ted Cruz did was very irresponsible. I think that if those pictures weren’t taken of him at the airport or on the plane or even if he took a private plane to Cancun he would still be in Mexico working remotely today and nobody would know about it. It is a shame to see that other legislators, many not even from Texas, are chipping in by donating bottled water or organizing wellness checks to help those in need while Senator Cruz is sitting in his home,” he stated.

To support the Amherst community, Liz Agosto, dean of students, sent an email to Amherst Texans. The email, which was personally addressed to each recipient, read, “I am reaching out to connect in the wake of the storms in Texas and power outages. While I hope that you, your family and friends are staying well and warm, we recognize that the impact to individuals and communities has been great and that you may be experiencing stress or personal hardship.” 

Even as weather conditions improve in Texas, Agosto encourages students to reach out to her, their class deans or other resources on campus if they need assistance or support.