HOUSTON — Historic winter storms in February shattered electric plants across Texas, prompting energy providers to force blackouts across the state to preserve what fragile electricity they could generate. At least 49 deaths have been linked to the storms and subsequent power outages.
Record snowfall and single-digit temperatures froze the state’s electric systems, pushing over 4.3 million into darkness. The outages, first expected to be “rolling” and only a few hours, stretched to days for millions of Texans. Their homes and cities were ill-prepared for such intense winter weather.
A Houston priest lost his car and all his belongings after his rectory at Holy Name Catholic Church went up in flames. He still celebrated Ash Wednesday Mass the next day in a frigid cafeteria.
After the “once-in-a-generation” storm first took the electricity from Jennifer Gonzalez’s home, the novelty of playing in the snow was brief. It wasn’t the right consistency to build a snowman, but enough to freeze their back door and side-gate shut and turn the neighborhood streets to ice.
The coincidence of the storm and Ash Wednesday’s start to Lent wasn’t lost on Gonzalez, who attends St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Houston.
“It’s a good reminder to unite our suffering with others,” she told the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
Father Anil Thomas, a Society of the Divine Word priest, who lost his Houston rectory in the fire, told the Houston Chronicle: “Today is Ash Wednesday and we are in ashes.”
During the week, millions in the state were still without power and water. From Dallas, to Austin and Laredo, electricity finally came back for thousands who lost power for more than four days, as temperatures continued to drop below freezing. People were melting snow to flush their toilets.
There were 10 hypothermia deaths, along with more than 600 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in Harris County, which includes Houston and neighboring communities.
By Feb. 19, as temperatures slowly rose above freezing, thousands of homes turned their water back on only to find cracked and bursting pipes. Compromised civic water systems forced millions in Texas to boil water for days. In San Angelo, city leaders were begging communities to conserve water.
Despite the grip the historic winter storm had on north Texas, faith fueled outreach to Catholics and other community members in the Diocese of Dallas.
“It’s an opportunity for us to provide to our parishioners in any way we can,” Dallas Bishop Edward J. Burns said. “We recognize that we have to do church differently these days.”
Most campuses across the diocese were closed, according to Matt Vereecke, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools.
“While we have the opportunity to move to remote learning, we made the determination that with the rolling blackouts and frigid temperatures, the most important thing was to allow families the freedom and flexibility to be safe,” Vereecke told The Texas Catholic, the diocesan newspaper. “We are hopeful that we will be able to be fully back up and running by Monday of next week.”
While the storm affected everyone in north Texas, some were impacted much more than others, said Dave Woodyard, CEO of Catholic Charities Dallas, who noted that more than a few of the agency’s employees were either without power, water and/or stranded by distance and unable to help.
“Too many actually need assistance,” Woodyard said Feb. 17.
Catholic Charities’ immediate response mostly was limited to caring for residents in its two St. Jude Centers, which offer permanent supportive housing for 104 seniors; ongoing efforts to house homeless people impacted by COVID-19; and housing more than 100 homeless from the streets due to the severe weather.
Due to rolling blackouts and other power failures, Woodyard said Catholic Charities, like many, experienced pipe breaks and other cold related issues at some of its complexes.
Despite adverse conditions, he said, some critical elements of service must continue, including providing for the children in the agency’s long-term and transitional foster care and unaccompanied minors residing at its St. Mary’s shelter.
Helping those less fortunate, especially during times such as these, fuels the faith of Catholics in the Diocese of Dallas, Bishop Burns said.
“Dallas has been referred to as a city with a soul. Therein lies the opportunity for us to shine, and we shine as a people when we help our brothers and sisters in need,” Bishop Burns said. “In serving them, we serve him (God).”