How the Energy Problem in Texas Failed Houston in February

H-Town has a climate problem—and Bun B says the only solution is switching from red to blue

The weather in Texas this month has been more than just wintry—it’s been deadly. The calamities began in the state’s northern region on February 11, when Fort Worth temperatures dropped to the mid-twenties, freezing the I-35W expressway and causing a 100-vehicle collision. Several people died; dozens more were hospitalized. The crash was only the beginning of a hellish couple of weeks that left Houston — conditioned for average February lows in the forties — without electricity, gas, or water. Some locals went without power for several hours. More went without for several days.

Houston hasn’t been colder since 1989, when record lows hit seven degrees. The difference in 2021 is that the city’s current energy grid is privatized — separate from the national energy grid. Thus, when extreme weather collapsed the grid a couple weeks ago, there was no backup relief. Ultimately, Houstonians literally lost the roof on their homes, froze to death, or perished from carbon monoxide intake while seeking warmth in their vehicles, all because of political interests to keep millionaires rich. The majority of the population survived, but tens of thousands now have to drive around daily in search of hot food and water. Class action suits are inevitable.

Legendary rapper and Houston ambassador Bun B claims the only way to protect his city from future financial and life loss at the hands of capitalist greed is to replace the local powers that be. The former half of iconic rap duo UGK says it’s time to inject new blood into local politics — possibly himself. The man born Bernard James Freeman may have the star power to brighten H-Town’s future. He also would be the trillest elected official Texas has ever seen.

LEVEL: Was there any kind of pre-concern throughout Houston for the approaching storm?
Bun B:
In Houston, we don’t really get winter storms. We were just excited to get snow. Snow comes to Houston on average between every eight to 15 years. My concern was whether my grandchildren had winter gloves, because they’re going to want to go outside and play in the snow. They’ve never played in snow before. I’m 47 years old, and I’ve seen snow in Houston three times. In terms of preparation, we were just concerned about staying warm outdoors. Waking up Monday morning was a joyful thing for the whole city. Waking up Tuesday morning, we realized we were in the middle of a nightmare.

The city went without electricity, heat, and water. Were these system failures separate or interdependent?
It’s a domino effect. We’re not just talking about electrical power; we’re also talking about natural gas. Once the power fails, there’s no way to keep the pipes warm—that’s [the job of] our hot water heaters. That’s when the pipes start bursting. A lot of pipes in our homes run through the attic. So, when pipes burst, the water collects in the attic, and then the roof fails.

How is it that carbon monoxide was this unexpected menace?
People aren’t just sitting in their car for warmth. They’re also charging phones to keep a line of communication open. That turns into conversations, and you end up preoccupied… The terrible thing about carbon monoxide poisoning is you don’t realize it’s happening until it’s too late. People have [recently] died from carbon monoxide. People have died from house fires. There was a nine-year-old boy who froze to death in his parent’s trailer. It was as cold inside the trailer as it was outside. I saw a homeless man trying to revive his friend who froze to death in the park.

There have been conflicting reports on the storm’s death toll.
I’ve only heard of 10 to 12 deaths in Houston, but in the midst of all that’s going on in Texas, America hit 500,000 deaths from the [Covid-19] pandemic. As jarring as it is to hear that people are freezing to death, there are people who are dying at a faster rate from something else. Even after we fix [the damage caused by the storm,] it’s still going to be here. FEMA is here in Houston, but FEMA is not here for disaster relief; FEMA is here to ensure the continuation of vaccine distribution. So, only the people are helping the people.

The root of your energy collapse is Texas’ privatized energy grid. What was the justification given by politicians for going rogue?
Texas’ biggest export is energy. It’s the leading industry in the state. It’s also the biggest and most liquid lobbying group. In the ’90s, [lobbyists] were able to convince the state of Texas to separate themselves from the national grid in order to set up a wholesale energy market. So, what we have in Texas is all of these energy providers telling you that they can provide energy for the cheapest price. The only way they can do that is if there’s no regulation. It’s all about putting profit over people.

One would think with a privatized energy grid being so vulnerable, an approaching storm would inspire some proactivity.
From a cost aspect, it’s probably cheaper to be reactive than proactive. But you have to think about the long bet. What’s the only thing that could mess this up? Texas freezing over. It’s the one thing that no one thought to take into consideration. And why would you? Houston is the most air-conditioned city in the world. We build buildings in anticipation of heat waves; we don’t build in preparation of storms. This is why our pipes were so easily compromised, because we don’t insulate pipes the way people do in the Midwest or on the East Coast.

“For a Democratic office, there isn’t a person in Houston that could beat me in an election. I’m already engaged on a personal level with my voter base. I just have to tell them to vote for me.”

You live in a red state with politicians who, in spite of science, still don’t believe in climate control. Are Texans aware of how much this played a part in the current crisis?
The only reason privatization and separation in Texas become a problem is that when our energy providers fail, we are no longer connected to the grid. If this had happened in Louisiana, Louisiana could’ve gotten energy from Mississippi. This would be rectified easily if we had power rolled over from neighboring states. But because of what they did in the ’90s, people died in 2021. Now, the only way to change this and stop it from happening again is a changing of the guard with legislation. Basically turning this red state blue.

Let’s forget the politicians for a second. Do the people recognize climate control as a real thing, or do they just see increased storms as isolated freaks of nature?
Citizens recognize that climate change is real. The problem is that the powers that be don’t believe it’s real. This is how sad it got: The governor of Texas goes on a local ABC affiliate and explains that all of the energy systems fell apart at the same time because private energy providers couldn’t overcome the weather. He then goes on Fox News and says the reason the power went out in Texas was because the wind turbines froze. He wasn’t the only one. Several Republicans also said this — Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson. The governor goes on this show, perpetuates this falsehood, and makes the situation a partisan thing.

Haven’t you considered running for office?
There’s been serious consideration of me to potentially enter public service. In the years that I’ve considered it, we’ve had [Hurricane] Harvey, Covid, and now this winter storm. Our current mayor is doing a hell of a job managing this situation, but the problem is this is his last term. There is a level of concern that there isn’t a Democratic candidate on standby who the city is going to throw the same number of votes and money behind. There are people who believe that I have the awareness and ability to raise the money. I personally would like to start smaller. Maybe a city councilman.

Would it be presumptuous of me to think active politicians would be looking to recruit you?
You would be, because I’m the competition. Anybody who’s in local politics in this city who isn’t the mayor has mayoral aspirations. People love having me engaged, love my support, but they wouldn’t want me to be their competition. For a Democratic office, there isn’t a person in Houston who could beat me in an election. It’s got nothing to do with capability; it’s all about awareness. There’s not a city council person in the city of Houston who has a higher level of awareness than I do. I’m already engaged on a personal level with my voter base. I just have to tell them to vote for me.

It’s all a beauty pageant anyway.
There was a poll done on our local CBS affiliate, channel 11. Who could be the mayor of Houston: Bun B, J.J. Watt, Beyoncé. I lost to Beyoncé by one point. This is how Arnold Schwarzenegger runs California and Jesse Ventura runs Minnesota.

And Donald Trump becomes president.
There ya go, Bonsu. Wrap it up nice with that bow, my brother. Look, I’m a person of influence in this city. I understand that as bad as things get in the city, I have the connections and resources to get through it. But who gets on the lifeboat before the women and children? I ain’t Billy Zane in Titanic. For me, this is all about family. It’s imperative for me to be active. Not because the rest of the world is watching, but because my six grandchildren are watching. The plaques are already on the wall. They’re over it.

They don’t care that Grandpa lives on many “Top 10 MC” lists?
Not when Drake comes to your fifth birthday party. I’m famous — but I’m not Drake. When Beyoncé sees you and can call you by name… yeah, they’re jaded on that type of shit. But they do understand, Why did the police kill George Floyd? And why is our president doing this to Mexicans? My oldest grandchild is 12. I take her to marches and rallies. They need to see and hear this shit.

I couldn’t tell you about any of my grandparent’s views on civil rights. They never discussed that shit. I come from a very small town and from a family where everyone came from small towns. We’re talking about small towns in Texas and Louisiana where White people ruled with an iron fist far beyond Jim Crow — deep into the ’60s and ’70s. I grew up where elders would tell me on one hand, “You should be proud to be Black. I want you to get the best education, the best job, the best quality of life.” But at the same time, “Don’t bother these White folks, and please avoid the police.” Everything else is about quality of life. Those two things are about life itself.

You’re a Black man who not only escaped the odds, but also became a legend without compromising his integrity. As you near 50, what’s the motivation to step into dirty waters like local politics?
It feels great to step out of my nice house, get in my car, and go help, talk, and listen to people. I saw people last week who were embarrassed to need and have to ask. And I’m telling them this has nothing to do with you. They’re like, “I just wish God would…,” and I’m like, “God sent us. We’re here as representatives doing his work.” [Houston rapper] Trae The Truth was out there every day helping after Harvey while his own house was flooded. It’s understood that he’s going to rebuild. The people who buy the music, the shirts, and the hats, who come to the concerts, like the posts, retweet, and argue about you in barbershops or on the corner, [they] don’t have what we have. People see the relief come to town and say, “Hey, that’s Trae The Truth. That’s Bun B. They came to help us.” We’re already superstars in the ghetto. Now we’re superheroes to these people. It’s insane that God has given me this opportunity.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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