‘If I owned Texas and Hell,’ General Phil Sheridan famously said, ‘I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.’ Although the weather was unusually warm for the season in central Texas we guessed something was up when, in broad daylight with hawks about, our normally crepuscular attic mice risked running down a porch pillar and gathering the spilled seed from bird feeders. They vanished completely days before the snowstorm struck. Sadly, some of our birds were not so prescient. We watched a bewildered Audubon’s warbler, which could no longer fly, hopping about in the snow. Either it had lost the main flock continuing south, or good weather had persuaded it to stay. Trying not to frighten it, my wife made sure it was fed. Ultimately, it did not resist when Linda found a small insulated box and brought it inside. It died a few hours later.
Things certainly haven’t been cosy recently. Before the freeze set in, people here had no experience of real cold. They simply could not imagine it. In a state identified with the production of energy, no preparations were made for what has become a national disaster, with hospitals shutting down and hotels opening as ‘warming centres’ for people without heat or, often, food and water. Covid super-spreaders, of course. People have no choice.
Power stations in the southern USA are typically left uncovered to deal with extreme heat. This complicates things when we get an unprecedented winter storm, ‘the worst in history’. Drivers, unused to ice, caused terrible multi-vehicle accidents. Ambulances could not get to emergencies. Helicopters were sparse. Patients remain at risk, without power. Many cannot call for help because they have lost internet and chargers. Few pipes were lagged. Treatment plants backed up, poisoning the mains supply. Foul water everywhere, inside and out. In Austin, hospitals had to get water delivered by fire engine, churches were distributing bottled water and our local supermarket, faced with a power cut which shut down the cash registers, simply gave the food away and closed the store. Everyone ran out of milk. And single malts. Other shops, unable to refrigerate stock, presented customers with glorious bunches of flowers. Mattress stores opened their premises to anyone needing shelter. Millions lost water and were driven out of their homes by burst pipes. Elderly people and children were killed in fires or simply died of hypothermia in their beds. In other words, not only were individuals completely unprepared for this disaster, every energy and water plant in the state seems to have let us down. Thankfully, in contrast to Ted Cruz’s unseemly writhing when caught sloping off to Mexico, most of our public servants accept responsibility, promising serious improvements.
Stephen King’s insensitive triumphalism (‘Hey Texas! Keep voting for officials who don’t believe in climate change!’) failed to note that the privileged people he was mocking were not actually those suffering the worst. Already dying in the greatest numbers from heart disease, diabetes and, of course, Covid-19, the poor communities are experiencing one blow after another, unable to pay for repairs to homes still deep in icy water, with dangerous icicles forming inside buildings and disease spreading. In my monthly Zoom with my doctor, I was surprised to find her swathed in flannel shirts in what appeared to be someone’s spare bedroom. In common with so many, she had woken up to water pouring directly on to her head. Unable to book a plumber for a month if at all, while living without suitable clothing, mostly unvaccinated, in homes without any amenities, people are told there isn’t a pint of milk in the county, and water is equally impossible to buy. Texans are increasingly dependent on charities and federal aid. This can be humiliating for people who are so particularly proud of their independence.
In the 1960s, during my early days of writing science fiction, most sci-fi films and novels were all about disaster and human folly. J.G. Ballard destroyed the world with water, fire and crystal, Brian Aldiss did tropical heat and barrenness (I think his Greybeard subtler than and superior to The Children of Men) and I did universal starvation, the breakdown of democracy and a coming ice age. In the tradition of H.G. Wells we used disasters to explore moral ideas, human nature and to warn the world what happens ‘if this goes on’. Looking at the headlines, I wonder if, instead of warning the world of disaster, we should have kept quiet. Did we perhaps create all this?
General Sheridan made his remark about Hell after a summer two-day dash across Texas to Galveston to board his ship bound for an urgent conference in New Orleans. Today, friends sent us photographs of the beach at their home near Galveston. It was covered in dead fish. They had frozen to death in the sea. As a local meme had it today: ‘If 2020 was Hell, then 2021 was definitely the year Hell froze over.’