February 16, 2021

From Texas to the East Coast, journalists won’t get a break from a record winter blast for several days.

Houston journalists are warning audiences that carbon monoxide poisonings spike when the electricity turns off, especially when people use cars and generators to stay warm. Already, news crews in Houston are covering at least two carbon monoxide deaths. Emergency workers warn that carbon monoxide calls are rising.

Water pipes are bursting, electric companies are overwhelmed by a surge in demand, wind turbines that produce electricity are freezing and natural gas pipelines won’t flow in the extreme cold.

Rolling power outages hit newsrooms just like everyone else. Brittney Cottingham, assistant news director at KFDX in Wichita Falls, Texas, tweeted that her station was off the air after a power outage.

TV websites are in full-blown emergency mode.

KHOU in Houston produced no fewer than 13 weather-related stories on its front page.

Stations like KPRC are livestreaming their weather emergency coverage, fully aware that people without electricity may be using apps, social media and other online tools as their lifeline for information about power outages and warm shelters.

KPRC reported a story I have never seen before. A furniture store opened its doors to people who need a place to stay while the electricity is out.

To add to the chaos, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas alerted the public that online scammers are using the emergency:

KTRK-TV is already asking questions about why the agency that oversees utilities in Texas was not better prepared for the storm.

The Houston Chronicle’s Marcy de Luna and Amanda Drane produced a thoughtful look at how the Texas electric grid cracked:

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, blamed the failures on the state’s deregulated power system, which doesn’t provide power generators with the returns needed to invest in maintaining and improving power plants.

“The ERCOT grid has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union,” said Hirs. “It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.

“For more than a decade, generators have not been able to charge what it costs them to produce electricity,” said Hirs. “If you don’t make a return on your money, how can you keep it up? It’s like not taking care of your car. If you don’t change the oil and tires, you can’t expect your car to be ready to evacuate, let alone get you to work.”

The state legislature is promising to jump in with an investigation. Usually, it is days after an emergency like this before journalists start asking these questions, but Texas journalists are wasting no time demanding answers.

“Power outages at the Houston Chronicle’s printing facility and dangerous driving conditions across the region prevented carriers from delivering the newspaper in many areas Monday and Tuesday,” The Houston Chronicle reported.

The Dallas Morning News is in full-blown emergency response. The website includes no fewer than 20 weather emergency stories. Meanwhile, Dallas TV stations offered nonstop answers to viewers who wanted to know when they would lose power and how to stay warm without electricity, and KTVT in Dallas went heavy on safety warnings.

The Amarillo (Texas) Globe-News also did not produce print editions Tuesday “to ensure the safety of our drivers.” It was the same story for the Midland (Texas) Reporter-Telegram. Other newspapers in Texas and Oklahoma encouraged readers to check out their websites and e-editions, Amaris Castillo reported for Poynter.

The newspaper in Natchez, Mississippi, shut down Tuesday saying, “Out of an abundance of caution, The Natchez Democrat and Natchez the Magazine office will remain closed today and no newspaper will be produced for Wednesday, Feb. 17.

(Screenshot, The Natchez Democrat)

The (Fort Wayne, Indiana) Journal Gazette warned that the paper might not arrive at the usual time, but the presses will roll no matter what.

The weather was not the only problem for The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. The paper told readers:

The crash on the turnpike to Tulsa, where the paper is printed, involved multiple cars, including at least two tractor-trailers. Monday editions will not be available at stores, either.

Visibility is low and officials have discouraged travel.

“Our sincere apologies, but this is clearly a circumstance beyond our control,” said Eric Wynn, vice president of circulation for The Oklahoman. “If we thought there was a chance to get a paper to you at a reasonable time on Monday, we certainly would, but at this time, that task would be quite daunting — and potentially dangerous to our drivers.”

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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