Gloria Vera-Bedolla, a Latina community organizer and mother of three, feels like her neighborhood near Austin, Texas, is in a frozen state that plunged the state into a humanitarian crisis.
“We continue to be victims of social injustice, food injustice and systemic racism – all of that,” she said. “And a lot of people don’t speak because they’re not used to being heard.”
Vera-Bedolla’s neighborhood known as Forest Bluff is on the east side of Interstate 35, where a large portion of the city’s black and Hispanic population live. Her family moved there in 2017 after rising property taxes drove them out of central Austin, attracted by cheaper real estate and more space.
But the nearest major grocery store is more than 10 miles away and there is no public transport, which makes it a food wasteland. Even under normal circumstances, tap water sometimes turns brown. Many of their neighbors are undocumented immigrants, living from paycheck to paycheck and not entitled to any public benefits. Her 24-year-old son is reluctant to visit him because he has been stopped by the Travis County Sheriff’s Department so many times for no reason.
When the record breaking winter storm hit on Sunday evening, dropping 7.5 inches of snow in parts of the county, it only exacerbated the challenges her community was already facing.
Gloria works from her living room. In addition to her day-to-day work, she works with the non-profit Community Resilience Trust, which works on racial justice issues in Austin.
Roberto Bedolla with his daughter Daniela, 6, at the family’s kitchen table. The nearest large grocery store is more than 10 miles away.
Roberto cuts the remains of the firewood in front of his house. The family has the last of the logs for their fireplace.
Unlike some in her neighborhood, Vera-Bedolla’s family never lost electricity, but their running water was turned off, their stove did not work without an adequate supply of propane, and the flame on their gas stove was lower than a candle, making it difficult to cook, until her parents, who also live in Austin, delivered an electric hotplate on Thursday.
She said she was in a better position than her neighbors, many of whom do not have a car to access food or other supplies, have poorly insulated homes, and are elderly or looking after young children. A neighbor who does not have tenant insurance and whose pipes are frozen and burst has to pay for the repairs out of pocket.
No help came to Forest Bluff that Vera-Bedolla did not seek to act as the liaison between her community and the city government or nonprofit organizations working to manage relief supplies. In addition to her day-to-day work on admission to the Central Texas Allied Health Institute, she has worked with the nonprofit Community Resilience Trust, which works in Austin on racial justice issues.
She managed to get 30 boxes of emergency food from the Central Texas Food Bank and asked the city’s emergency response center to deliver a truckload of water on Friday. In the meantime, her husband Roberto Bedolla had broken the ice on the streets to allow cars to pass safely, as the city had not sent anyone into their neighborhood to drag them.
Gloria and Roberto deliver disaster relief boxes to their neighbors.
“It’s awful. It’s criminal,” she said. “I feel like we’re being targeted like we’re going to be killed. You cut off our water. They cut off our fuel in our house. You have for some People turn off the electricity and they only have electrical appliances. It’s creepy. “
The problem is no longer electricity, but access to food and water
Earlier this week, millions in the state were unable to heat their homes due to dangerously cold temperatures and the collapse of the Texas power grid.
Vera-Bedolla and her husband slept by the fireplace under blankets in the living room and woke up regularly at night to supply the flames with increasingly exhausted wood. By Friday they were her last two logs down. Meanwhile, their two daughters, 19-year-old Bianca and 6-year-old Daniela, slept in the same bedroom with an electric space heater to keep them warm.
They managed to keep the temperature in the warmest rooms in the house at around 55 degrees during the crisis, but their neighbors, whose houses were built with less insulation, shivered with indoor temperatures in the 30s and 40s.
Gloria wraps herself in blankets as she works from her living room.
Roberto sleeps on a couch in his living room next to the fireplace to keep warm.
On Friday, Texas began to thaw and the temperatures in Austin rose to over 40 degrees. It is expected to continue warming throughout the weekend, melting ice on the roads that made them impassable, and easing pressure on the power grid, restoring supplies to all but about 78,000 residents across the state as of Saturday morning . And Vera-Bedolla said on Friday that her gas supply had also increased again and that she could heat her house.
But Texans now face a residual crisis of limited access to drinking water and food. Many grocery stores were closed for days, and those that were open often had empty shelves and vans couldn’t refill them until the end of the week. Most of the state remains under “Boiling Water Notices” requiring residents to boil water for two minutes to kill any contaminants that can lead to disease after frozen pipes in people’s homes and businesses and in public places The water pipes have burst and the reservoirs have emptied to dangerously low levels.
At Forest Bluff, those who didn’t own a car had no choice but to go to nearby convenience stores that charge exorbitant prices on groceries that are often expired. This week, Vera-Bedolla said she saw more than 150 people outside the shops who had been “picked clean” at the time.
Much of Texas is back to electricity – but it still faces a residual crisis of restricted access to drinking water and food.
Water pressure came back at her home on Friday night, but she still urged the city’s emergency response center to deliver 400 cases of bottled water to a nearby middle school so that her neighbors would not have to drink potentially contaminated tap water.
When she was able to cook a meal last week, she made extra and brought it to anyone who wants it, including two neighbors who have babies to look after.
She also went door-to-door to deliver the emergency food boxes – packed with oatmeal, rice, spaghetti sauce, pasta and canned beans, soups, and fruit – to people who were starving in their neighborhood. One woman was so grateful that she praised God and made the sign of the cross.
“I know it won’t be enough, but it will alleviate food insecurity for some families,” said Vera-Bedolla. “There are small children who walk without.”
Black and brown communities are harder hit by the current crisis
Vera-Bedolla said she felt abandoned by her government – and it’s not the first time she has felt this way.
“We are fighting against these systems that were not designed for black and brown people to succeed,” she said.
Their frustrations are shared by people seeking justice and fairer treatment for people of color in Austin, one of America’s most economically segregated cities and the only high-growth city where blacks make up a declining population.
When former Texas Governor Rick Perry said earlier this week that Texans would rather experience power outages than hand over control of their electricity grids to the federal government, Chas Moore, the executive director of a grassroots organization called the Austin Justice Coalition, said the comments made me feel far from the reality minority communities face when disaster strikes.
“If you’re in a house that isn’t well insulated and doesn’t have access to clean, healthy food, your experience with this whole thing will likely be completely different,” he said. “We bear the brunt of the debacle when things go wrong. In certain situations there is simply no way for people to survive such disasters. “
Quincy Dunlap, the president and CEO of the Austin Area Urban League, said that while city officials did their best to respond to an unexpected weather anomaly, it is evident that relief has not been fairly distributed.
The Bedolla family outside their Austin home. Gloria says they are in a better position than their neighbors, many of whom have no cars, have poorly insulated houses, and are older or looking after young children.
Gloria hugs her daughter Daniela. “We are fighting against these systems that were not created for the success of black and brown people,” says Gloria.
Built as the physical dividing line between race and economy, I-35 served its original purpose again earlier this week: on the affluent West Side, empty corporate offices in downtown Austin glowed “like a Christmas tree” and never seemed to appear during the electricity or crisis crisis Losing warmth, said Dunlap. Most of East Austin was dark now.
“If we turn off the electricity, people should have the electricity first, not businesses, unless they are seen as essential to helping people respond to the crisis,” said Dunlap. “This distribution of power has no human value. There was no equity there. ”
For Moore, it wasn’t a one-off incident.
“It’s not new. It’s not surprising, ”he said. “It’s the boiling point for systemic oppression.”
Montinique Monroe is a photojournalist based in Austin, Texas, where she was born and raised. She contributed to the reporting for this article.