Tamir Kalifa / The New York Times

Power and water outages create hardship for Cornell students in Texas.

February 23, 2021

Texas Storm Leaves Remote Students Struggling

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As Texas reels from the devastating winter storm that has so far left more than 30,000 people in the south with failing electrical and water infrastructure, Cornell students studying remotely are struggling to tune into Zoom classes and their assignments in the aftermath. 

As temperatures dropped last week, many power plant generators froze and went offline, decreasing the supply of energy production as demand rose — causing widespread blackouts throughout the state. Water pipes have burst because of the extreme cold, leaving more than 14 million people without running water.  

The storm affected cities throughout Texas and much of the South, including Austin, where Zach McConnell ’21 has been taking classes online. 

McConnell’s apartment was connected to the electrical grid of a nearby hospital, which meant he had access to power but no running water due to a leaking pipe. But he said his sister wasn’t so lucky —  without water or electricity, she and her husband moved in with McConnell.

“She has been stuck in the apartment for the last two days without any electricity at all [or any] water,” McConnell said. “Their rooms got down to 45 degrees and they’ve just been trying to cuddle together for heat.”

The McConnells have to collect snow from outside to fulfill basic needs: used for hand-washing as the virus remains a lingering threat, taking showers and flushing toilets. Austin’s lack of cold-weather infrastructure has made it even more difficult to drive and gather supplies. 

McConnell hopes that once the streets are cleared, he can get a larger canister of water so that they can stop relying on snow.

Elita Gao ’22 similarly lost power on both Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, forcing her to miss two days of classes. She relied on cellular data to contact her professors and explain her situation. Luckily, Gao and her family were well-provisioned for the coming days, as they had stockpiled groceries to prepare for the storm.

Not all areas have been affected equally. Gao said she is doing her best to conserve power, printing out readings and avoiding TV.

“When it first started snowing we all went outside and we were making snowmen and were really excited,” said Liz Espinoza ’23. “But then we realized that the snow didn’t melt, and when we saw that we weren’t equipped.”    

For Espinoza, the storm made her already unreliable internet connection worse, and added a new set of challenges to her studies. Like the McConnells, she and her family had to collect snow from the outside for multiple days. They have since regained power and water.

“It’s hard to concentrate on my work because a lot of my family members and a lot of people in our state are struggling,” Espinoza said. “We’re hoping that it doesn’t last too long or if it does we’ll get through it.”