FORT WORTH, Texas — Jen Sarduy has been watching her fish freeze to death. Like millions across the state, the Diamond Hill resident has been without power for a third straight day.
Her family of five and three other households share a single generator, so the candidate for District 2’s City Council seat and co-founder of Re+Birth Equity Alliance — a Fort Worth-based nonprofit that works with Black, Indigenous, people of color, and LGBTGNC+ people — has to choose one thing to plug in at a time. Between her electric kettle, refrigerator, and other essential devices, keeping her children warm has taken precedence over the fish tank.
One block away from her home sits the Diamond Hill Community Center, one of three warming stations the city created as a place for its citizens to take respite from the cold. By mid-afternoon on Wednesday, there were only eight people occupying one room the community center opened to the public. As many as 40 people crammed into the room at one point on Tuesday, an employee said.
Sarduy and other critics of the city’s handling of the current historic winter storm said officials didn’t act fast enough and aren’t doing enough to keep their citizens warm and safe.
“They're not transporting people to this warming center,” she said. “And you have to leave your home to get there. In this type of storm, it’s unsafe for people to leave their homes. The warming stations are only open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., so it's open only for the warmest part of the day.”
In a post on social media on Monday evening, the city announced it was opening an overnight shelter at the Fort Worth Convention Center for residents who are without power. Anyone needing shelter, the post reads, will “need to self-transport.” Other problematic issues with the shelter and warming places, critics like Sarduy said, include the fact that there was originally no food, not enough blankets (the city recommends you bring your own), and that pets were not allowed at the overnight shelter — they are allowed at warming centers but must be crated.
The entire effort seemed rushed and poorly planned, Sarduy said, noting that members of the community provided food and snacks at the Diamond Hill warming place.
“They couldn't deliver food because of the road conditions,” she said. “So how can they expect people to get there?
“You're better off being at home,” she added. “We’re in a pandemic. The city's response could have been so much different. The storm started, then 24 hours later, we announced the warming center. People were already too cold. People were already in harm's way when we decided to respond, and the storm has been on the news a week … It’s just been like a comedy of errors, but not the funny kind.”
A spokesperson for the city, Michelle Gutt, said transportation was provided to anyone at the warming centers who needed to get to the overnight shelter. The convention center downtown, she added, was on the most reliable grid and the least likely to lose power.
“The initial plan was to have the convention center open only at night,” she said. “On Tuesday morning after the first night of operations, we decided to change that and it became a 24-hour station. We also partnered with some area churches to handle any overflow from the convention center. All other stations operate from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.”
Food (courtesy of The Tarrant Area Food Bank) and blankets were delivered to the warming stations, she said — though Sarduy said they never made it to the one near her home. Every person entering a warming place or shelter was screened for COVID-19, and social distancing and masks have been mandatory.
“The primary mission was to provide a short-term warming station,” she said. “As the power outages grew in the area, additional resources were added to the operation as needed. We did have snacks provided by the Tarrant Area Food Bank. We also had bottled water available.”
Gutt said city staffers worked around the clock to plan for this event, and they were able to adapt based on the needs of residents.
“For this particular weather incident, we had to deal with low temperatures, precipitation, electrical unreliability, and [problems with] water supply,” she said. “Many things within our control and many out of our control. We will use all the information from this incident to be better prepared for the next one.”
Sarduy wondered why schools, which have their own generators and working kitchens, weren’t opened; why the city hasn’t been winterizing more equipment; and why the city is holding back resources.
“I want us to want better and to know that we deserve better from our city,” she said. “I just feel like we could utilize our resources so much differently.”
When this storm passes, she added, “I don't want those clapping hands. ‘We did it. We got through this together.’ Yes, great. We got through another tragedy, but so much of it was preventable. So many people could've done so much differently.
“People are sleeping in their cars and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning,” she said. “It feels like Gotham around here.”
Her fish would agree.