A warming planet means longer, hotter summers, more wildfires, and the obvious increase of heat waves. It also means erratic weather patterns, like this past February’s record snowfall and low temperatures in communities that were not accustomed to those conditions. Both Oklahoma and Texas declared a state of emergency after services like electricity and water were disrupted for millions.
The storm created a humanitarian crisis for neighborhoods already made increasingly vulnerable during the pandemic. Low-income communities and people of color were disproportionately affected by the outages, shoddy infrastructure, and loss of income when they could not go to work. More than 100 Texans died as a result of the storm, killed by hypothermia, unsafe roads, and carbon monoxide poisoning as they tried to warm up in the freezing temperatures.
In the state’s capital of Austin, the Workers Defense Project, otherwise known as Defensa Laboral, played a key part in assisting the city’s immigrant construction workers who were struggling during and after the ice storm. Organizers received donations, distributed food and water, and checked in on families who had their utilities cut off.
In a year that stacked a pandemic on top of the climate crisis, local mutual aid programs have often reached people faster than government efforts might. In WDP’s case, their distribution of food, water, and essential supplies caught the attention of local officials, who supported them financially. What started as an emergency neighborhood support network radiated further and further out. “WDP’s headquarters turned into a home base not just for our members but for the whole community around us,” remembers Mayra Huerta, an Austin campaign manager for the organization. “Eventually the city began giving us a bunch of donations because they don’t have the connections that we do with these communities. By the end of the week our operation really exploded. We were distributing thousands of gallons of water and thousands of meals per day, and hitting up sometimes up to 30 apartment complexes in a day.”
Many volunteers contributed despite facing crises at home. Longtime community activist Maria Rios had been supporting her husband while he was sick with COVID while also caring for four children. The experience had left the family stressed and cash strapped. “We were just finding our footing from one problem and then the storm happened,” Rios remembers. “I didn’t have water for about 15 days.” Rios’s apartment complex had a pool, and her family was forced to boil the water in order to use the bathroom and wash dishes.
After the storm, reports highlighted that richer, whiter neighborhoods throughout Austin were spared from excessive power outages compared to lower-income communities. According to the Texas Tribune, communities of color in Texas are less likely to house medical centers and hospitals, making it difficult or impossible to reach help when roads are impassable. Inequality continues when it comes to recovery efforts: A 2020 report from Princeton University on climate change and racial disparities outlined that due to the racial wealth gap in the U.S., communities of color saw a decrease in wealth after a natural disaster. “White communities saw higher levels of reinvestment in their communities after natural disasters in comparison to their minority counterparts,” the study explained.
Today, WDP’s recovery efforts continue at the same time as the organization fights against policies that disproportionately hurt immigrant workers in the construction industry. They include SB14, a deregulation bill that puts employee protections like water breaks for construction workers at risk—a particularly worrisome possibility in a state where summer days regularly exceed 100 degrees, and the season is only getting hotter. As Digna Cruz, an active member of the Workers Defense Action Fund, puts it: “We can’t just relax and go back to normal just because all the snow melted—we have to learn to deal with anything else that might come up.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue