Last week, Malori Elsner’s family was struggling through power outages in their poorly insulated rental home near Houston, Texas, burning cardboard in the fireplace to stay warm during a deadly Arctic blast.
But even as they endured the cold, their electric bill skyrocketed – Texas’s deregulated grid had gone haywire, and Elsner sat there, helpless, “knowing that I’m leeching money, but not having a choice because it’s eight degrees outside.”
Then, a pipe burst in their attic. While water cascaded into the garage, kitchen and dining room, they frantically ran around trying to figure out what to do – until Elsner touched a light switch and electricity ran up her arm.
“At that point, I sprinted out into the backyard and flipped the breaker,” she said. Their home was no longer structurally safe, and as they packed up to stay with a relative, their ceiling began to cave in.
After devastating winter weather left Texans shivering in the dark last week, warmer temperatures and open storefronts have restored some semblance of normalcy. But the storm’s remnants could haunt parts of the state for months – or even years - after catastrophes compounded one another in a true humanitarian crisis. Its impact on finances, health and homes and the state’s politics and economics will not simply fade away now that warm sunshine has returned and the media spotlight has moved on.
The storm, simply put, shocked the state. First came bitter cold, then slick roads and sidewalks caused by ice. And once large swathes of Texas lost power, water or both, what was originally a natural disaster turned into a technological failure that lasted for the better part of a week.
“They’re telling people to boil water,” said Robert Emery, vice-president of safety and a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. “But a lot of people don’t have power. So now what do you do?”
The state’s bungled emergency management will have far-reaching consequences, from an outsized impact on already underprivileged communities – often communities of color – to a potential spike in the cost of living. Bitter lawsuits could rip communities apart, and taxpayers will likely have to bail out the same fossil fuel companies responsible for the grid’s breakdown.
“I suspect it’s gonna be very corrosive and unsettling,” said James Elliott, a professor of sociology at Rice University. “People are not gonna regain trust in their institutions very quickly.
“Long-term, maybe that’s good. I hope people stay angry. I’m angry.”
A lethal storm, overlaid on a pandemic
“It’s one thing to be cold,” but “to be cold in the dark” is “even more miserable,” Emery said.
As millions of Texans went without power or potable water, sometimes for days, they turned to dangerous solutions such as gas stoves, cars and generators for warmth. Hundreds suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. Others died from suspected hypothermia. Still others were killed in house fires after lighting their fireplace.
Drivers spun out and crashed amid icy roads and malfunctioning streetlights, while cold weather shelters filled with displaced people, in spite of Covid-19.
“People were already stressed and dealing with a variety of challenges with the pandemic, and then to have this laid on top of it has really been quite challenging for all the citizens of Texas,” Emery said.
Now, residents affected by the state’s dearth of plumbers, electricians and other skilled labor are trying to fix their homes alone, threatening “an inevitable series of injuries,” Emery said. And, as the weather becomes more conducive to mold growth, hidden damage from water leaks poses yet another public health threat.
There are also possible ramifications on mental health. Families were already mourning more than 42,000 Texans killed by Covid-19, and the winter storm brought more suffering, trauma and death.
“Resilience is one thing,” Elliott said. “Resilience when things just keep happening over and over can just sort of leave you without the capacity to sort of be hopeful.”
A hit to the Texas economy
Part of what makes Texas so attractive to residents and chief executives alike is its relative affordability, compared to other trendy states such as New York and California.
But this month’s winter storm wasn’t an anomaly: extreme weather events are expected to become even more frequent as climate change accelerates, and Texas remains incredibly vulnerable. After last week’s calamity, power plants, homes and businesses have little choice but to “winterize”.
Those upgrades will carry a hefty price tag that will likely get passed down to consumers, driving up electricity rates, construction costs and insurance premiums, said Pia Orrenius, vice-president and senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
“It does narrow that cost advantage that we’ve been benefiting from … for a long time,” Orrenius said.
Officials’ inability to handle the crisis could also impact Texas’s economic growth and job creation, even as it’s poised to become the next Silicon Valley. Major tech companies such as Oracle and Hewlett Packard Enterprise have been relocating to Texas amid the coronavirus pandemic, partially incentivized by lower costs and favorable tax rates.
But after witnessing a total collapse of the state’s infrastructure, corporations that need reliable sources of power and water to fuel their operations may rethink making the move, unless those concerns are somehow alleviated, warned Lloyd Potter, the Texas state demographer and a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
That subsequent loss of high-paying, high-skilled jobs would deal a blow to Texans across the board, Potter said, but especially to those who are lower on the socioeconomic spectrum.
“In terms of magnitude and severity, [this] was, you know, more than anything we’ve experienced historically,” he said. “The fallout of not addressing it would be potentially pretty, pretty strong.”
A disproportionate toll
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” Elliott said. “Those who have the fewest resources to sort of rebound from this are gonna suffer the most. And that suffering is gonna be compounded the most.”
When the electric grid failed last week, residents in under-resourced and disadvantaged communities dealt with poor insulation, food shortages and a lack of shared circuits with critical infrastructure that would have kept their lights on.
Now, as the state begins repairs, the same inequities will likely influence who gets much-needed funding – and who is left behind.
“How we recover long-term from these natural hazards is the real disaster,” Elliott said. “There’s the event, but the disaster actually comes as it plays out.”
Although researchers are trying to push for more equity in disaster response, aid has historically gone to “who lost the most, not who needs the most,” Elliott said – restoring property, not community.
That often exacerbates pre-existing wealth inequalities, and “the more damage there is in a place over time, the more unequal wealth becomes,” Elliott explained.
Even the acute hardships from the storm – burst pipes, hotel invoices, etc – will fall hardest on Texans who are least able to handle them, as “unexpected out-of-pocket expenses are much harder for people … living paycheck to paycheck,” Potter said.
The storm will also aggravate problems for families who have already lost income because of the recession caused by Covid-19, who are now shouldering home repairs and high electricity bills despite their depleted bank accounts.
“This came at a very unfortunate time, when a lot of people were already struggling,” Orrenius said.
Earlier this week, Elsner’s possessions were still sitting in her kitchen, molding, waiting for her landlord to clean up so she could take inventory for an insurance claim.
Her family had tried to find a new place to live, but houses were quickly disappearing from the market.
“This past year has just been real tough here,” she said, “with these extraordinary disasters constantly happening, and constantly being put out.
“The city, the state – nobody’s doing anything.”