While the effects of COVID-19 continue to leave people across the globe in an anguished frenzy, natural disasters and similar occurrences over this past year have added more insult to injury. During a devastating pandemic that has taken the lives of many, wildfires and hurricanes, in addition to other natural disasters caused by climate change, have heavily impacted those who are already struggling. At a time when many are still encouraged to minimize travel to curb the spread of the virus, what are people to do during these crises when even staying home becomes unsafe?
Starting on Feb. 11, Texas faced the wrath of Winter Storm Uri and its arctic temperatures, some of which broke centuries-old records for the state. Governor Greg Abbott issued a "disaster declaration" in all 254 counties, and residents were encouraged to limit travel and conserve energy. In efforts to decrease demand on the state’s electricity system, which was egregiously unprepared for this disaster situation, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) began rotating outages, leaving many without heat while natural gas production came to a halt. On Feb. 14, President Joe Biden declared an emergency situation in Texas and ordered federal assistance to intervene in addition to state and local response efforts.
Winter Storm Uri and the impact it had on Texas, including many deaths of which the exact number is still unknown, was indicative of the greater income and housing disparities facing communities. While many without power were able to flee to hotels with access to heat and other resources, many were forced to remain huddled at home, subsisting on a limited food supply and without running water.
Better yet, however, some were even able to get away and make a vacation out of this nightmare, such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz who flew his family to the Ritz Carlton in Cancún because their house was “freezing.” On Feb. 15, days into the crisis, Mr. Cruz pleaded with Texas residents in a radio interview to “keep your family safe and just stay home and hug your kids.” Live from the Cancún airport, on Feb. 18, Mr. Cruz declared that “what [was] happening in Texas is unacceptable.” In December, Mr. Cruz criticized the Mayor of Austin, Stephen Adler, on Twitter for vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico while encouraging constituents to heed stay-at-home orders amidst the pandemic, saying that he and others were “hypocrites.”
While many in Texas have been used to working at home as a result of the pandemic and were able to adjust to the circumstances of the storm, others were kept from their hourly wage jobs while struggling to find a stable place to stay. This left lower-income families behind on rent and utilities while also bearing the burden of renovating burst pipes and reconciling the remnants of flooded homes. In combination with frozen wells and offline water treatment facilities, many were also left without clean drinking water.
As ERCOT began to rotate outages, wealthier neighborhoods were more likely to keep their power, as these densely populated areas are on the same grid as prioritized hospitals and nursing homes. So while those living in affluent downtown neighborhoods remained well-lit and warm, the majority Black and Hispanic population of East Austin sat in the dark, as displayed in this photo on Twitter from a local news representative.
For those who were lucky enough to have power throughout the duration of the crisis, electricity bills skyrocketed—a consequence of Texas’ unregulated energy market that allows providers to adjust fees based on changing wholesale rates. Governor Abbott claimed in a statewide address on Feb. 24 that he would investigate the electric providers who charged customers such drastic fees, vow to not deny power to anyone incapable of paying bills as a result of this crisis, and overhaul ERCOT.
While this disaster in Texas highlighted the inequalities present within communities of color, it is also indicative of the worsening worldwide climate crisis. Climate scientists have warned for decades that the growing average global temperature would cause extreme weather instances such as this, and Texas was unprepared in energy infrastructure and resources for when the time came. Hopefully in the near future, with consideration of Winter Storm Uri, President Biden will implement an infrastructure package that focuses on sustainable energy that is designed to fight climate change, in addition to other environmentally friendly legislation.
To help the victims of the winter storm in Texas, consider donating to some of the organizations listed here.