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Why Winter Storm Uri Damaged Texas


Although the snow has melted and the freezing temperatures have returned to normal, Texans in virtually every county will be coping with the effects of Winter Storm Uri for months to come. Millions of people were trapped in freezing homes for days with little or no access to electricity and heat, making it one of the state's worst disasters. Late last week, about half of the state's population was without potable water, and many people are still suffering from water and food shortages. All eyes are on how the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates the state's power grid, collapsed spectacularly. However, during the crisis, Governor Greg Abbott advised Texans to consult Google rather than his office for information on where to go and what to do in the bitter cold. What should state and local authorities have done to train their people better?

The Observer spoke with Samantha Montano, a disaster management specialist, about how the grid failure was compounded by a lack of knowledge of the risks associated with extreme cold, as well as a lack of long-term planning. Montano is an emergency management professor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and she has served in the area since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. Her studies have focused on floods in Texas. Disasterology, her new book, will be released in August and examine how and why societies, especially low-income and minority communities, are unprepared for the disasters that climate change will continue to bring.

I assume there are potentially two factors at play here that must be considered. The first is simply the fact that cold weather is unfamiliar in Texas. When you tell people in Houston that a hurricane is on its way, they know exactly what you're talking about. They've done it before, and there's a high level of understanding among the public, politicians, and different agencies.

According to what I've seen so far, I believe there was a lack of depth of understanding about, "What does it mean that it'll be cold?" "What should I do?"

I saw meteorologists alert about the weather and discussing its magnitude and planning people for it—the idea that they wouldn't be able to leave their house for a few days and that there would be the potential for significant infrastructure energy disruptions. So, I believe the second question is: Did people heed the alerts and recommendations that were issued? Did those messages reach people and affect their actions in the days leading up to the storm?

We're amid a pandemic, which makes any other answer more complex. Many people are already experiencing financial hardship. Even if they could store food, some people would not have been able to do so if they got the letter.

You listed hurricanes in Houston; I spent my childhood in Dallas, Texas, preparing for tornadoes. How do you equate knowing what to do in that situation for decades versus just one week?

There is a critical distinction to be made between preparedness and reaction. When we talk about preparedness, we're usually talking about activities that people do long before a catastrophe strikes. The answer has already begun by the time you send out weather forecasts and updates about the cold weather.

Yeah, go to the store and get supplies if there's a winter storm coming, but this is when we start to see supply chain problems, and we have to check the calendar to see if it's the end of the month and people haven't been paid yet. Several factors make it difficult for people to make such decisions.

Individual preparedness is just a tiny part of the picture. For specific crises, just getting any extra food and water on hand would not suffice. During and after a disaster, the local government can be the first recipient of government assistance. Preparedness includes far more than the measures we take to plan for a catastrophe consciously. Regional policies on housing, transportation, and infrastructure have a significant impact on our risk. If you don't have a vehicle and your city doesn't have easily accessible public transport, you'll be less prepared for any tragedy that forces you to evacuate.

Local charities, likewise, are such an integral part of our response that ensuring they survive the catastrophe while also being able to support the community is critical. For example, as we saw last week, food banks must continue to operate in the event of a catastrophe for people who don't have other means of obtaining food.

I still say that if you're standing in the middle of a crisis and just taking plans off the shelves, you're already doomed. Stuff that we're doing to help prepare our communities for a response like this are things that we're doing months, even years ahead of time. The relationships you're cultivating, the lines of communication you've developed, coordination plans, preparation, and exercises. Much of this is planned well ahead of time, long before you know the impending catastrophe.

This storm has sparked a chain reaction of disasters. What are some of the barriers to getting people immediate knowledge about these threats as they alter and compound?

Suppose a community is unfamiliar with a situation. In that case, there is a much greater need for elected authorities to disseminate information to ensure that people provide clear and consistent guidance about what actions they should take at the time.

Another recurring issue in our disaster responses is this. Even with the pandemic and the public health knowledge that has been published, we've seen this. When the command is inconsistent, or when it comes from untrustworthy sources, the public isn't sure how to view it.

This is intensified among certain groups within a community: illegal immigrants who mistrust government records, the elderly, and more housebound. It becomes perplexing.

There are a variety of methods that can be used to send out an alert. You can send text messages to people's phones, build email listservs, and broadcast them on the radio and television. It's also necessary to consider more informal communication systems: What are you posting on social media, not only from official accounts but from someone else in your group who is a leader who can share this information? How are you partnering with other community groups and using their current networks to help people who aren't tuned in or don't have the money or access to more official outlets get information?

This will look different depending on the community, but make sure you're not just sending one tweet and then saying, "Ok, we tweeted it, so we're nice." You must maintain a continuous flow of data.

We've declared a catastrophe, and FEMA is now involved. Based on previous disasters, what forms of assistance would be available to citizens, and where would it fall short?

Texas will have to go through a review to assess the level of damage in each county to see whether it meets the FEMA threshold for taking this to the White House for individual assistance funding. Homeowners will be eligible to qualify for FEMA assistance if personal assistance is accepted. That may benefit some people, but we've seen in disasters that FEMA assistance is insufficient for many people to get back on their feet.

Insurance companies will be the other significant source of recovery funding in this region. I haven't seen some detailed analyses on how many houses have had pipe bursts and how it applies to who has renter's or homeowner's insurance yet. I'm not sure how the holes will appear, so that'll be something to keep an eye on.

The other source of recovery funding is likely to come from charities that assist people in cleaning up their homes and repairing the damage. Given the history of flooding in Texas, there are undoubtedly several housing recovery organizations, especially in Southeast Texas. However, considering how severe the damage appears to be, I believe it will be difficult for many organizations to locate those that need assistance and hire volunteers. There's also the COVID aspect to remember. Some recovery agencies have shortened their hours and volunteer numbers because of the pandemic, creating an unprecedented situation.

People cautioned that the last time we had this amount of an arctic front, in 2011, it was a once-in-a-ten-year occurrence and that climate change could make it worse. Given this, why haven't you invested in infrastructure as state leaders?

As we move into this new environment, this is the guiding question for emergency management in the light of climate change.

Traditionally, as emergency managers measure danger, they look backward: does your neighborhood face a flood risk or a tornado risk? That won't work in the face of climate change. Just because a threat hasn't been a problem for a group in the past doesn't mean it won't be a big concern in the coming years—or even right now. Reworking the risk assessments and having more comprehensive discussions about what degree of risk society can consider are good places to start.

Many of these decisions would be taken at the local level rather than at the federal or state level.

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