In February, severe winter storms sweeping across the U.S. caused an extreme power crisis in Texas. People across the state went without power for an average of two days, and some lost access to fresh water for even longer and had to boil the water that was available. Now as the temperature lowers and the winter months approach, Texans who are still feeling the effects of the last blackout are anxiously waiting to see if the weather could cause a repeat of February’s disaster.
Efforts have been underway to reform the state’s power grid since the last major storm, but experts say the grid is still vulnerable and could create some future problems. The worst case scenario considered—fossil fuel outages and very high demand for power—does not capture the amount of power lost in February, along with a lack of winterization for the gas sector, where half of the outages came from. The February storm exacerbated the disparities low-income and communities of color face in Texas, and those vulnerable populations ended up suffering the most, with longer effects.
The deregulated electricity market of Texas meant high energy bills, costing hundreds or thousands of dollars, leaving families already struggling to make it through the pandemic more strained for income. Front-line workers in Texas, who are mostly women and people of color, struggled to get to work in February because of the snowy roads. Many lost out on hours and days at work, leaving some Texans without much to fall back on in terms of money for home repairs or other bills.
Since low-income communities in Texas often lack proper insulation, live in smaller and older homes, and lack access to food and water, organizers who helped those same communities in February are offering some advice for how they can prepare in the coming months and providing some insight on how to help people in need.
Here are some tips prepare and staying safe in case of a freeze:
Gather the supplies you can
As the storm approached Texas in February, people started clearing out the shelves of local stores, leaving a lot of places bare before some could even get any supplies. Start to prepare before the winter season begins. Every time you go to the store, get some water or get an extra serving of non-perishable food. Just buying one extra food item over time can help and save money instead of having to buy marked-up foods last minute.
“It’s always prudent to have a supply of emergency food on hand not only for winter storms, but for floods and hurricanes and any kind of natural disaster that might hit,” said Maria Magee, chief development officer for Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. “And also have a flashlight, batteries, and other supplies that can get us through an emergency.”
Stay up to date on the weather, and if you can, be a source of translation
One of the ways Texans were left in the dark was because of the lack of a statewide emergency alert system. Counties and cities sent out alerts of freezing weather and possible blackouts, but in counties like Travis, alerts were initially sent in English. Spanish alerts were eventually sent out, but it wasn’t until after the power had already gone out. Keep an eye on the news as it gets colder, and if you know people who don’t speak English and you’re able to translate, reach out to them and notify them with the information they may need in order to prepare.
If you have elders or disabled people in your family, make a plan of contact
If you have an elderly or disabled relative or disabled friends in your life, set up a system to make sure they can keep in touch during a disaster. For folks like Ben Broadway, a member of the Northeast Action Collective who is blind and relies on dialysis, having a line of communication was especially important during the storm in February. He relies on what he calls a “phone tree” where a group of people can contact him to make sure everyone is OK.
“Everyone knows that we always have WhatsApp to fall back on to use and communicate with one another, but let everyone know that we’re alright and we’re still here,” Broadway said. “We have our ways of communicating and talking with one another in these certain scenarios.”
Broadway says it’s important to plan ahead and make sure all communicative devices are charged. External battery packs are useful, but you can also use a computer, a solar-powered charger, or your car.
Broadway says the storm was particularly rough for him, as he lost power and water and has diabetes, meaning his reliance on power and refrigeration for his insulin is crucial. However, one thing he has done for himself is register for Centerpoint Energy emergency line, which tries to get those with medical needs online first in case of power outages. Since the storm he has also gotten a water delivery service, that allows him to stock up in case of an emergency.
“Always stay alert,” Broadway said. “Stay glued to your plan of communication.”
Contact local organizations to perform emergency services
Many organizations across Texas, especially in areas that suffered the most from the blackouts, like Harris County, already have disaster preparations in place in case of hurricanes and flooding. Some offer services such as food delivery and emergency lines to check on seniors, low-income people, and disabled people. West Street Recovery offered extra generators to some communities and disaster bags that contained essential items like a flashlight, batteries, and food. The Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston offers meals on wheels services that include an emergency line for disasters.
The number of organizations can vary by county, but the Texas Tribune published a reference list that could be helpful in the coming months. If you think your family might need extra help, try and reach out to services that can deliver food, water, or extra resources to help before disaster hits.
Communicate with your neighbors
Smaller communities consistently come together in times of hardship. When disaster strikes in neighborhoods that typically have to rely on themselves, relying on neighbors can make a big difference in getting through the situation.
“[Individual preparedness] is important, but that can really only get you so far,” said Alice Liu, co-director of West Street Recovery. “And especially for people with limited mobility, it’s super important to actually have that plan that’s in coordination with neighbors and with other members of your community.”
Make sure to check in with your neighbors if you hear you might be facing extreme weather. You might have more supplies than those next door, or vice versa.
It is also important to remember that even if the weather causes some damage to your home, there are services that can help. In Harris and Travis counties, the February freeze highlighted neighborhoods where the homes were more susceptible to damage—most of them being in neighborhoods with a high population of people or color or people with low incomes. Rebuilding Together is a national collective that helps repair damage to these homes, so they can be restored and still kept by the original homeowner instead of being sold off.
For now, advocates say people should focus on being proactive in little ways for you and your community.
“It’s never too early [to prepare],” Liu said. “The general narrative that we have with disasters is [that] it’s increasingly unpredictable. Obviously we’ve been preparing for hurricane season for years, but our storm in February was very unexpected. I think in general, climate change is making disasters increasingly unpredictable. A lot of the preparation that you do can be applied to multiple kinds of disasters, and so it’s not restricted to a certain time of year.”