246. That’s the official number of Texas residents who lost their lives during the winter storm that hit Houston in February 2021. Unofficial accounts have the number at three times that. At the height of the storm’s impact, 90 percent of Harris County residents were left without power, and two-thirds lost access to running water for more than two days. But perhaps more concerning than the immediate damage caused by the storm is the grim prospect of what severe weather events will do to the city—and its most vulnerable residents—in the future.
The Winter Storm of 2021 represented a new kind of natural disaster for Houstonians, one they were woefully unprepared for. Up until then, the city has mostly experienced heavy but temperate rain and storm surges. While Hurricane Harvey brought record amounts of flooding to the city, “Uri” introduced something entirely different: historically cold temperatures that most residents had never encountered before. Burst water pipes, massive ice dams, and frigid temperatures wreaked havoc on thousands of residents and their homes, as well as city roads and highways. Motorists unfamiliar with driving on icy slick streets faced an additional danger instead of a path to safety. With thousands of homes and businesses left without power or water, the city was rendered virtually helpless. And in the aftermath, the billions of dollars in personal and property damage caused by the devastation led to the single highest insurance claim event in state history.
Today, nearly two years later, most of the city has recovered from the snowstorm, but Uri was not an equal opportunity offender, said Luis Guajardo, Urban Policy Research Manager at the Kinder Institute. According to Guajardo, damages were more pronounced in low-income communities like Sunnyside and East Houston, which include older homes and disproportionately more people of color.
“Even though [the damages] were widespread, the data tells us that certain communities did bear a harder cost, mostly due to living in outdated homes,” Guajardo said. “Homes in high-income areas did have damage. However, it was comparatively less than in lower-income communities, especially in areas like East Houston.”
The Economic Innovation Group’s Distressed Communities Index (DCI) backs up Guajardo’s claim. In Harris County, 45 zip codes are considered economically distressed. Eight of the 45 distressed zip codes are majority Black, and 28 are Hispanic.
To put that into context, the median income for West University Place is $190,000, with 71.2 percent of the zip code identifying as white, while East Houston has a median household income of just $37,400.
Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood is one of the most vulnerable areas when it comes to natural disasters, with the city’s lowest median income at $27,500, and 79.4 percent of the community identifying as African-American. Sunnyside’s infrastructure is slowly dilapidating, and increased exposure during events like the winter storm only exacerbates the likelihood of serious damage. For neighborhoods like Sunnyside, it doesn’t take a hurricane to devastate the area. A low-grade tropical storm, or even just heavy rain, can bring in enough stormwater to cause significant damage to an already over-taxed infrastructure.
“When these events happen, those who are most vulnerable are exposed and carry a larger brunt [of the impact],” Guajardo said. “Black and Latino Houstonians are more likely to live in communities on the eastern side of the county in neighborhoods that have been hit the hardest, disaster after disaster.”
A Vulnerable Infrastructure
According to Kinder Institute data, the most heavily damaged areas were concentrated in neighborhoods like Little York, Acres Homes, Fifth Ward, and Third Ward. For Third Ward residents, the issues during the winter storm were amplified due to archaic infrastructure and the community’s long standing status as a food desert. The neighborhood’s only grocery store is a relatively new H-E-B Supermarket built right off of South Freeway near MacGregor, and is the first full-service grocery store to open in the area in 20 years. Moreover, complications on the roads and lack of power made it doubly hard for residents to access food during the winter storm.
Kyle Matson, a longtime resident of Third Ward, said his power was out for roughly a week, making the ferocity of the icy weather even worse. “Nobody had power. There was some snow and ice. But overall it was just really cold,” Matson said. “The lack of ability to keep warm was easily the worst part of the storm.”
The Texas Department of State Health Services reported that most fatalities were attributed to hypothermia, vehicle crashes, carbon monoxide poisoning, and chronic medical conditions complicated by a lack of power.
Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the flow of electricity to more than 25 million Texas customers, took most of the blame for the days-long power outages. Already crippled by previous storms, ERCOT’s grid simply could not withstand the frigid weather. The fact that Texas lawmakers had yet to make the necessary updates to the grid after Harvey only compounded the problem.
An Emotional Toll
Uri’s impact can be tallied in a long list of losses, including billions of dollars in damage, crumbling infrastructure, and most egregious of all, human lives. But for some, the emotional impact was the most significant outcome. Houstonians have proven their toughness over the years by enduring periodic flash floods, but an arctic blast brought about feelings of helplessness, isolation, and neglect, which for many people, caused severe post-traumatic stress.
Dr. Rheeda Walker, a psychologist at the University of Houston, said the storm took a massive mental and emotional toll on top of the environmental destruction residents faced. “I think in the moment, it created a feeling of despair,” Dr. Walker said. “Part of the frustration, the aggravation, and the pain that stemmed from the storm was feeling helpless. Because when you don’t have any power, gas, or water, there’s nothing you can do. Most people, I think, want to have some sense of control over their environment. And so, the helplessness adds to the despair, which doesn’t feel good.”
Cilicia Edwards, a single mother and resident of north Houston, endured Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, but she said the winter storm felt drastically different. Edwards was stranded, unable to connect with her then five-year-old daughter—a dire situation that led her to believe the worst.
“Having my child calling me and saying ‘mommy, when are you coming back? It’s so cold.’ She couldn’t take a bath because the water was too cold, and she really didn’t have any food,” Edwards said. “Being unable to be there for her during that time was my worst nightmare. That was the second disaster she’s been through. During the winter storm she called me for five days straight asking, ‘when are you coming home?’ and there was nothing I could do. That was very emotionally traumatic for me.”
Still, despite the hardships experienced during Uri, many Houstonians found time to extend a helping hand to those who needed it most. Sammie Olford, a resident of Sunnyside since 1964, was already displaced from her home following Hurricane Harvey, and was temporarily housed in a hotel until her home could be rebuilt. During the winter storm, as already bad conditions in Sunnyside worsened, and even though Olford had no power or running water at her hotel, she generously invited her next-door neighbor to come seek shelter with her.
In communities just on the outskirts of Houston, like Sugar Land and Missouri City, people who could travel safely were helping other residents in need, setting up generators, and offering food and bottled water to friends and strangers alike.
Bus operator Hester Lodge also jumped into action. Lodge, a Metro employee for 14 years, worked throughout the duration of the storm, transporting residents to destinations in the Acres Homes area. “I woke up without electricity one morning, realizing that there was ice [on the roads], but that I still had to get up and go to work because my job did not suspend its services,” Lodge said. “When we have floods, rainstorms, or even winter storms, the bus drivers are first responders—providing a service that is underrated.”
Having lived through natural disasters such as Hurricanes Betsy, Katrina, and Ike, Lodge said she was disappointed that, as the third-largest city in the nation, Houston was so unprepared. And, as a resident of an area that was seriously debilitated by the storm, she expressed frustration that some citizens who were at the highest risk of danger, like those in nursing homes, were without power, while wealthier areas Downtown retained electricity.
But instead of concern or, better yet, action to help people in the most affected neighborhoods, the national storyline promoted the narrative of Houston as “resilient,” and for the most part, ignored the plight of those residents in disadvantaged communities.
Navigating Climate Change
Winter storm Uri underscores a more alarming and pressing issue as we move forward: the imminent threat of climate change. On the city and county level, the winter storm was a rude awakening that Houston does not have appropriate systems in place to mitigate a severe climate event such as an arctic freeze. And as recent history proves, those events are becoming more and more common.
In the wake of the winter storm’s impact, there has been a “more concerted effort to prepare for natural disasters, water crises, and freezing temperatures, brought on by climate change,” Guajardo said. “The City of Houston has undertaken a resilience strategy that really looks at how we improve the economic and social stressors in our communities so that when these events do happen, people are better able to confront and withstand them.”
For Guajardo, the hope is that Houston becomes a city that can better adapt to climate change, and more specifically, communities centered near bodies of water. “I think we have to learn how to live with water,” Guajardo said. “We have to learn how to live with the reality of what we’re going to face. We have to realize that we’re guaranteed to see droughts, which means we’re not going to have water at some point for the population. We’re going to see wildfires because of our proximity to some forests, especially on the northern side. We’re likely to continue to see storms and major flooding events, and not always during a hurricane. My hope is that we can help prepare the population so they don’t feel as left behind as they have been.”
Politics as Usual
On the political front, the problems with the power grid have remained a hot-button issue, as memories of the storm remain fresh in Texans’ minds. A frustration which will likely be expressed by voters at the polls this November.
At the time of the winter storm, many Texans recognized “the unique nature of the conditions that led to the outages, but were also nearly as likely to attribute responsibility to policy factors and industry behavior, specifically the winterization of electric and gas production facilities,” according to a statement by the Texas Political Project. Two contentious policy issues that have divided key stakeholders, primarily electric providers and natural gas producers. All under the eye of a governor during a re-election year.
“I think [local politicians] could have done better,” Sammie Olford said. “But again, this was something new, it was uncharted territory. Unless you were from up North and had experienced something similar, I believe everyone did the best they could.”
Kyle Matson agreed. “Everybody wants to cast blame whenever something goes wrong, and I get that it’s a pretty natural instinct,” Matson said. “But, when you get a one-of-a-kind event like this one, there’s gonna be some chaos. I don’t think anybody was happy. Obviously, Ted Cruz drew a lot of fire for going down to Mexico, but it seems like the power company [has] to try and fix the lines. Everybody had it pretty rough.”
The Path Forward
What’s not in debate is that, as we near the second anniversary of winter storm Uri, Houstonians are left to contemplate a range of hard truths and charged emotions in the wake of so much devastation and loss. Among them is the simple fact that these types of severe weather events are going to continue to happen, and that Houston remains unprepared on almost every front. Though we’ve seen innovative proposals such as the Ike Dike (which will cost billions of dollars and take decades of time to develop), there still are no practical systems in place to address severe weather events. Nor does there appear to be clear leadership bold enough to begin the arduous but necessary process of improving Houston’s crumbling infrastructure.
Though Sammie Olford is finally back in her renovated Sunnyside home, and Kyle Matson has returned safely to his house in Third Ward, the hope is that they, and the millions of other Houstonians impacted by these storms, can comfortably stay there for years to come.