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What the Texas disaster teaches us about protecting vulnerable residents everywhere

What the Texas disaster teaches us about protecting vulnerable residents everywhere

Picture of Marina Riker
 Karla Perez and Esperanza Gonzalez warm up by a barbecue grill during power outage caused by the February winter storm.
Residents warm themselves by a barbecue during a power outage caused by the winter storm on February 16, 2021 in Houston, Texas.
(Photo by Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

By the time Texas’ disastrous winter storm ended, Marselles Coe had only received five of 12 hours of life-saving dialysis treatment he needs each week. “I’ve gotten barely enough treatment to get by,” said Coe, who has end-stage kidney disease and congestive heart failure.

His stomach was upset, and it felt as if toxins were building in his body. Still, he told me he felt like one of the lucky ones: When the record-shattering winter storm descended on Texas, a friend rescued Coe from his one-bedroom apartment in San Antonio that lost power and water so he could spend the week in their home, which still had service. As other dialysis patients scrambled to call emergency hotlines for transportation to clinics because regular bus service was blocked by icy roads, Coe’s friend braved the snowy streets to drive him to his treatment.

But even with the support from friends, Coe still wasn’t able to get all the medical care he needed. Two days in a row, the electricity powering Coe’s dialysis center cut out in the middle of his treatment, leaving his blood suspended in the machine and his nurse scrambling to manually pump blood back into his body.

“There’s so many aspects of services that failed people that shouldn’t have,” Coe told me.

After nearly one-third of the state’s power-generation capacity failed in freezing temperatures while demand for heat soared, Texas utility operators told residents they would be subject to rotating rolling blackouts. Instead, more than 4 million households lost power — in some cases for days on end, leaving them without heat in some of the coldest temperatures recorded in more than a century. As with other disasters, communities of color and those with lower incomes that have been historically overlooked were the most vulnerable since their options are limited when disaster strikes.

Journalists like myself scrambled to figure out what was happening while dealing with outages ourselves. Texas is unique in that it operates its own power grid that’s separate from the only two other grids in the continental U.S., so it wasn’t able to easily borrow electricity when its power plants, not built to withstand freezing temperatures, failed in the cold.

But what isn’t isolated to Texas, public health experts say, is decades of underinvestment by state and local governments in basic infrastructure, such as water systems and power plants. That meant Texans were largely left to fend for themselves.

“When the storm hit, people didn't start at the same point. Some people had generators in their homes. Some people flew to another country. Some people were able to go to a hotel,” said Elena Marks, president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation. “And some people froze to death in their homes.”

It’s been long known that disasters further exacerbate communities’ existing inequities. Reporting the full extent of crises — whether a hurricane or unprecedented freeze — means tracking electrical outage maps, probing emergency response officials and also checking in with people who are most vulnerable to disruptions: like those who live in nursing homes and public housing, lack reliable transportation or have underlying conditions that require the use of electronic medical devices.

The same sources that myself and other journalists relied on to gauge the devastation of February’s deadly freeze were the same ones we tapped when reporting on the disproportionate toll of the coronavirus pandemic. We called health care workers to learn about the crises their chronically-ill patients were facing — and the ones experienced by nurses and doctors themselves. Some hospitals, still dealing with the strain of COVID-19 patients, lost water pressure and in some cases were forced to transfer patients to other facilities when taps ran dry.

“When the storm hit, people didn't start at the same point. Some people had generators in their homes. Some people flew to another country. Some people were able to go to a hotel. And some people froze to death in their homes.”                                                     

                                      — Elena Marks, CEO, Episcopal Health Foundation, Houston

It quickly became apparent that our state and local governments hadn’t prepared for a catastrophe of this magnitude. Many people, myself included, were initially under the impression that electrical utility officials would be able to spare the state’s critical infrastructure — such as nursing homes, medical facilities and water pumping stations. But the outages grew so severe that even they were hit, setting off cascading crises. As water utilities lost pump stations and pressure in their systems, more than half the state was told to boil drinking water — if they had running water at all.

The catastrophe claimed dozens of lives across Texas. Many people are now filing lawsuits against local power companies and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit that operates the state’s power grid.

In San Antonio, a family recently sued our city-owned electrical company, alleging their loved one died after his dialysis appointments — like Marselles Coe’s — were cut short because of electricity outages. In a Houston suburb, the mother of an 11-year-old boy who died in an unheated mobile home after seeing snow for the first time is accusing two power companies of gross negligence, alleging that they ignored a federal report conducted after a similar freeze in 2011, when more than 3 million customers lost power. The report said Texas hadn’t adequately protected power plants against cold weather.

Government officials are often warned about these vulnerabilities in their own systems. In San Antonio, for example, my colleague found that in 2015 the city was told it should purchase backup generators to protect the water system during power outages. To understand the weaknesses where you live, consider requesting copies of your city’s risk mitigation and basic emergency plans, which typically outline how governments are supposed to respond to crises and what infrastructure projects they should undertake to prevent catastrophes.

It’s also important to remember when reporting on disasters that devastation isn’t just physical. They wreak havoc on people’s finances, too.

Hourly workers, some of whom had already lost income during the pandemic, once again missed out on paychecks when businesses shuttered because of the freeze. Thousands of homeowners are now facing steep plumbing bills, and renters lost belongings to floods when frozen pipes burst.

Then there’s the utility bills they could be responsible for after energy prices skyrocketed during the storm. Despite the blackouts, the Texas freeze brought the most expensive week in the history of the country’s power markets, with an estimated $50 billion price tag, according to Bloomberg. An industry watchdog later said power grid operators made a pricing error that resulted in $16 billion in overcharges.

State and local leaders have pledged to protect customers from bearing the brunt of this latest round of utility failures, and many power companies aren’t charging customers for the added costs yet. But residents could still end up footing the bill in the future through taxpayer bailouts and rate increases.

Jill Ramirez, who runs the Austin-based Latino HealthCare Forum, told me that communities across the nation can learn from Texas when it comes to planning disaster response and recognizing that the most vulnerable communities will always be the hardest hit.

These conversations, she said, are all the more critical with the increased frequency of extreme weather events caused by climate change.

“Because of climate change, (communities) must revisit all of those things: Are they making sure that their infrastructure is upgraded for climate change, and their emergency services are also working? Here, they failed,” Ramirez said.

“Texas could be seen as a lesson for everyone.”

Marina Starleaf Riker is an investigative reporter for the San Antonio Express-News.

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