By Lisa Gonzalez, President and CEO
Winter Storm Uri affected more than half of the United States from South Texas to Maine, and Texas was the hardest hit in terms of loss of life, infrastructure failures, damage to homes, and business interruptions.
The data are still coming in and will be adjusted in the days and weeks ahead, but preliminary information on impacts from the storm paints a sobering picture. The human cost is tragic; nearly three dozen deaths are being blamed on the storm in Texas, with numerous others hospitalized due to carbon monoxide poisoning, exposure to the cold, house fires, and traffic accidents.
Nearly every segment of the state’s infrastructure system was impacted, including transportation, power generation, drinking water, agriculture, and food supply chains. Thirty percent of the state’s power-generating capacity went offline, leaving four million Texans in the dark and in frigid temperatures at the storm’s peak. Power losses and freezing temperatures led to cascading effects in water infrastructure, with approximately 12 million people—more than 40% of the state’s population—experiencing disruptions to their primary source of clean, potable water due to boil-water orders, low line pressure, and damage-related water shut-offs. We can expect a ripple effect of disrupted food supply chains because the extreme cold affected cattle, poultry, dairy, citrus, and vegetable growing operations. Gasoline prices will also increase across the nation as a significant portion of refining capacity went offline. The Insurance Council Of Texas warned last week that Winter Storm Uri could result in the most extensive insurance claim event in state history.
Since 2010, Texas has experienced 67—now 68—billion-dollar weather and climate disasters.
Between 2010 and 2020, NOAA data show that 47 severe storms (70%), six drought events (9%), five tropical cyclones (7.5%), five floods (7.5%), three wildfires (5%), and one winter storm (1%) impacted Texas.
Winter Storm Uri is now added to the list and millions of Texans are asking why our state wasn’t better prepared. The data above would tell us to largely focus infrastructure investments to withstand severe storms as that category of disaster has a significantly higher frequency of occurrence compared to other categories of extreme events. Given that evidence, how can a state like Texas be expected to plan for a catastrophic event like Winter Storm Uri when other disaster events are much more common? How can Texas afford to protect a growing population against a multitude of seemingly unpredictable weather extremes?
A critical first step is to incorporate climate models and data in the state’s infrastructure planning efforts as these models will improve understanding of the likelihood and intensity of extreme weather events.
In March 2017, HARC invited Dr. Katharine Hayhoe of the Texas Tech University Climate Center to speak at our “People and Nature Speaker Series” event. Dr. Hayhoe spoke to the assembled audience about climate change and what it means for the future of Houston and the Lone Star State not knowing that mere months later Houstonians would experience Hurricane Harvey.
During her presentation, Dr. Hayhoe said that planning for the future by basing decisions only on historical data and not considering climate change is like trying to drive your car on an unknown road, around a curve, while looking only in the rearview mirror. She went on to explain that the incorporation of future climate impacts into the state’s planning efforts for catastrophic events is critical. Such future focused planning will help Texas develop and invest in resilience strategies for all categories of future extreme weather events.
Much of HARC’s recent air, energy and water research focuses on the intersection with climate resilience, adaptation, and mitigation. This is because we believe that climate change is one of Texas’s most pressing issues, affecting nearly every aspect of the state’s economy, our communities, and natural resources.
HARC has a number of online resources that may be helpful during this time.
HARC also has tools in development to facilitate climate risk planning, aid community-scale resilience and adaptation efforts, and develop affordable renewable energy and storage solutions.
In the coming weeks, HARC researchers will release a series of resources related to Winter Storm Uri.
These articles and information tools will delve into the facts behinds the Texas energy grid, explore the impacts of Winter Storm Uri on infrastructure systems, and identify strategies to make Texas a more resilient state where people, the economy, and natural ecosystems can better adapt to withstand and recover from extreme events.
We hope that you and your families are safe and well, and we look forward to you joining us on this important journey ahead.