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Last week, our producer Davis Land headed out from his neighborhood in Houston to talk with people trying to restore their homes after a devastating winter storm knocked out power for so many Texans. It was nearly 80 degrees—a huge change from a couple of weeks back, when many Texans were shivering under coats and blankets, waiting out a deep freeze and a utility shutdown. But after the cold let up, what was left behind was a mess of plumbing—burst pipes and sagging walls full of leaking water. There simply aren’t enough hands to do the work.
Land spoke with one woman, Shonza Branch, who still didn’t have running water to shower or do laundry. Her burst pipes were just the latest problem for her home, which is still damaged from Hurricane Harvey, nearly four years ago. “We had wind and rain damage and we went to FEMA, and FEMA only gave us so much. And I appealed till they told me I couldn’t appeal no more,” Branch said. “So the wall in my bathroom, I have a piece of tape over the light switch because when we cut it on, it would shoot electricity. And then the water ran down that wall, and there’s mold in the wall—it’s still in there. My towel racks and stuff fell off the wall because the wall was so soft and rotted.”
For someone like Branch, February’s cold snap has become another layer of damage, another natural disaster blocking her way back to some kind of normalcy. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Amal Ahmad from the Texas Observer about what the slow slog of recovery is beginning to look like in Texas, where many of those most affected by last month’s weather are still getting back on their feet after the last climate disaster. Our conversation has been edited and condense for clarity.
Mary Harris: Describe what people are going through right now in Texas.
Amal Ahmad: After living through that kind of chaotic week where everything felt like it was falling apart, some people still don’t have water. Now, they’re living in a pandemic. They may have lost wages.
You’ve called it cascading disasters.
It’s just one thing after the other, right? It’s a crisis within a crisis within a crisis for a lot of people.
Shonza Branch looks a lot like the people who are most at risk right now, right? She’s low-income, disabled, and can’t seem to get a break.
You think about who still has a blue tarp on their house from Harvey. It’s people who had pretty much no money coming in and had to make do with the best that they could. So to think about the pipes bursting in a house that was never rebuilt after Harvey, I think that kind of explains it. Why do we let these areas flood over and over again? Something like this happens, which happened everywhere, but was compounded in areas where they’re still rebuilding from Harvey. It’s just indicative of how slow recovery is.
So for the Texans you’ve been speaking with who are just digging out from the aftermath of this freeze. What are their options now? What are they sorting through?
For a lot of people—people who work hourly wages, people who had to take time off or sick days or whatever and didn’t get paid when they couldn’t get to work because of the icy roads and power outages—you’re dealing with a situation of lost wages, in addition to the costs of recovering from this.
So the storm put them in the hole and now they’re going deeper.
Just to think of an example: If you were working an hourly wage job, you didn’t work several shifts, you might be out a week’s worth of wages. From what I’m hearing, a lot of companies were not understanding that this is a crisis and that the last thing on people’s mind is getting to work, even though that paycheck is essential. So for people who are already living paycheck to paycheck, you might be seeing even more shortages. We’re also in a pandemic. So there are already probably underemployment and unemployment issues. For renters, another big thing is where do you go if you can’t stay in your apartment? If your apartment is now becoming moldy, how do you pay for a hotel bill? How do you pay to get out of that situation and stay somewhere else? In terms of also being able to recover property damages—in other disasters, we’ve seen that is very difficult for a lot of people. You typically have to have things like receipts for all the furniture that got destroyed. Most people don’t keep that for years and years. So in terms of being able to immediately recover financial costs through insurance, that’s going to be really difficult for people.
I know you’ve covered other environmental disasters and their aftermath. So are you anticipating what’s going to happen now in terms of trouble with recovery?
One of the researchers I talked to said, “I kind of expect it to take four years for low-income people to come out of this winter storm.” On top of everything, we’re in a pandemic. We’re in a situation where it’s dangerous to go to a shelter, where people are worried about their health, where they’re underemployed or unemployed. There are all these issues just happening all at once. But this is in all 254 counties of this state. So in addition to the individual toll that’s going to take, now, you also have things like supply chain shortages and a lack of plumbers who are available to come out and fix things for people. The scale of this is certainly unprecedented.
You’ve alluded to the fact that in every disaster it seems like people with more resources are just better off than people with fewer resources. In November, FEMA itself released a report saying that the way it helps communities after a disaster is skewed: It helps the more well-off and leaves other people behind. Have you seen that in your reporting?
Oh, absolutely. A lot of disaster relief money is probably going to homeowners. But if you’re a homeowner, you already have equity in your home, most likely. So you’ve got that. Then you’re getting money to fix things. You’re eligible for things like the Small Business Administration loans to fix things in your house. There are many more avenues for you to receive funding through the government. Also, I believe the rates of homeowners insurance are higher than renters insurance.
Yeah, and that FEMA report noted that even the emergency cash program is more accessible to people with time and income and access. Obviously that might not be what you should be prioritizing in a program like that.
We’ve got to think about who’s applying for this money. There are all sorts of gaps in accessibility. Are these applications being translated in a bunch of different languages? Not always. Are there efforts to help folks who don’t know how to do this online, who don’t have all the paperwork, who didn’t have time to go find a ton of documentation while their house is flooding? Usually not. And there’s just never been enough help to really do that. Not to say that there aren’t amazing nonprofits doing this work, but they are stretched thin in the face of every crisis that we’ve seen in the past.
This is not unique to this storm. If you ask people who’ve lived through Harvey and all the floods in different parts of Texas, this is something that a lot of people have experienced. It takes so long for these systems to really help the people that need it the most. A lot of that is red tape and stuff. But we’re not prepared for the kind of disasters that climate change is going to bring. And we haven’t done the kind of reforms and work to really think about who’s most vulnerable, who’s going to need the most help, how do we get it to them the fastest. At the government level, that is just not there. This storm is not the only time that this has happened and it won’t be the last.
Has anyone truly accepted responsibility for the failures that happened here?
I think the answer to that is no. The House and the Senate in Texas have both done hearings with ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission, and have brought in a lot of other agencies like the Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas. It’s important to highlight that the Legislature has an interest in deflecting blame because they ultimately are the ones that have built the kind of atmosphere in which ERCOT exists—as does ERCOT, as does the Public Utility Commission.
At these hearings, representatives from ERCOT have insisted that they did the right thing. ERCOT CEO Bill Magness told the Texas Senate that grid operators had less than 10 minutes to start turning off people’s power, keeping the grid from going into a complete blackout, which would have caused equipment to fail and operators to do something called a “black start. My producer who lives in Texas says that it was like being told Texans should be thankful for what they just went through.
It’s like if I took my mom’s favorite vase and I broke it and I glued it back together and said, “Well, I fixed it for you.” I also broke it. It is very circular logic. Something that’s important to remember is yes, this was an unprecedented storm, but ERCOT’s own meteorologists warned them of the possibility of this level of an extreme winter in November.
ERCOT doesn’t use climate data and climate modeling to do its assessments for supply and demand. It uses historical data, so they don’t project forward. They use data from the past to inform what’s coming next. If it’s an extreme event, that’s not being factored into it.
The thing I worry about with this story is that there’s so much blame to go around that in some ways it protects the institutions that need to change. And you can see it in that testimony in front of the legislature where it was so easy to pass the buck and say, “Well, we saved you guys from a worse fate.” Or, “The problem is over here, not with me.”
I certainly think that’s true. But now that we know about this, now that it has become a very widespread discussion, it’ll be interesting to see how long that anger lasts and how much people can use that to push for real change.
I wonder if you feel a difference in terms of the level of emotion you’re getting from people right now. A natural disaster like this is always tragic and leaves people feeling devastated, but I wonder if you feel like you’re seeing more anger now from people and whether you think that’s something that might be harnessed.
In some calls that I’ve had so far, I was surprised at the level of candor and anger that I was hearing from folks. One thing is that we’re now also starting to see death tolls come in. And I think the anger is that some of these deaths could have been prevented. If you could have gotten people to safety ahead of time, they may not have been in a situation where they were dying of hypothermia in their own home or putting things in a fireplace that caused carbon monoxide poisoning. Not knowing when these blackouts were going to happen, when they were going to hit certain neighborhoods, that left the complete inability at the government level, at the individual level to get people out of that harmful situation.
To think about your own home becoming a deathtrap is really painful for a lot of people. That’s the last place where you think that should be happening, you know, dying of hypothermia in your own home. Again, if there had been some forewarning, maybe at the state level or something—even an emergency alert. Every flash flood around here, you get an alert on your phone. I didn’t get one. I don’t think anyone that I’ve talked to you got any of those alerts about, like, hypothermia. Nothing. So if you didn’t know how to deal with that, you were left stranded. There was no one coming to help you. I think there’s a lot of anger at how some of those deaths were preventable.