Growing up in Texas, the sparse snow day every few years felt like magic. My most vivid childhood memories lie in those rare snowy days when school was canceled and the city shut down. We’d throw on our version of warm clothes, slide down the icy streets in old laundry baskets and build snowmen that’d melt into slush puddles by the next day. There was something wondrously uncanny about a white, cold blanket covering Texas ground.
I’ve recently revisited those innocent, adolescent memories with a new perspective — one that’s forced me to confront both my naivety toward extreme weather and our country’s unpreparedness for our changing climate.
A mid-February snowstorm, unofficially named Winter Storm Uri, engulfed the entire state of Texas and other parts of the South. The record-breaking, freezing temperatures and extreme ice, sleet and snowfall caused widespread power blackouts, detrimental water conditions and at least 111 reported deaths from hypothermia, vehicle accidents and cases of carbon monoxide poisoning as people desperately tried to heat their homes.
On Feb. 11, over 130 cars crashed on an ice-covered interstate in my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, killing six people and injuring dozens. This tragic incident was the first news I heard of any severe weather conditions impacting the region. I had a flight scheduled that weekend from Atlanta to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to go home for a couple of weeks. Following the massive car accident, I repeatedly checked the news, watching the bizarre winter storm worsen.
After five canceled flights and anxious phone calls with my mom — her voice sounded similar to the fearful tone of the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns — I realized this was a natural disaster the Lone Star State was unprepared to bear.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Texas generates more electricity than any other state and is the only state among the contiguous U.S. with a stand-alone power grid. During the storms, the state’s infrastructure for producing and delivering electricity froze. With coal plants shut down, along with snow-covered solar panels and frozen wind turbines, systems throughout the state malfunctioned. Because Texas does not have the option to channel energy from other states, people were left helpless.
At least 4.5 million Texas residents were without power, and about 12 million people received notices to boil water because of quality issues. When I finally returned home toward the end of the week, my parents had filled up our bathtubs to conserve drinkable water, and we were still under rolling power blackouts even though the snow stopped and the temperature was rising.
Nearly two months have passed since Winter Storm Uri, and Texas is still facing the consequences. Costs and damages could potentially exceed the $125 billion from Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and the operator of the state’s main power grid is battling at least 35 lawsuits, according to The Texas Tribune.
In the aftermath of the energy crisis, many have questioned this vulnerable infrastructure and the irresponsible reluctance to address its shortcomings. In a March 25 PBS report, environmental engineer Greeshma Gadikota said what happened in Texas is not just about Texas.
“It’s about the need to rethink our energy infrastructure, the need to build in resilience in response to a changing climate in many, many different parts of the world,” Gadikota said. “The risks 20, 30, 40 years ago are different from the risks that we face now.”
According to a Feb. 17 article in The Guardian, some experts believe the winter storm is a symptom of heating in the Arctic. Though this still remains an active area of research, extreme weather conditions that go beyond historical norms are becoming ever more common, such as the devastating California wildfires last year. The recent crisis in Texas emphasizes the dangers of our nation’s negligence.
This year’s snowfall was anything but magic. It was reality, fitting the pattern of worsening weather extremes due to climate change. And as my family, friends and fellow Texans were thrown into survival mode — the state’s infrastructure unable to withstand the severe conditions — an alarm sounded throughout our country, warning us, yet again, that we must take urgent action to combat climate change.