In 2011, freezing weather resulted in power outages and slick roads across Texas. In 2015, Winter Storm Goliath brought frigid cold and over 8 inches of snow in some areas to Western Texas. In 2017 freezing rain, sleet, and snow iced over roads, downed trees and triggered power outages in northwestern Texas.
Photo: Empty grocery store shelves in Austin during the 2021 Texas energy crisis
Credit: Jno.skinner via Wikimedia Commons shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license
Nonetheless, the February 2021 snowstorm in Texas – which resulted in days-long blackouts, burst water pipes, and a complete shutdown of multiple major cities – is being labeled as ‘unprecedented’. A brief review of headlines and news articles illustrates this trend:
From the Houston Chronicle: “West U analyzes response to unprecedented Texas winter storm”
According to Dictionary.com, the definition of ‘unprecedented’ is
without previous instance; never before known or experienced; unexampled or unparalleled
So what, precisely, do people mean when they say the February 2021 storm was unprecedented? Perhaps that the geographic extent of the storm was greater than expected. Possibly that below freezing temperatures to the Mexico border and beyond are rare enough that people tell their kids ‘oh, but I remember this happening once before….’.
The one thing that is unquestionable is that ‘unprecedented’ in this case, as is true of most disasters, means ‘unplanned for’. Not in the sense that we don’t plan for exceptional events – we very often do – but that we aren’t very good at planning for the really exceptional events, the type of events where the loss of critical services spells catastrophe.
We know the scale of the Texas snow event was unplanned for by its impacts. Surrounding states, though they experienced the same weather, for the most part had much less trouble maintaining or quickly restoring power. Wind generators in New York, fitted with de-icing systems, run year-round without problem. North Dakota provides power to its residents through months of this type of weather each year. Even the El Paso, Texas area maintained power during the February storm. The difference in all of these cases is they recognized the importance of maintaining dependable power, assessed the environmental challenges their systems might have to meet even during an extreme event, and made the necessary investment.
Yet, the cold snap debacle resulting from Texas’ choices to both forego weatherizing critical infrastructure and not join the national power grid – increasing the fragility of their system – also provides the rest of America with a valuable wake-up call. Much of the United States infrastructure is poorly maintained and/or woefully overdue for updating. At the same time, climate change is upending historic weather norms with increasing frequency and intensity. We are seeing more intense storms, more severe wildfires, increasing temperature extremes, and greater weather variability. If communities fail to adapt their critical infrastructure to be resilient to these eventualities, some version of Texas’ experience may become theirs.
Photo: Satellite data shows blackouts in Houston on February 16 (left) in comparison with data image on February 7 before the storm (right)
Credit: Earth Observatory
Texas’ experience was one of cascading service failures – a similar cascade seen in virtually any major weather disaster, be it cold, wind, snow, heat, or ice induced. Because our critical systems – power, water, food, transportation, communication, shelter – are increasingly interdependent, failure to any aspect of any one of those sectors can rapidly trigger a domino effect, amplifying the impacts and economic damages. The larger the cascade, the more likely the impacts of these failures will cascade outward to people and businesses who were unimpacted by the initial event. Texas’ failure to winterize their energy grid slowed vaccine delivery across the Southeast with health and pandemic implications for the entire United States. Companies with supply chain links in Texas will be struggling to catch up for weeks. For those in the Southeast and Central United States who shop at Trader Joe’s – hopefully you had access to another grocery store because the shelves in your store have been bare for a week and will probably continue to be so for at least another week.
The social and economic cost of these types of cascading failures is immense compared to the up-front investment needed to build resilience into our critical systems. What does it cost a grocery chain when they have nothing to sell for two weeks? And isn’t it bad enough to live through a 5-day blackout without having to go weeks without piped water until you get your plumbing repaired? Yet these impacts only scratch the surface of the personal and economic suffering caused by this event. The cost of storm damages and economic losses in Texas could top those incurred by Hurricane Harvey. Nonetheless, faced with the looming threat of climate change we continue to devalue ex-ante efforts, opting instead for saving money now, avoiding the harsh reality of what that decision might cost us in the future.
Post-event reviews of disaster events we have conducted around the world illustrate several actionable entry points for building resilient infrastructure to extreme events:
Strengthen critical services to handle greater extremes, recognizing that it is the failure of critical services that turns a crisis into a disaster.
Intentionally identify and address the potential for cascading failures. In doing so, take into account not just the built environment, but also the regulatory environment required to allow the built environment to function as intended.
Plan for failure and worst-case scenarios. Make sure not just utility operators and/or governments are aware of these plans, but that community members also understand the risk and are prepared to respond if needed.
Consider the ‘unthinkable’ and plan for worse. Our extreme event scenarios still focus too locally, assuming things that happened a state or two away couldn’t possibly happen in our community, and they fail to take into account the way climate change is increasing the size, intensity, and frequency of events. In doing so, recognize that climate projections most accurately capture average change, but averages aren’t the challenge, it’s the tails. Simply using average climate change projections for planning will be insufficient.
Weatherized, reliable services cost money to establish and protect; but critical systems are the foundation of economic growth and success, and when they fail, as we have just seen in Texas, the human, physical and financial costs can be devastating. The 2021 energy crisis in Texas should serve as an example for Texas and for other states around the country – that events triggered by ‘climate weirding’ may not seem so weird in the very near future and that building a resilient infrastructure that continues to provide reliable critical services through these events requires investment and regulation.