The weather incident that impacted the state of Texas in February 2021 will become a common occurrence in the United States and across the world. Businesses, families, and communities must steps to prepare for disruption when infrastructure fails.
The Climate has changed. Our infrastructure has not.
Climate change is no longer a future threat. It is here. Now. And as the snow brought basic civilization to a halt in Texas and continues to impact states in the South, people across the United States and the world must prepare themselves for numerous incidents where their city shuts down due to weather impacts.
Throughout modern history, our roads, our electrical grids, and our cities were all built using previous temperatures and environmental conditions. Our city planners and engineers used past rainfall totals and weather patterns to calculate how much impact and stress our infrastructure can handle.
Due to climate change, all those assumptions are no longer accurate. The climate has changed to the point that more rain and snow will fall upon our cities. These new weather conditions will continue to overwhelm our infrastructure and lead to similar crisis situations like the one we saw in Texas.
What happened in Texas, and how it can happen anywhere else in the world
In mid-February, a record-breaking cold front hit the state of Texas. The snow caused three things to happen that all contributed to the power outage.
- Increase in usage: The cold weather caused residents to turn on their heaters in order to stay warm. Many homes were using inefficient electrical heaters that consumed more power, which contributed to the electric grid being overwhelmed. When too much people are using too much electricity, the system shuts down to prevent it from breaking. This is similar to what happens during heat waves, when too many people running their air conditioner and fans causes power outages.
- Weather knocks out equipment: The snow also knocked off the power supply at the same time that demand was its highest. Over half of the natural gas capacity was frozen and offline due to the winter weather. As the Texas Tribune reported, “the primary cause of the outages Tuesday appeared to be the state’s natural gas providers. Many are not designed to withstand such low temperatures on equipment or during production.” This is a fundamental vulnerability in our electrical grid: A climate condition (heat or snow), creates a demand for power, but the same condition (heat or snow), also breaks equipment at the same time and takes away the ability to meet the demand.
- Impacts the maintenance and replacement cycle: The state’s power grid is designed to meet the high demands of the summer months, when air conditioners are necessary. To meet that demand, power plants are taken offline during the winter months for scheduled maintenance. In the past, this schedule worked fine as the demand was stable during the winter months. But when the winter storm hit Texas, some plants were offline due to scheduled maintenance and weren’t able to help meet the demand for power. “In essence, experts said, an electric grid optimized to deliver huge quantities of power on the hottest days of the year was caught unprepared when temperatures plummeted,” reported the NY Times.
Our entire society is built upon outdated information
The issue isn’t just about how our energy consumption changes due to new climate patterns, although that is one part of the problem. The larger issue is that our entire infrastructure has been built using climate patterns that are no longer accurate. From seawalls to storm drains, engineers and city planners used past weather information to determine how much stress our infrastructure could handle. That information is now outdated due to the changes in climate.
Across the country, city agencies will continue to face new weather situations that they did not plan for, and these incidents will create breakdowns like the one in Texas.
There have been incidents where failure due to climate change has already happened:
Dams: The 90,000 dams built in the United States are all aging and was built under the assumptions of previous rainfall totals. With more frequent storms and heavier rainfalls, experts believe that dams will continue to collapse across the country, as it did in May 2020 when two dams collapsed in Michigan due to heavy rains.
Drainage and sewer systems: Our drainage and sewer systems were built using previous rainfall totals as the baseline of how much water the system can process. With climate change, there are now heavier rain storms that will overwhelm the sewer system. This will lead to more flooding and sewer water backing up into people’s homes, as it happened in Washington, DC in September 2020.
Roads: More intense storms will impact roads and highways due to flooding and landslides. The increase in rain will cause mud, trees, and other debris to slide down and destroy roads and highways, as it happened in California in February 2021.
These example were taken from an article by the New York Times that highlighted the vulnerabilities of the United States infrastructure to the changing weather patterns.
You are on your own
Despite all of the resources in the United States…
An 11 year old boy froze to death in his bed.
A 60 year old man froze to death in his recliner while his wife tried to keep him warm. She told firefighters that they did not have power for three days.
The capital city of Jackson, Mississippi, has been without water for two weeks after the storm. The city’s water system is old, and the Director of Public Works stated that the system “basically crashed like a computer, and now we’re trying to rebuild it.”
One individual died at a local medical facility in Texas because the facility was unable to provide treatment due to the loss of water pressure.
When public infrastructure collapses, you are literally on your own. Emergency personnel will not be able to rescue you in the immediate aftermath of an incident. You must be able to withstand the lack of power, services, and resources until a response can be coordinated. This response time could be a couple of hours, days, or even weeks in the most extreme cases.
You must also understand that there will be more disruptions to your daily life due to the weather. It may not be as drastic as the snowstorm in Texas, but heavier rains, closed roads, and flooding will become much more common.
With that in mind, here are some basic steps you can take to minimize your risks. Please note that this is not comprehensive list, and that you should take the time to determine how you will respond to impacts from climate change.
Two week supply of essential items: Having enough food, water, and other essential supplies for two weeks is no longer just a recommendation during hurricane season. The main purpose of these emergency kits is to be able to survive in your home without electricity or resources, but it also serves a secondary goal: To keep you from leaving the house. You want to minimize the amount of times you have to leave your house during heat waves, winter storms, and other emergency situations. The conditions on the roads will be very different from normal, and the potential for accidents are much higher. A 50-year old man in Louisiana died because he slipped on ice and hit his head on the ground. Having an emergency supply kit that can feed your household for up to 2 weeks is absolutely essential in today’s environment. The Red Cross has a good write up of how to get started if you do not have an emergency kit. It is also recommended to pack a bag in case you need to evacuate your home.
Your cellphone is your life: It is important to keep a battery-operated radio in your house in order to receive news and information during a black out. But we do know that in today’s environment, our cellphones are our lifelines to the world. Cellphone networks tend to have more robust systems, with backup generators and emergency staff who can keep the network up and running, so you may have service during emergencies.
- As soon as you lose power, immediately switch your phone to low power mode. Turn off all app notifications, turn off Bluetooth, and lower the brightness on your screen. You want to preserve the battery for as long as possible.
- No one remembers phone numbers anymore, so if there are any numbers or contacts you need in your phone, write them down before your phone loses power.
- Buying a power bank is worth the investment, but be sure to keep them charged before you need it.
Know the basics of your home or apartment: Your property manager or local contractor will not be available to help you during these incidents. You need to learn how to turn off your water, turn off your gas, where your breaker box is, and other basic things that we don’t think about on a daily basis.
Medicine and medial supplies: Roughly half of the population in the United States takes a prescription drugs. Some, like the 6 million people who take insulin to treat their diabetes, store their medicine in the refrigerator. There are also individuals with chronic illnesses that need oxygen tanks or individuals with disabilities that rely on a stable power supply. It is absolutely vital for individuals, their caretakers, and their families to have an emergency plan on what to do if there is an extended power outage or a shelter in place order is in effect for several days. Talk to your medical provider to determine how far in advance you can fill a prescription. If you go to a kidney dialysis center, find out what happens if there is an extended power outage and what their backup plans are. Individuals with chronic illness and disabilities were confronted with these challenges in Texas and one family resorted to social media to try to get an oxygen tank.
Your emergency plan shouldn’t be created during an emergency. Even if it’s a few minutes, please take the time to think what you would do if you were faced with an extended power outage or if you were stranded due to weather. You can no longer assume that you will not get caught up in a weather incident.
Our infrastructure will continue to fail and disrupt our lives due to changes in the climate. It is essential that you be able to withstand at least several days on your own before federal resources arrive.