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After days of subfreezing temperatures, impassable roads and catastrophic outages during last month's winter storms, the sun came out and things returned to a kind of pandemic normal.
Six weeks later, however, the storm's long-term effects are still revealing themselves—from a month-long gas outage at one East Austin apartment complex to dozens of frostbite victims. Here are some other impacts to look out for in the months to come.
1. A hotter summer?
(Austin Fire Department/Twitter)
The winter storm itself does not increase the risk of wildfires in Austin, but the weather pattern that led to it—La Niña—does. When La Niña is in effect, Central Texas typically sees warmer and drier winters with the occasional cold snaps. "If we don't get our rain now … we're going to have a very dry summer, which translates into a higher fire danger," Austin Fire Department Lt. Steve Gibbon said.
Austin saw a similar combination of La Niña, a winter storm that caused blackouts and below-average spring rainfall in 2011. Over Labor Day weekend of that year, a series of fires in Central Texas consumed nearly 40,000 acres and 1,763 homes.
As a result, AFD firefighters are in the midst of additional wildfire training, Gibbon said. Residents are also encouraged to take steps to minimize the fire risk to their homes, such as by mowing lawns, removing brush and cleaning gutters. "People need to realize that Central Texas is a fire environment," he said. "Texas is supposed to burn."
2. An even hotter real estate market?
Home sales declined 8% year-over-year in February after the winter storm "thwarted housing market activity for nearly two weeks," according to the Austin Board of Realtors' latest monthly report. But demand remains high, as evidenced by record-breaking median sales prices. And the market "came right back just as soon as our city was back up and running," ABoR President Susan Horton told Austonia.
The prospect of another winter weather crisis does not seem to be deterring buyers. "I've heard numerous people say they're not worried about another storm because this time they'll be prepared," Horton said. Still, she encourages house hunters to ask sellers whether they had to file an insurance claim or dealt with water damage as part of their due diligence.
3. More bugs?
Days after warm wether returned, the fallout we dreaded has come full force. We’re doing our best, as are rehabbers all over Texas. If you’re local, we could use more 1 ml insulin syringes (29-31 ga) and 1 ml syringes no needles. pic.twitter.com/gR5dYNm8Fl— Austin Bat Refuge (@AustinBatRefuge) February 24, 2021
As temperatures thawed in the Austin area and across the state, residents began filing reports with the Austin Animal Center of dead bats found under bridges and overpasses. Conservation groups such as Austin Bat Refuge quickly responded.
But the mass bat deaths have raised concerns of a mosquito feeding frenzy given that the animals serve as natural pest control, eating up to their body weight in insects each night. Dr. Jessica Beckham, an entomologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said it's "kind of a wait-and-see" situation. But she doesn't expect a giant uptick in insect population. "Mosquitoes are just one part of their diet and not necessarily the largest component," she told Austonia.
Other native insect populations—from bees to scorpions—will also be likely unaffected. Many of these species lay eggs ahead of winter that prove resilient to extreme temperatures. "Nature has this really nice way of working it out," she said.
4. Higher energy prices?
State lawmakers are considering a number of bills related to the winter storm, which left at least 111 people dead and nearly 70% of Electric Reliability Council of Texas customers without power. Senate Bill 3, sponsored by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, would require power generators to weatherize, among other reforms. The bill does not address funding for such upgrades, however, which means the cost could be pushed onto taxpayers or customers.
Philip White, a graduate research assistant at the University of Texas at Austin's Webber Energy Group, told Austonia earlier this month that the choice is between a grid that is reliable 99% of the time with lower rates or one that is reliable 99.99% of the time that has been weatherized at significant cost.
The winter storm has also raised questions about the city of Austin's push to rely entirely on renewable sources of energy. Austin Energy currently sources around 58% of its annual power supply from renewable sources, according to its website, and plans to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2035.
Robert Cullick, who was the utility's communications director from 2014 to 2019, worries that a fully renewable portfolio would leave Austin Energy, and the city by extension, open to financial losses. But others, including Council Member Alison Alter and state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, argue that the utility's diverse portfolio and financial management served its customers well during the recent crisis and will continue to do so into the future.
5. New political leadership?
Initial polling done during the winter storm suggested that the event wasn't very damaging to state Republican officials. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll conducted from Feb. 12-18 found that Gov. Greg Abbott's overall job approval rating was largely, dropping to 46% from 47% in October.
James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project and a lecturer at UT Austin, said more polling is required to understand the long-term impact. In the meantime, Republican officials are trying to divert attention elsewhere. "Right now the improvement in the pandemic and the seasonal surge of immigration on the Texas border provide pretty powerful means of changing the subject from an event that was very largely significant but also discrete," he said.
Whether this will be effective remains to be seen. But Henson suggests that the storm alone will not upend Abbott's standing. "I don't expect that he's going to get rave reviews for it," he said. "But I also don't expect that the partisan prism that we expect people to look at leaders through is going to suddenly disappear."
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After Austin voters passed Proposition B, reinstating a ban on public camping, City Council directed staff to look into possible sanctioned campsites where homeless residents could live legally. Now two members are asking to shelve discussion on the controversial topic.
Staff presented dozens of possible sanctioned campsites across each fo the 10 council districts in late May, following the election. But members mostly pushed back on the proposed locations, citing cost, wildfire risk and lack of transparency as concerns.
With updated criteria, staff recommended two sites—one in District 1 and the other in District 8—for further review last week. After being briefed on the options during Tuesday's work session, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents District 1, and Council Member Paige Ellis, who represents District 8, issued a joint statement proposing "a pause" on further discussion of temporary sanctioned encampments.
"We are not convinced that these sites would be a cost-effective solution, but rather a band-aid tactic when we need to be supporting the long-term strategy to get folks off the street permanent," they said. "It is our responsibility to look at the situation holistically and objectively, and to spend out city's limited resources on solutions we know can work."
Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey noted that the two locations were imperfect and would require a lot of time and money to outfit as sanctioned campsites during the briefing.
City staff and homeless experts have previously raised concerns about sanctioned encampments, saying they are expensive to maintain, challenging to manage and hard to close, even when intended to to be temporary.
In 2019, staff declined to make recommendations for such sites despite being directed by council to do so, citing 2018 guidance from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "Neither authorized encampments nor parking areas provide housing for people experiencing homelessness," staff wrote in a memo. "Rather, each option detracts from the staff resources assigned to addressing this moral imperative."
But with Prop B being enforced and too few shelter beds and affordable units for the estimate unsheltered homeless population in Austin, the city is facing the same predicament that prompted District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo to pursue possible sanctioned campsites in the first place: "When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest," she said at a May 6 council meeting.
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Don't lose your mask just yet—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is now recommending masks in areas that are surging as cases rise nationwide and the Delta variant looms.
The CDC announced Tuesday that even fully vaccinated individuals should mask up indoors if their community is experiencing substantial transmission—defined as areas with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Travis County is sitting at an average of 94.59 cases per 100,000 over the past seven days, falling into the highest risk category, according to the CDC.
#DeltaVariant surging in U.S. New data show Delta much more contagious than previous versions of #COVID19. Unvaccinated people: get vaccinated & mask until you do. Everyone in areas of substantial/high transmission should wear a mask, even if vaccinated. https://t.co/tt49zOEC8N
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 27, 2021
After two COVID-19 recommendation stage jumps in the last two weeks, from Stage 2 to Stage 4, Austin-area cases are the highest they have been since February. The seven-day average for cases is on an upward trend, reaching 226 on Tuesday.
The CDC is also recommending that all students K-12 wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. A May executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits schools from requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status. Austin ISD is "strongly" encouraging students to wear masks.
Although vaccinated individuals are still protected against the most severe symptoms of the variant, infections are spreading rapidly and now make up 83% of confirmed cases in the U.S. At least a dozen cases of the delta variant have been confirmed in the Austin area, though there are likely more since testing for it is limited.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that hospital admissions are "almost exclusively" coming from people who are unvaccinated but those who are vaccinated can still catch and spread the virus.
"Unlike the alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with the Delta variant," Walensky said. "That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, rare that they are, have the potential to pool and transmit at the same with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person."
Research suggests those who become infected carry 1,000 times more of the virus than other variants and could stay contagious for longer.The announcement comes on the heels of the Biden administration ramping up cautionary measures in the face of the Delta variant. Just last week, the CDC said it had no plans to change its May guidance of vaccinated not having to wear masks unless there was a significant change in the data. Officials met on Sunday night to review new evidence, according to reports.
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The Moody Center, a $338 million, 530,000-square-foot multipurpose arena at the University of Texas at Austin, celebrated its topping out on Tuesday.
With the final beam placed, the arena's steel-frame structural phase—which involved more than 5.3 million pounds of steel—is complete.
"This past year has been full of unprecedented events, not to mention weather challenges, and yet the women and men working on this project continue to deliver," Moody Center General Manager and Senior Vice President Jeff Nickler said in a press release.
To celebrate the topping out Oak View Group, the development and investment firm behind the Moody Center will affix a tree to the final beam in keeping with the time-honored tradition.
The practice dates back to ancient Scandinavian religious rites, which involved placing a tree atop new buildings to appease tree-dwelling spirits displaced during the construction process, according to the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers in Washington D.C.
After the steel-frame structure phase, the development will move on to enclosing and finishing the interior of the Moody Center.
The arena is set to open next April and already has some major acts scheduled for its inaugural year, including The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, John Mayer and The Killers. It will replace the 43-year-old Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center and serve as the home of UT's men's and women's basketball games, among other sports and community events.
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