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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Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on three charges—second- and third-degree murder as well as manslaughter—in the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man whose final moments were recorded by onlookers, sparking a global protest movement over police violence and racial injustice. He faces up to 40 years in prison.
Jurors deliberated for 10 hours over two days after an intense, three-week trial before reaching a verdict Tuesday afternoon, four days shy of the first anniversary of the Austin police killing of Mike Ramos, an unarmed, 42-year-old Black and Hispanic man whose name became a rallying cry—along with Floyd's—for Austin protestors, who marched en masse last summer, prompting some police reforms.
Austin Police Department Officer Christopher Taylor was charged with first-degree murder—an unprecedented charge in Travis County—in the case of Ramos' death on March 10. But Warren Burkley, community outreach director for the Austin Justice Coalition, was measured in his response to the Chauvin verdict. "It's highly visible accountability, so it will give people hope in the system," he told Austonia. "But it's just one innocent life taken. And even in this city, this happens regularly, and it doesn't make national news."
Local elected officials, community leaders and residents also responded to the news as APD officers spent their second day on tactical alert, prepared to respond to any protests or demonstrations, and City Council heard recommendations from a task force on how to reimagine public safety.
Chauvin guilty on three charges!!!!
— Chas Moore (@iGiveYouMoore) April 20, 2021
Full justice would mean that George Floyd was still with us. But today's guilty verdict represents a historic step toward justice and for his family. So important now for the Senate to approve the House George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.https://t.co/9zUOgZYg4L
— Lloyd Doggett (@RepLloydDoggett) April 20, 2021
For the first time we saw accountability in the courts for the murder of an innocent Black person.
Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on camera.
This prosecution is historic. People are feeling temporary relief. This is more than Justice, this is #AccountabilityforGeorgeFloyd. https://t.co/HlBqW7sScx
— Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (@EddieforTexas) April 20, 2021
Many of us have been afraid for days that Derek Chauvin would be found not guilty, despite what the video so clearly showed in broad daylight. The guilty verdict today provides important accountability, but it does not provide real justice. (1/5) ⬇️
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) April 20, 2021
George Floyd's murder led to national protests and calls for the enactment of policing and social justice reforms, including here in Austin. We have made a commitment here to holding police officers accountable and to implementing social justice and policing reforms.
— Mayor Adler | 😷wear a mask. (@MayorAdler) April 20, 2021
Derek Chauvin's conviction is only one step towards providing healing/justice for George Floyd's family + for our nation as a whole. It's up to us to honor Mr. Floyd + the many others lost to police violence by transforming public safety and making our communities safe for all. https://t.co/RVgQmcAf6I pic.twitter.com/hCHLibYjoy
— Council Member Alison Alter (@ALTERforATX) April 20, 2021
No person should be above the law. If you transgress the law you should be held accountability.
Derek Chauvin- GUILTY
— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) April 20, 2021
George Floyd's murder heightened the long-overdue national conversation on systemic racism. Derek Chauvin has been found guilty, but this is just one step on a long road towards racial equity. We must enact significant systemic changes in order to achieve justice.
— Every Texan (@EveryTxn) April 20, 2021
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Californians love Texas, and Austin—with its liberal politics, relatively affordable housing and job opportunities—is particularly adored. In fact, the Lone Star State was the main recipient of departing Californians in 2019, according to the latest available U.S. Census Bureau data.
But other states, including Florida, are seeing increased interest. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has made a name for himself on Twitter recruiting techies and hyping up his city, which has a lot in common with Austin—with the added benefit of a beach and sans the "Don't California my Texas" attitude.
California expats and industry experts say Austin remains the bigger draw for Californians, especially those in the tech sector, but warn that this advantage could shift to Miami if the city doesn't address the policy challenges that prompted the migration in the first place: housing affordability.
"If Austin doesn't accommodate this influx, I think all the talent will come to Miami," said Peter Yared, a tech entrepreneur who moved to Miami from San Francisco in September. "I think Miami's going to be the one that sucks it all up."
Both Texas and Florida promise business-friendly state tax policies, and their governors tout the relocations of companies such as Tesla and Oracle from California. But Darien Shanske, a law professor at the University of California Davis whose specialties include taxation, said this is a red herring because corporate taxes are based on where sales occur rather than headquarter locations.
This is not to say other state policies are irrelevant. "The area in which California regulatory policy has been, in my opinion, not a complete failure but problematic … is housing policy," Shanske said. Austin and Miami can offer "not cheap, just cheaper" housing than what is available in Silicon Valley. Plus, both cities are developing a critical mass of talent, which further draws Californians in. "If you're a software engineer, you want to live near other software engineers," he added.
But not every Californian is motivated to move. "San Francisco is a fantastic place to live if you can afford it," said Brandy Aven, a professor of entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. As a result, it's more common for what she called the labor—engineers, programmers and even company founders—to relocate to cities such as Austin and Miami than the monied venture capitalists. Burgeoning tech cities may find that they need to develop homegrown investor networks to support local ventures in the absence of Californian transplants, but she believes this is doable.
Paul O'Brien, CEO of the Austin-based MediaTech Ventures and a startup veteran, moved to Austin from California in 2009, during the Great Recession. "I'm a firm believer that the world has been seeking an alternative to Silicon Valley for a long time," he said, pointing to Austin as the natural heir for myriad reasons.
Austin has regional appeal as the epicenter of three of the country's largest cities—Houston, Dallas and San Antonio—and their respective industry niches. Tech entrepreneurs could cater to the local consumer goods industry or Houston's oil and gas sector. Plus the city has cultural appeal, thanks to the Red River District and South by Southwest, which made it attractive to job seekers. "The whole reason everyone moved to Silicon Valley is opportunity," O'Brien said. "The whole reason people are now looking beyond Silicon Valley to somewhere else is opportunity."
It's less clear what Miami's key industries are, O'Brien said, but the city offers other selling points, including the mayor's buy-in and "a tremendous depth of wealth" to support a technology and startup ecosystem.
Although Yared didn't consider moving to Austin, he is aware of its appeal to engineers, especially now that their hero, Elon Musk, has moved there, shunning California. "Austin has a lock on tech," he said, but Miami draws a different crowd, including financiers from New York. This parallel migration, coupled with the city's more outwardly pro-growth building policies, gives him hope that Miami could supplant Austin in the coming years. "In the end, communities get to choose what they want," he said.
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In the days after Austin FC's inaugural match against LAFC on Saturday, Head Coach Josh Wolff says he's watched the game "a number of times, to say the least."
In the match, Wolff and over 500,000 other viewers looked on as Austin FC took to the pitch for the first time, held their own in the first half against LAFC and eventually fell 2-0 to a team that's sometimes regarded as the best in the league.
Austin FC had the largest television audience of any soccer match in the U.S. over the weekend, surpassing even the USWNT. In a showcase of the club's dedicated fan base, dozens of Los Verdes fans were spotted in green and black around the stadium—even with the match limited to 20% capacity.
Salute the support. 👏
It's only the beginning for @AustinFC. pic.twitter.com/TduorqYr2y
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
While the team lost their first-ever match, they didn't make it as easy as some expected.
Wolff said that the team did relatively well offensively, holding possession for 48% of the match and keeping a solid passing game. Once they got to the box, however, Wolff said they could use some work on creating scoring opportunities.
"We saw a lot of good connections, good spacing (and) good speed of passing," Wolff said. "I think we can obviously have more presence centrally to have more numbers in between lines. I just want us to create more chances. There's a lot on both sides of the ball that we still need to work on."
LA pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense wasn't initially as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Later on, however, the team gave up some goals and seemed to struggle with endurance. Wolff said the backline did "okay" and that the club, including young center back Jhohan Romana, are still getting conditioned to play a full match.
"It's a lot of information for a young player," Wolff said. "I think as he fatigues then the decision making, as with most players, becomes a little bit more cloudy and then thus the execution becomes cloudy."
An honor to represent this city and y'all. We're just getting started. 💚🖤 pic.twitter.com/tmOqCfbXvs
— Austin FC (@AustinFC) April 18, 2021
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver had his work cut out for him, fending off 24 shot attempts, 11 of which were on goal.
Going into the match, Stuver and fellow goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell were neck-and-neck, with both labeled potential starters. However, it was Stuver, who many thought signed as a backup, that wore the goalkeeper's jersey on the field for the first time.
"I think both Andrew and Brad did relatively well in preseason, but we decided with Brad just based on how we felt preseason went," Wolff said. "I thought he performed pretty well to be honest. I think he and Andrew are similar in some aspects... it's being mindful of where their strengths and weaknesses are."
Five starters made their MLS debut in the match, including midfielder Daniel Pereira and forward Rodney Redes. While Wolff said Pereira held his own in the match, he saw a weak spot in the team's right side, making it difficult for Redes to make offensive plays.
"For Pereira, I think it was a solid day for a young kid coming in his first MLS game against that opponent," Wolff said. "Obviously there's there's a different physicality to MLS and I think those are things that all these guys are going to acclimatize to.
Now, the club looks to put the ball in the back of the net for the first time as they head to Colorado. Austin FC will face the Colorado Rapids at 8 p.m.on Saturday. The match will stream on the Austin FC app and be broadcast on the CW Austin. Austonia will keep an eye out for potential weekend watch parties.
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