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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When Molly Foley moved from New York City to Austin for her software job in early March, she says she found her “big Texas glow up.”
She says her apartment near downtown has so much more space. “It’s actually kind of wild. I think I doubled the size of my apartment,” Foley said.
Foley and others are moving to and near downtown in droves. In a new report from ApartmentData.com analyzing market trends over the past three months, the downtown, South Congress and Barton Springs area ranked at the top for hottest submarket.
It's yet another sign of downtown healing from the pandemic when all the fun of living downtown disappeared and the convenience of it stopped applying for many as work from home became the norm. But as people got vaccinated, workers were called back to the office, and dining and nightlife saw a revival, drawing in more renters.
“It was unprecedented. We've never seen anything like that before,” said Cindi Reed, vice president of sales at apartmentdata.com. “Coming out of COVID, there was just a huge shift in people's geography. A lot of people moved into the Sun Belt, and Texas just really got hit hard.”
Foley noticed she’s coming in a while later after the high pace of moves in 2021, but that it’s still cool to be part of the wave of young professionals moving to Austin.
Offices in Austin have the highest occupancy in the nation, according to a recent report, which means downtown is filled with workers that may want to live nearby.
“Tech in New York is also pretty established, but I think what’s kind of exciting about being in Austin is that you notice a lot of new companies being established here, and a lot of companies moving headquarters here and moving entire offices here,” Foley said.
When Foley was on the apartment hunt, some of the qualities that caught her attention included the amenities at her place and the walkability in her area. She’d be content staying there if rent doesn’t go up too high by the time she’s due for a renewal.
The apartment search of today is likely going to require a higher budget than in years past. But some in Austin are able to take that on, especially in the tech industry. Austin is the best-paying city in Texas for software engineers and the median compensation for big tech workers at Google and Meta is in the range of six figures.
Reed said last year saw skyrocketing occupancy and caused rental rates in most Texas markets to grow by over 20%. In Austin, it was 24%. For Class A apartments downtown, that meant rents went from $2,300 a month to almost $2,800 a month on average, Reed said.
Rising rents are a concern shared by many in Austin. And if you’re not into renting, alternative options are scarce. Reed says the apartment demand is linked to low availability in the residential market.
“There’s all these people moving here wanting to buy homes are now becoming renters. So that's, that's also driving our rental rates and our absorption rates up,” Reed said. “So until we can deliver more residential homes and more private communities, we're really in a kind of a deprived state of housing.”
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Kyle City Council approved a $50,000 professional services agreement with Elon Musk's Boring Company to begin work on a potential pedestrian tunnel.
The 12-foot diameter tunnel would connect the Plum Creek subdivision to the Kyle Crossing mixed-use development, which has a second phase with expanded retail and dining.Why it matters: This is the first tunnel approved in Central Texas by The Boring Company, which has also been in talks with Austin and San Antonio.
The Boring Company, which quietly relocated to Pflugerville, was recently in the news for securing the largest venture investment in the Austin area at $675 million.