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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Austin is in for an early start to what is threatening to be an unseasonably hot summer.
So far, this month has been the hottest May on record with Camp Mabry reporting an average temperature of 82 degrees, compared to the National Weather Service’s recorded average of 74 degrees from May 1-10.
Austin has been an average of 8 degrees hotter than normal this month—the hottest May since 1898. NWS meteorologist Keith White told Austonia that Austinites have La Niña to thank for this sweaty summer.
What is causing the heatwave?
A phenomenon characterized by cooling waters across the central and eastern pacific oceans, La Niña tends to cause cooler and wetter conditions in the northern U.S. but warmer and drier conditions across Central Texas. We would typically be on our way out of La Niña at this time of year, according to White, but the heat can be turned around with a little rain.
White explained that the sun is able to heat dry ground—due to the drought and La Niña—more efficiently than wet ground. West Austinites might be feeling more of the heat, as the drought has been worse west of town.
Austin is entering its rainy season, which tends to fall between May and October. The last 30 days have seen about 2-4 inches of rain, which is just a touch below average, but White said the end of May is looking rainy, which could quell the heat.
“There will be some dependency on if we're able to pick up some more beneficial rains here,” White said. “While at least over the course of the next week it looks likely to remain dry, there may be some rain chances returning toward the end of May.”
Does a record-breaking May mean a record-breaking summer?
Not necessarily, though in part due to climate change, all of the top five hottest summers have been recorded since 2008 with the hottest to date in 2011. Meanwhile, 2021 was only the 38th hottest summer on record.
White said that means climate variability is superimposed against climate change, meaning temperatures are gradually rising, but the amount of rain we receive could make a huge difference.
While 2011 saw more than 90 100-degree days, 2021 only saw 12 100-degree days.
“As our climate warms, the risk of excessive heat will increase because you're taking the average temperature and moving it up,” White said.
How to stay safe and cool
With rising temperatures, there is always a risk of heat-related illness. In fact, White said last weekend there were 29 heat-related illness calls to Austin EMS.
The best way to avoid getting sick in the hot Texas summer is to wear light clothing, drink lots of water, take breaks in air-conditioned areas and familiarize yourself with symptoms of hyperthermia.
And prepare yourself for the first half of August, which is traditionally the hottest time of year.
Corey Corleon was on a late-night scooter ride heading to Liberty on East Sixth Street about a month ago. He’d had a couple of beers earlier but says he didn’t feel buzzed and was riding in the bike lane. After that, his memory of the night ends, but witnesses saw a white truck hit him and then drive off.
As a result of the crash, there was bleeding in his brain and he sustained four broken ribs. He was rushed to the hospital where he was unconscious for 16 hours. A nurse who treated him said they weren’t sure if he was going to stay alive. But after a week, Corleon was well enough to take on his recovery from home.
“I had to sleep on my side, but that’s dissipating now,” Corleon told Austonia. “I’m pretty much getting back to as normal as you can, but oh my god—four broken ribs. I mean, your ribs have every movement of your body."
Lately, scooter crashes in Austin have caused serious injuries and some fatalities. Local graffiti artist Adam Gaconnet died scootering home from work late last month, and on Monday another died and two were injured in separate scooter crashes downtown.
E-scooters first came to Austin in April 2018. Shortly after, the Austin Public Health Department, with assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carried out a study on scooter injuries and found that 16% of the injured riders from September to November 2018 had a crash that involved a motorized vehicle.
Also during the early days of Austin’s scooter craze, Austin-Travis County EMS reported an average of about two scooter-related calls a day. Injuries ranged from minor to critical life-threatening, with the majority of critical ones being head injuries. The top points around scooter safety include helmet wearing, being cautious of terrain and using bike lanes where available.
Shortly after scooters started spiking in popularity years ago, the National Association of City Transportation Officials released guidelines for shared bikes and scooters. It included points on safety provisions and infrastructure investments such as device parking options in the form of on-street corrals and docking points, as well as guidance on safe places to ride.
But some don't think the city has gone far enough to address scooters, calling for more ordinances surrounding scooter operations and complaining of scooters blocking sidewalk access throughout Austin—not just in popular areas for scooter riding like in downtown and the University of Texas campus. In Austin, it's law that micro-mobility devices must not impede or obstruct pedestrian traffic on sidewalk paths.
Map of routes where shared micromobility is used.
Still, ridership holds steady. In the first three months of the year, Austin reported an average of 7,853 scooter rides a day with a median trip duration of eight minutes. Active micro-mobility operators in Austin include Bird, Lime and others.
Corleon says he doesn’t blame the company of the scooter he was on or the city.
“I think it can be a driver of a car being stupid, or it can be the people on the scooters being stupid. So I don't blame the scooter. And I don't blame the city,” Corleon said. “That scooter ran fine. It did what it was supposed to do. So me getting hit by somebody, it's not anyone's fault but that person driving that car.”
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