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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In May, Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein looked back on 10 years of Formula 1's U.S. Grand Prix at COTA confident that the race would be here to stay in Texas. But sources tell Austonia that securing another contract may be in jeopardy.
Some insiders worry that COTA's 2021 Grand Prix race might be its last.
The multi-day fest from Oct. 22-24 will include a 56-lap race over the 3.3-mile track, food and musical performances from two acts, including Billy Joel at COTA's 1,500-acre facility in Southeast Austin. But after this year, the U.S.' first F1-specific track could lose its headline event.
The facility's inability to secure a contract thus far comes down to the Texas Legislature, a new threat in Miami, and, most importantly, money.
The first F 1 race will take place in Miami next year. (Hard Rock Stadium)
Every year, Formula 1 receives roughly $25 million from Texas' Major Events Reimbursement Program, a taxpayer-funded initiative that helps bring big sporting events like 2017's Houston Super Bowl to the state. A 2019 report by the Reimbursements Program on that year's race said the "data is inconclusive" on if the event has a positive or negative economic impact on the state with the resources given. In 2018, the Austin-American Statesman reported that COTA had brought back a total of $75.7 million between 2015 and 2017 for hosting the U.S. Grand Prix.
Legal issues have also barred Epstein and Co. from securing another 10-year contract earlier: in 2018, the company lost its yearly $25 million bid after failing to submit a human trafficking prevention plan as part of its yearly application.
That same year, F1 managing director of commercial operations Sean Bratches told the Associated Press that the organization hopes to stay at COTA "for many years to come."
However, in May, the racing league announced that it had secured a 10-year contract to hold the Miami Grand Prix as American interest in the sport soared following the three-season "Drive to Survive" documentary, which gives behind-the-scenes looks at drivers and races of the Formula One World Championship.
Epstein is optimistic about the new U.S. location and told Autoweek in May that "more race in our time zones are good for the sport."
"I think we're getting double the impact this way," Epstein said. "Miami should sell out huge the first year and maybe the second year and then after that, I think we'd be spitting audience if we were around the same time on the calendar. So the spread is fantastic."
Bobby Epstein recognizes the 1 millionth customer of COTA in 2013. (COTA/Facebook)
The new F1 venture may impact COTA's contract, however: in an opinion piece for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, writer Mac Engel said Texas is unlikely to fork over taxpayer money if the facility is no longer the only F1 track in the U.S.
According to Engel, the Major Events Reimbursements Program agrees to provide funding only "if Austin holds the only F1 race in the country."
Epstein hasn't addressed such claims; by contrast, he feels as though there's room for a third race in the U.S. as ticket sales rebound after COVID.
"In the first week, we sold pretty much all the tickets we put up for sale and we plan to break the 2019 attendance record," Epstein told Autoweek. "Texas was the first place to lift COVID-19 restrictions (in the U.S.) and put on sporting events, and we're full. We're at 100% capacity.
Despite ventures to diversify revenue at COTA—Epstein's USL soccer team Austin Bold has seen its own share of troubles, and the facility plans to develop into a multi-faceted entertainment arena complete with music venues, a waterpark, condominiums and an 11-story hotel—a loss of its primary event could be devastating for the $300 million complex.
F1 has rarely lasted more than a decade at venues in the U.S. over the last century; let's hope Austin breaks that curse.
COTA's media relations team did not immediately get back to Austonia for comment.
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Houston? Dallas? San Antonio? No, it has to be Austin.
We know Californians love Texas, but a recent string of posts on neighborhood platform Nextdoor in Santa Barbara, California, displays what the craze to move to Austin looks like.
When one user posted, "Hi neighbors, I want to buy a house in Houston, Texas any recommendations?" the responses flooded in displaying what the admiration for Austin looks like from the West Coast. Users mostly advised against a move to Houston; one person even wrote, "Austin is the ONLY place to consider!!"
While some defended H-town, saying, "Awesome place to live," one person wrote, "WORST PLACE TO LIVE." Reasons to not move to Houston from Californians' perspective included:
- "Foul air from refineries"
- "horrible flooding due to the flat Gulf coastal shelf"
- "crazy zoning"
- "racial prejudice"
- "super high humidity"
- "very conservative"
The comments were shifted to Austin's lush greenery, weather and acceptance of gay people.
Over the last five years, Austin has seen more migrants from California than any other state, according to an Austin Chamber of Commerce report. The Austin appeal from residents living in more congested places like California became more prevalent during the pandemic when stay-at-home orders were issued and people sought more space.
It wasn't just Austin though; lots of other Sunbelt cities saw an influx in their housing market as a result of people working from home and looking for a lower cost of living. And that included Texas in general, with people flooding to various Texas cities.
But it hasn't come with resistance. The "Don't California my Texas" pleas are still alive and well, as Californians are blamed for raising the cost of living by outpricing current residents. The housing market has reached record numbers in the median home price year-over-year since the beginning of the pandemic. Austin was even predicted to be the most expensive city outside of California by the end of the year.
Still, Californians and even New Yorkers can't stay away. Companies and celebrities have followed, leading Texas transplant Elon Musk to label Austin's future as "the biggest boomtown that America has seen in half a century."