When the world’s most famous groundhog declared six more weeks of winter Wednesday morning, Austin residents may have tuned in a little more closely as they gear up for an all-too-familiar February winter storm.
Just under a year after Winter Storm Uri shut down much of the state’s power grid, left thousands of Austinites without water and forced many of the city’s most vulnerable populations into unsafe situations, a new “very strong arctic cold front” is expected to hit Austin once more early Thursday morning. Temperatures are expected to plummet below freezing early Thursday morning and stay there through Friday afternoon with freezing rain translating to a quarter-inch of ice.
Though the outlook isn’t as dire as it was last year, many Austin-area residents, including Lindsay Ballard, experienced an unwelcome déjà vu as they tuned in to the week’s forecast.
Seniors made up a majority of Travis County’s 28 winter storm deaths, a fact Ballard almost saw firsthand as she brought emergency relief to residents at Cambridge Villas Senior Living Center. The complex had been without running water or wellness checks for six days, leading to food, insulin and more necessities spoiling.
“The residents I was able to keep up with have moved out of that particular housing into better situations,” Ballard told Austonia. “I’m still concerned for all of the seniors in the storm, though, and I hope it will be as mild and short-lived as the meteorologists are predicting. I’ll be ready to jump in and help if needed.”
Neighbors rallied around the nursing home, providing food in the aftermath of the storm. (Jack Morgan)
Meanwhile, other Austinites are applying the lessons they learned last year to their approach this year.
Jessica Tremblay, a North Austin resident, was in the middle of covering her plants when she spoke with Austonia about the steps she took to get ahead of the cold snap this year. To ensure she would have everything she needed for herself and her two senior cats, she stocked up on nonperishables, firewood and water well before Austinites started panic-rushing grocery stores.
Tremblay said her anxiety didn’t set in until she got a text alert warning of winter weather on Wednesday morning.
“The PTSD and anxiety honestly didn't really set in for me until I got that text this morning from the City of Austin,” Tremblay said. “I really just don't want to have to go through that whole thing ever again.”
Though she loves Texas, Tremblay said if the whole thing were to happen all over again, it would be the linchpin that causes her to move.
"We were almost at 100% total grid failure last year and it just won't take a superstorm to honestly get us to that point again," Tremblay said.
Jessica Trembay spent almost three hours covering her plants outside her home. (Jessica Trembay)
Lifelong Austinite Onesims Banda, who moved to Kentucky last year, said he’s not sure he’ll come back to Texas after the state failed to care for its most vulnerable residents—especially minorities and low-income families—during the winter storm. After living in East Austin, Banda said this wouldn’t be the only time the region had been overlooked.
Due to his home’s proximity to a fire station, Banda’s family experienced minimal power outages. However, it was still far from a pleasant experience: Banda and his wife both caught the flu, still had to care for their two young children and the family’s water supply was in and out.
“The kids, of course were happy about the snow, but what they didn't know and what they couldn't see was how it was affecting everybody across the state,” Banda said. “The fact that our power didn’t go out probably saved our lives.”
While 52% of the 28 killed in Travis County due to the winter storm were white, some populations, including Black residents, seemed to be disproportionately affected. Minorities were more than four times more likely to experience blackouts in Texas when compared to predominantly white neighborhoods, a facet of life that Banda, a teacher, sees affecting his students.
“It sucks when you’re a teacher and you’re speaking to your kids... Who the hell do you call because the government dropped the ball?”
Gov. Greg Abbott, who caught flack for the power grid failure, said blackouts are very unlikely this week, although he said “no one can guarantee that there won’t be a load shed event,” or rolling blackout, in a Monday press conference. The biggest concern instead lies in power outages caused by ice or fallen trees disrupting power lines.For local emergency alerts, click here, and click here for Austonia’s guide to wintry weather.
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Austin's weather has kept residents on their toes since Winter Storm Uri swept through town—leaving millions of Texans without power—and nearly a year later, temperatures are poised to dip to under 20 degrees on Thursday.
The city has been put under a Winter Weather Watch as "a very strong arctic cold front" is expected to bring temperatures from a balmy 71 degrees on Wednesday to a harsh 19 degrees on Thursday morning.
No big changes to the ongoing forecast for Wednesday night and Thursday's Winter Weather event and VERY cold air coming to end the week. Winter Storm Watch remains in effect for the Edwards Plateau, Hill Country, and Austin Metro. pic.twitter.com/CgVLdy9rOo
— NWS Austin/San Antonio (@NWSSanAntonio) February 1, 2022
Currently, up to a quarter-inch of ice is in the forecast, meaning there are some things you'll need to ready for to stay safe. It's time to dust off all that winter safety knowledge you learned last year—here's what to do when the thermometer drops.
Know how to get real-time info
- Sign up for Warn Central Texas to get emergency alerts from your neighborhood via text, email or phone.
- Accessible alerts for those who are blind, deaf or hard of hearing are available through AHAS.
- Bookmark the City's Active Emergency Information Hub, which will post real-time updates in the event of an emergency.
- Text ATXWEATHER to 888-777 for updates in English or ATXCLIMA to 888-777 for updates in Spanish.
- Follow city and public safety agencies on social media.
Before freezing temperatures
Austin's Ready Central Texas campaign recommends having a plan for your household in the event of a crisis, getting to know your neighbors, signing up for emergency alerts, and building a kit of emergency supplies like food, water, first aid, essentials and pet's needs that would last for up to seven days.
Pipes are prone to expansion and breakage during freezing weather so before it gets too cold, wrap all exposed pipes outdoors with heat tape, rags or towels. Make sure to bring in your garden hose or disconnect it from the faucet and if you have vents on the foundation of your home, cover those as well. If available, locate your property owner's cut-off valve and familiarize yourself with it.
During freezing or sub-freezing temperatures
Follow the four Ps:
- Check on vulnerable people
- Bring pets inside
- Cover plants
- Insulate outdoor pipes and faucets
During times when temperatures are expected to be 28 degrees or lower for more than four hours, keep outside faucets dripping slowly. In prolonged freezing weather, it may be necessary to let inside faucets drip slowly as well. Be sure to turn off faucets when temperatures rise above 28 degrees.
If you have any sinks that are attached to outside walls, leave cabinet doors ajar and wrap the pipes. If your garage is not heated, consider cutting off water to washing machines.
Change the direction of your ceiling fan to clockwise—it will circulate warm air—but keep your thermostat relatively low. Keeping your thermostat between 65-70 degrees will keep your pipes warm enough not to freeze and save energy.
When you go outside
Layers are your best friend in cold weather. Make sure your base layer is a wicking fabric like cotton, merino wool or polyester. The middle layer will retain heat and keep you insulated, so opt for something like fleece—the rule of thumb is that it should be thicker than your base layer. Finally, your outer shell can range from a windbreaker to a ski coat, but it should keep you safe from wind.
Most importantly, make sure your head, hands and feet are covered, as they lose heat the fastest.
To protect your plants
Bring all your potted plants inside, if possible. For outside plants, add a thick layer of mulch to the top to keep the roots insulated. Cover small plants with a cloche—or a dome-shaped object—to keep plants warm. For beds, use a tarp to cover the entire area.
To protect your pets
Once the weather gets below freezing temperatures, keep your pets inside for the majority of the time. If you have a short-haired dog, give it a cute sweater to wear while you walk them and be sure to clean their paws when you come inside, as they may have picked up salt or ice-melting chemicals that can irritate their skin.
Stay warm, Austin!
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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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