Winter Storm Uri’s Impacts on Houston Neighborhoods Show Why It’s Urgent to Build Equity into Climate Resilience
The increasing regularity of “once in a lifetime” disasters raises questions not only about the effectiveness of state and federal hazard mitigation policies but about which communities continue to bear the brunt of disasters. Winter Storm Uri, which left significant damage across Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Texas in February, showed how preexisting vulnerabilities and recurring climate catastrophes that exacerbate inequities can compound trauma.
Texans were especially hard hit by Winter Storm Uri, with more than 4 million people losing power between February 14 and 15 and 12 million people experiencing water disruptions. The storm resulted in at least 58 weather-related fatalities across affected states, extended road closures, mass food supply chain disruption, and unmet basic needs for millions of people.
The storm’s impacts on Houston neighborhoods highlight three key lessons that can inform policymakers’ plans for an equitable recovery and improved climate resilience.
1. Focus on systemically excluded communities first
Natural disasters, such as floods, droughts, wildfires, earthquakes, and hurricanes, will continue disrupting people’s day-to-day lives. Often, the highest death toll in these disasters comes not from the storm but from both preexisting infrastructure disinvestment and a lack of government coordination that leave families without resources for days following disaster. That’s why recovery efforts should start with the communities most likely to live in substandard conditions.
Using Houston’s housing code violation data as a proxy for substandard housing conditions, we found a strong correlation between the number of building code violations in a neighborhood (normalized by population) and the share of residents who are Black or living in poverty.
Overall, high-poverty and predominantly Black neighborhoods in Houston had significantly more building code violations and thus experienced higher-than-average exposure to unsafe housing even before Winter Storm Uri. Coupled with natural disasters, substandard housing conditions can result in preventable deaths, like that of 11-year-old Cristian Pavón Pineda, who lived in an unheated mobile home in Houston.
Since 1990, concentrated poverty has increased in Harris County (where Houston is located) in neighborhoods such as Near Northside, Fifth Ward, and Third Ward, as well as in surrounding suburbs like Gulfton and Baytown. This concentration, cemented in part by residential segregation, has resulted in people of color, renters, and people with low incomes being less likely to live in “critical infrastructure” areas where power outages are less likely to occur.
Persistent disparities in economic, health, environmental, and housing outcomes for Black and/or Latinx people, renters, and residents with low incomes—who primarily live outside the “Houston arrow”—must be front of mind when rethinking climate resilience investment.
2. Don’t let vulnerable households suffer repeatedly
After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Black and Latinx households were more likely to experience difficulty getting access to city services (PDF). Neighborhoods with a higher share of households affected by Hurricane Harvey also saw a statistically higher share of power outages.
Using data on outages in Harris County from CenterPoint Energy (the county’s primary electricity provider), we calculated outage rates by neighborhood starting on February 17 (Winter Storm Uri outages started February 14 and 15). On average, 33 percent of households in each neighborhood did not have power on February 17. In neighborhoods with above average outage rates on February 17, 16.8 percent of households had been affected by Hurricane Harvey, compared with 10.5 percent of households overall in Harris County.
Housing vulnerability (represented by building code violation rates) and the share of households affected by Hurricane Harvey are also strongly correlated. That means neighborhoods with greater preexisting housing inequities see such inequities exacerbated and replicated by disasters, leaving them to bear the brunt of catastrophes and the ensuing road to recovery.
3. Invest in mitigation and preparedness across infrastructure areas, from utilities to housing
Unlike during past disasters in Texas, the electrical grid and utility infrastructure played significant roles during Winter Storm Uri, exacerbating the storm’s impacts. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit that operates Texas's electrical grid, has a history of evading regulations to maximize profit and ignoring reports on the urgency of winterizing its energy infrastructure (PDF), leading to Winter Storm Uri being one of the largest shortfalls in energy supply in modern US history. Climate resilience for Texas begins with weatherizing the energy grid to better sustain extreme cold or flood damage.
During Winter Storm Uri, grid failure resulted in some residents experiencing longer power outages than others. Though more than 99 percent Harris County households had their power restored by February 19, neighborhoods with more renters were most likely to still have power outages then. Though 55 percent of householders are occupied by owners in Harris County, 40 percent of neighborhoods with more than 1 percent of residents facing power outages on February 19 were occupied by renters.
Texas’s relief payments and infrastructure damage expenses are expected to exceed $125 billion, the costliest damage recorded in the state’s history, making even clearer the benefits of increased investment by state and federal governments in hazard mitigation. Though President Biden already approved an emergency declaration that mobilizes Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds and assistance to help Texas communities cover housing repair costs, Texans need proactive policies. Expanding flexible investments for hazard mitigation, like FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, would be a step in the right direction. Other buffers, like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Weatherization Assistance Program, can also play critical roles in a resilient energy system.
Truly addressing systemic disparities in access to quality housing in Texas requires reimagining how infrastructure investment can achieve equitable outcomes. Potential first steps could be creating more affordable rental housing at higher energy-efficiency codes and weatherizing and retrofitting all residences regardless of housing tenure, which would reduce the higher energy burdens paid by residents with low incomes. Overall, infrastructure investment must be expanded to include housing investment and to address substandard housing and housing affordability challenges (PDF) for communities who have been disenfranchised and repeatedly affected by climate disasters.
An earlier version of this post said Black and/or Latinx people, renters, and residents with low incomes primarily live within the Houston arrow. They primarily live outside the Houston arrow (corrected 3/11/21).
A light is seen from a house in Waco, Texas, as severe winter weather conditions over the last few days has forced road closures and power outages over the state on February 17, 2021. Millions of people were still without power on February 17 in Texas, the oil and gas capital of the United States, and facing water shortages as an unusual winter storm pummeled the southeastern part of country. The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for a swathe of the country ranging from east Texas to Maryland. (Photo by MATTHEW BUSCH/AFP via Getty Images)