Brooke Ashfield ’23
In the aftermath of violent winter storms across Texas, the articles, conversations, and social media representations have stalled out. With temperatures rising and power grids functioning once again, the nation turns its head with satisfaction for the end of the storm. Yet, as we all look away, the story is far from over for the disproportionately impacted minority and low-income communities trudging through the remains of a debilitating week.
Extreme weather is threatening to the residents of any community across the nation, so why is it that predominately white communities get hit last, and suffer for the least amount of time? As freezing temperatures seemed never-ending across the state of Texas, many were going to extreme, even dangerous, ways of staying warm. It is easy to diminish the severity of living without power in a winter storm, but the reality of survival without heat in below zero temperatures is something we all must try to comprehend as we acknowledge the struggle in Texas. An unfortunately large number of lives were lost during the historic storm, including those who passed from hypothermia, house fires, and carbon monoxide poisonings emitted by generators or vehicles. Formal warnings went out to prevent residents from using such life-threatening methods of warmth, but after days of freezing, many were desperate. Infrastructure unprepared for the weather failed completely, leaving households without water, hospitals unable to help their patients, and breaking down schools in the process. This storm shed light on the pre-existing issues with infrastructure in marginalized communities and now it is too late to appropriately address it, as lives have already been lost. It is worth mentioning, along with infrastructure issues, that such communities are more likely to hold hazardous facilities that, when unregulated due to the storm and power outages, leave a higher risk for families to come in contact with pollution.
When the rolling blackouts began in an attempt to bring balance to the supply and demand for power, they disproportionately left marginalized communities in darkness and the cold for longer periods of time than higher-class, predominately white, communities. The blackouts left people out of work and unable to get food and supplies. Food banks and shelters, which are ever more necessary throughout the pandemic, were continuously closed and unable to offer help to these vulnerable communities. The events of last week left people in desperate and unlivable conditions for unnecessarily long periods of time.
The aftermath of the historical storm leaves a horrid scene. Individuals who bring in the primary income within their families must face rent and bill payments after over a week of no work. These payments will include the increased cost of electric bills that follows the stress on the demand for electricity. Entire communities are screaming for failed infrastructure to be addressed immediately; their voices shadowed behind a herd of turning heads. Families within marginalized communities are less likely to have the ability to take precautions like obtaining renter’s or flood insurance and will have to face the destruction of their homes without it. Grocery stores in these areas are struggling to restock their shelves to provide food and resources. Safe drinking water is at a shortage in many of these areas across Texas, leaving families with boil warnings and uncertainty towards their basic necessities. Fortunately for the state, there are systems in place that grant federal funding to areas experiencing disaster, yet, even these funds have historically been disproportionately distributed. Marginalized communities were already unequally affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and now in Texas they are struggling to recover from this disaster as well. Although the entire state suffered greatly from the storm, families of color in low-income areas will have a longer road to recovering from this disaster, and it is our job, as a nation, to care and pay attention.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey swept over Houston, Texas, leaving marginalized communities in disaster. Even at this time, such communities struggled to get back on their feet for far longer than those non-vulnerable. At this time, affluent communities received unequal benefits from federal disaster relief funding. We have seen the extended recovery of environmental justice sites across the US, including Houston after Harvey and Flint, Michigan with the Flint water crisis. Time and time again, the systemic bias and racism within our nation has left marginalized communities at risk, and it is time we learn from past disasters.
Together, we need to continue paying attention, even when the storm has passed. It has become ever more obvious that the effects of disaster will linger in these communities for longer than we would like to acknowledge. Environmental Justice is an ever-growing topic of importance in the nation, and now is the time to open our eyes and create change.