On the second night of Storm Uri’s landfall in central Texas in February 2021, I could see downtown Austin’s lights ablaze from the highest point of my neighborhood on the other side of I-35, the highway that runs north and south along the eastern edge of the city center.1 On the side of the divide that I stood on in the historically redlined neighborhoods of East Austin, the power had gone out.2 As infrastructure collapsed for most of Austin, people had to figure out how to slow the inevitable damage to their homes: it got so cold for so long that the pipes froze. Who would bother to insulate in a city that spends most of the year trying to shed heat? 

The threat of COVID-19’s spread prevented households from joining together to share heat and food and resources. Rather than risk walking to warming stations or shelters, mothers suffocated in their cars with their babies as they ran the engines for heat; others managed to secure hotel rooms at inflated costs; still more huddled in designated “warm rooms” within their homes and hoped for the best. Members of Austin’s unhoused community, which had visibly ballooned since March 2020, were ushered into warming centers, if they were willing to go, though many chose to stay with their belongings for as long as they could. The conditions of the pandemic, under which hesitancy around proximity to others became exacerbated across socioeconomic lines, shaped disaster relief mobility: people reorganized in space around multiple safety concerns, including aqueous, thermal, and viral threats. 

The acute conditions of extreme cold posed a very different set of challenges, however, from those that were to come as temperatures rose again and the city thawed. Frozen water pipes that had burst now emptied out, streaming down walls, onto bathroom floors, and into basements. Water heaters, placed on the exterior of buildings, exploded. The city’s water table plummeted as everything drained out, and those who had evacuated their homes weren’t around to manually shut off the city valves. Austin Water, the city’s public utility provider, was overwhelmed by the “tens of thousands of private infrastructure failures” that strained the public system as it ran at two and a half times normal usage, eventually forcing a water outage.3 First, the city released a boil-tap-water notice for some South Austin neighborhoods serviced by the Ulrich Water Treatment Plant, which had lost power; a day later, the notice went citywide. For those who had been living without power, or those whose pipes had burst, this posed additional challenges for access to basic needs in the days that followed: a final, weary challenge after multiple failures of governance and infrastructure to prepare for Uri’s arrival.4 In fact, Austin city audit reports detailing emergency management showed that only 12 percent of recommendations for disaster preparedness and community resilience following the 2018 Colorado River flooding event had been implemented, including adequate notification to residents about widespread power and water outages.5

In the aftermath of the storm, as people took stock of what they had lost, or were lucky not to have lost, the disproportionate impact on communities of color across Texas, in Austin, and in historically Black and Latinx neighborhoods within the capital city became clear on several fronts. Those living in older homes with less insulation; those reliant on public transportation; those in multigenerational households; those with a higher likelihood of having chronic health issues; those living in historically redlined neighborhoods with fewer medical emergency facilities—all experienced vastly different capacities for resilience set out by the social and political geographies of the city. In this instance, water marked those capacities for resilience as it froze, flooded, disappeared from, and grew toxic in Texas homes during one of the most disastrous storms ever to have hit the state.6 Extreme weather amid a climate crisis must no longer be treated as unusual or unexpected, but rather a condition of our time that water policy must urgently address.

  1. Texas Tribune Staff, “Texas Power Outages: Nearly Half the State Experiencing Water Disruptions as Power Grid Operator Says It’s Making Progress,” Texas Tribune, February 18, 2021, https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/18/texas-winter-storm-power-outage-ercot ↩︎
  2. Redlining refers to a New Deal-era policy that classified neighborhoods by estimated mortgage-loan risk and industrial-use zoning. In Austin, city services for Black residents were consolidated in the East Side in 1928, along with waste-treatment facilities. See Eliot M. Tretter and Moulay Anwar Sounny-Slitine, Austin Restricted: Progressivism, Zoning, Private Racial Covenants, and the Making of a Segregated City (Austin, TX: [Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, 2012); and Cecilia Ballí, “What Nobody Says About Austin,” Texas Monthly, February 2013, https://www.texasmonthly.com/news-politics/what-nobody-says-about-austin ↩︎
  3. Jonathan Lee, “Austin Water Responds to ‘Demoralizing’ Water Outages,” Austin Monitor, March 4, 2021, https://www.austinmonitor.com/stories/2021/03/austin-water-responds-to-demoralizing-water-outages ↩︎
  4. Joshua W. Busby, et al., “Cascading Risks: Understanding the 2021 Winter Blackout in Texas,” Energy Research & Social Science 77, no. 1 (July 2021): 1–-10, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2021.102106 ↩︎
  5. City of Austin, Office of the City Auditor, Disaster Preparedness: The City Was Unprepared to Respond to Winter Storm Uri (Austin, TX: City of Austin, 2020):, 10–-15, https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Auditor/Audit_Reports/Disaster_Preparedness_November_2021.pdf ↩︎
  6. Amal Ahmed, “Why Texas Wasn’t Prepared for Winter Storm Uri,” Texas Observer, 22 February 22, 2021, https://www.texasobserver.org/why-texas-wasnt-prepared-for-winter-storm-uri ↩︎