Disaster Response and Equity: Reflecting on the Racial Disparities in Texas Power Outages

This February marked two years since Texans were hit with widespread power outages during the deep freeze of 2021. The state’s energy supply chain was unable to withstand the sustained low temperatures, as generation resources were strained due to cold weather tripping units, natural gas supply curtailments, and wind power generation outages. The weeks-long outages disproportionately affected communities of color, highlighting a need for the prioritization of these communities through direct investment and focused attention from local and state governments in coordination with utility providers.

Approximately 70% of Texans lost electrical power at some point between February 14th and 20th, for an average of 31 consecutive hours and 42 hours over the course of the week. A total of 246 storm-related deaths were reported, of which 65.4% were confirmed to be related to extreme cold exposure (hypothermia and frostbite). Other deaths were caused by exacerbation of chronic illness (10%),  motor vehicle accidents (8.9%), carbon monoxide poisoning (7.7%), fire (4.1%), and falls (3.7%). The Texas blackouts starting on February 13th were among the 26 documented weather-induced major power outages reported by the DOE across the U.S. in just the first two months of 2021.

Disasters often take a disproportionate toll on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), who are exposed directly and indirectly to conditions that increase risk while also being less likely to receive adequate assistance post-disasters. For example, studies have shown that BIPOC communities face longer and more frequent outages, are less prepared and are less likely to be able to evacuate during disasters and prolonged power outages. The Texas outages were no exception.

A study from researchers at Columbia University and Stanford University showed that being Black or African American was associated with 1.7x higher odds of experiencing an outage for at least 24 consecutive hours compared to White or Caucasian households.

Similarly, a study published by the Rockefeller Foundation found that areas with a high ‘minority’ population share were more than four times as likely to suffer a blackout compared to predominantly White areas. More specifically, the study found that 47% of the population in ‘high minority’ share areas suffered a blackout compared to about 10-11% in predominantly White areas.

The study found that the role of the income level of the area or the proximity to ‘critical infrastructure’ was not significant enough to explain the disparity among neighborhoods. Rather, the area’s share of minorities was shown to be more strongly associated with suffering a blackout, than differences in income level.  

Figure 1: Percentage of population experiencing blackouts among the least minority, medium-minority, and highest-minority quintiles in the poorest, medium-income, and wealthiest quintiles across Texas during the winter storms of February 14-18, 2021.
The highest minority areas were the most likely to suffer blackouts.

In addition to losing heat and electricity, power outages also led to interruptions in other lifelines such as access to running water. A University of Houston report study found that 49% of Texans lost access to running water (for an average of 52 hours), 75% had difficulty obtaining food or groceries, 71% lost internet service and 63% faced difficulty obtaining bottled water. Among those who remained in their home without power, many adopted unsafe coping strategies, in particular low-income families, desperate to stay warm. More specifically, 26% used their gas oven or cooktop as a source of heat, and in spite of the risk of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, 8% used a grill or smoker indoors, and 5% used an outdoor propane heater indoors.

A review of statewide emergency room data obtained by several news publications showed that more than 1,400 people sought care for carbon monoxide poisoning during the outage. Of those cases, 42% were children, who are more vulnerable to CO poisoning due to their higher metabolic rates. This number is only 400 shy of the total cases of CO poisoning in Texas for 2020 and was classified as the nation’s “biggest epidemic of CO poisoning in recent history.”Although Black, Hispanic, and Asian Texans make up 57% of the state’s population, they accounted for 72% of the poisonings reported, highlighting another aspect of the racial disparity in the impact of the outages. A third of the 911 calls related to CO exposure in Austin came from Rundberg Lane in North Austin, a neighborhood that has more than double the county’s proportion of immigrants and refugees.

Low-income and BIPOC households, who already carry a disproportionate burden of energy costs, are more likely to reside in unsafe structures, and may have no means of escaping disasters. These factors make this population especially vulnerable to the impacts of power outages, which further exacerbate wealth and health inequity and hinder an adequate recovery.

The aftermath of the 2021 Texas blackouts brought increased costs of living, at least in part, due to higher energy prices, which in some cases have more than doubled on average since February 2021. The recovery from loss of health and property damage becomes less likely, making those most severely affected even more vulnerable to future crises. With more severe weather and subsequent blackouts likely to occur each year, it is essential for utilities and regulators to prioritize low-income and BIPOC communities in (a) infrastructure investments and (b) power restoration when outages are inevitable. This includes re-directing investment in modernizing infrastructure (such as substations, switchgear, poles, cables, and transformer upgrades) and maintenance towards historically disinvested neighborhoods (share of BIPOC households, high poverty rates, unemployment rate, SVI). Similarly, when outages are inevitable, these communities should be prioritized for power restoration in order to minimize the impact of outages on these households. Further efforts require more collaboration between state and local legislators and emergency management, public health management, and utility providers to bring the voice and representation of these impacted communities in decision-making.

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