AUSTIN — At the height of the storm that blasted Texas, Maria Benitez huddled in her Austin apartment with her husband and four teenage children, eating tuna out of a can and sipping on powdered milk. With no power, her apartment was dangerously cold and the family pulled on several pairs of pants and sweaters to keep warm.
Benitez’s power and water returned Thursday, just as her fridge and cupboards grew bare. But now a new struggle begins: The storm kept her from cleaning homes all week and, as her family’s sole wage earner, she’s instantly behind on rent and utilities. Grocery donations from friends have helped. But those will run out soon.
“There are a lot of people who are still struggling,” Benitez, 51, said. “There are a lot of people who don’t have enough to eat, who don’t have enough blankets. This is not over.”
As millions of Texans grapple with the aftermath of a deadly winter storm, people of color and low-income communities who were disproportionately affected by blackouts and burst pipes could now face the hardest journey to recovery, experts said.
The historic winter weather exacerbated pre-existing disparities like poor infrastructure and lack of resources in marginalized communities. Black and Latino communities who were disproportionately hit by COVID-19 now must struggle to recover from one of the worst weather events to ever hit Texas. And previous disaster response failures indicate the situation may get worse as the state thaws out.
“What you will see, as with COVID-19 and with any disaster, is disproportionate death and negative impacts for those who are most vulnerable among us,” said Chauncia Willis, chief executive of the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management, an Atlanta-based non-profit focused on emergency management and racial justice. “These inequities are easily identifiable before disaster and, of course, they’re rooted in systemic bias, racism and the country’s anti-poverty mindset.”
Lower-income families may not be able to stock up on essentials ahead of the storm, have access to transportation in the event of an emergency or afford precautions like renters or flood insurance, leaving them vulnerable when disaster strikes, Willis said.
Power outages numbered about 139,000 in Texas by Friday, down from a high of 4 million earlier in the week. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has deployed generators, blankets and pallets of bottled water to Texans. Meanwhile, advocacy groups have been sheltering those in need and delivering meals and groceries to families who still can’t find food, as grocery stores struggle to restock.
The Austin Justice Coalition delivered food to more than 40 families around Austin who had run out of food, said João Paulo Connolly, the group’s director of housing and community development. Around 90% of those families were Black or Latino, he said.
The storm hit families of all races and ethnicities and knocked out power even in affluent neighborhoods, Connolly said. But families of color in lower-income areas often don’t have a car or the funds to hunt for groceries or make quick repairs on busted pipes, he said. Thus, it’ll take them longer to recover from the disaster, he said.
“Everyone’s out of food and having a hard time getting to the store,” Connolly said. “It’s just a general mess.”
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In Houston, the frigid temperatures and outages created a citywide water crisis. As power gets restored and drinkable water returns to homes, county officials are studying how best to help residents and use federal funds to restore neighborhoods.
County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, whose district is 70% Black and Hispanic, said he hopes communities of color get equitable disaster relief. During the disaster response following 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which flooded most of Houston, more affluent communities often benefited more from federal disaster funds than communities of color — something he’d like to reverse following this event, he said.
“Often time in government, we don’t do things with that equity lens,” he said. “I’m worried about communities of color being disproportionately impacted.”
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas directed utility companies to implement outages to compensate for the increased demand in electricity and disrupted supply, according to Varun Rai, director of the University of Texas-Austin’s Energy Institute.
Utility companies prioritized keeping the power on in downtown areas that include critical service providers such as hospitals and nursing homes, which benefited residents in the typically densely populated, wealthier neighborhoods nearby, he said.
Lower-income families typically live farther from these areas, meaning they were less likely to have power during planned outages, Rai said.
“Even when you’re not in emergency situations, like we are today, it takes much longer and it’s much harder for many communities to get access,” he said.
This stark contrast was highlighted in photos taken in Austin that show the downtown area glaringly bright while hundreds of thousands of homes, particularly in East Austin, the city’s historically Black and Hispanic neighborhood, were without power.
The increased demand for electricity will likely mean electric bills will go up, Rai said, another blow to lower-income households that already spend a higher percentage of their income on utilities.
Although electricity is back on for many Texans, the crisis is not over due to the lack of safe drinking water in many areas. Seven million Texans must boil their tap water before drinking it because record low temperatures damaged infrastructure and pipes.
Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican,warned that residents “are not out of the woods,” with temperatures still well below freezing statewide and disruptions in food supply chains. Abbott urged residents to shut off water to prevent more busted pipes and preserve municipal system pressure.
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Rai said fixing water infrastructure and potentially winterizing it will be costly and the burden may fall on consumers through taxes orhigherutility bills which “could hurt these communities in a different way.”
President Joe Biden, who plans to visit Texas next week, said he has offered additional support from the federal government to state and local agencies.
Federal emergency officials sent generators to support water treatment plants, hospitals and nursing homes in Texas, along with thousands of blankets and ready-to-eat meals, officials said.
However, advocates said federal aid is often not distributed equitably to the communities who need it most.
Researchers from Rice University in Houston and the University of Pittsburgh found post-disaster assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is distributed unevenly and white communities see higher levels of reinvestment post-disaster.
This caused wealth inequality between white communities and communities of color to increase dramatically in the aftermath of natural disasters in Texas like Hurricane Harvey and across the country, according to a 2018 study.
When disaster strikes, the federal government gives aid based on racialized estimates of worth and federal aid must be matched by states, communities and, in some cases, individuals, according to study author Junia Howell, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in racial and socioeconomic inequality. This ultimately results in poorer communities getting fewer resources and white communities getting more, she said.
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“So many Black and brown communities that are the predominant population of their whole county, especially rural counties, they do not have the resources and the infrastructure often to match federal aid, so they don’t get it,” she said. “White communities, and particularly white middle and upper-class people, win out over and over and over.”
Howell said unless changes are made in the aid process, the recovery period will have long-term negative economic and health impacts on communities of color.
“That is where the real disaster I think it’s going to take place,” she said. “I’m not super hopeful that this recovery is going to come out in a way that is more equitable than past recoveries.”
Benitez, the Austin mother, said she really began to worry as the temperature plummeted and she started running out of food for her children.
But the immediate future is equally scary. She doesn’t know when she’ll be able to clean homes again and the bills are piling up. She borrowed money from her sister to cover this month’s rent. Beyond that, she’s not sure what will happen.
“It’s going to be tough,” Benitez said.
Contributing: Doyle Rice, USA TODAY