Blog – Lived Experiences of Winter Storm Uri

Lived Experiences of Winter Storm Uri

BLOG POST  |  MARCH 17, 2021
By: Erick Jones (TEPRI Researcher), Jacquie Moss (TEPRI Research Fellow) and Tam Kemabonta (TEPRI Research Director)

The devastation of Winter Storm Uri that struck Texas in mid-February 2021 continues on for many families in Texas. The inequalities in our state continue to be highlighted as repairs and basic services for low-income and disadvantaged communities lag. In our recent Energy Opportunities Coalition (EOC) meeting, TEPRI engaged with other organizations, including representatives from a natural gas utility and a Community Action Agency, who have seen firsthand how Uri impacted and continues to impact a large number of Texans. (The EOC is a recent initiative from TEPRI that brings together leaders in energy and equity to identify opportunities to catalyze economic renewal through clean energy in Texas and beyond.)

Out of these conversations, TEPRI launched a survey to 953 participants that aimed to gauge how households across Texas and across the income spectrum (see bar chart below) were impacted by the storm and to understand the lingering effects, such as increased anxiety about bills or damage to their residence. Using Pollfish, a mobile-optimized survey platform, we recruited respondents by setting a quota based on their locale type (City/urban, Suburban, Town, and Rural) to achieve representation across the state (see pie chart below). The responses were collected from March 8-10, 2021.

While we are still analyzing the data, there are high-level insights that we want to highlight. In this survey we found that a majority of the respondents lost numerous utilities for extended periods of time and are outraged as a result, yet many respondents remain confident that Texas leaders will fix the problems that caused the outages. Nonetheless, the storm has increased stress and anxiety related to paying electricity bills and uncertainty about how to get help.

Almost 75% of respondents lost electricity at some point during the storm event, and close to 33% of households reported losing electricity for two days or more. This prolonged period without electricity led to food spoilage, devastated family budgets, and exposed people to brutal cold. One respondent wrote, “My household sat in a cold house for 3 1/2 days after just going to the grocery store. The thermostat went lower than it was able to. Lost food, freeze, unable to eat, it was truly a disaster. It began to remind me of Harvey.” Another said, “This event was terrifying. I have lived in cold weather locations with worse natural events but these places are better prepared. During this storm, I though[t] I was going to freeze to death in my own home and the local/state government could not care less.” It is not yet clear how many people died during the storm event, but in Harris County alone, more than 40 people died, which exceeds the death toll of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Residential natural gas service remained much more resilient with just over 25% of households surveyed losing natural gas. However, gas furnaces still need electricity to operate, so even with gas, many families were without heat. As many as 27% of respondents used their ovens to stay warm, even knowing the danger. A participant shared, “I had to use my stove and oven to keep warm all along worried about inhaling carbon monoxide.” Even access to the most basic need, clean water, was tenuous with over 65% of households having to boil their water at some point, and with over 40% of surveyed households going two days or longer without clean water. Even worse, a little over 30% did not even have running water for two days or more, and 2% of participants were still without water at the time of the survey (March 8-10, 2021). A participant described their experience, “All our outside pipes burst. We can not afford a plumber so my daughter has been trying to fix it! I am 67 and had a heart attack Feb 23. So not having water has been rough.

The storm forced some households (about 15% of surveyed households) to flee to other shelters, most commonly family or friends homes, but also places like hotels, public warming centers, and churches. However, even these temporary shelters were subject to water and power outages, with over 40% of these temporary shelters losing one or both of these resources. One respondent wrote, “We stayed in a hotel for three days. On the third day they lost water, said we could bring up water from the swimming pool to flush the commode.” The majority of those who stayed in their homes that lost electricity and water had to resort to unconventional ways to generate heat and water. People used their cars for power and heat (28%), harvested snow for water (20%), burned wood (20%), while some 20% of respondents had access to a generator.

Unsurprisingly, most surveyed households (75%) are outraged that Texas was not better prepared for the storm. Somewhat surprisingly given this outrage, more households (~41%) are confident than not that Texas leaders will fix the problems that caused the outages (see chart below) and are satisfied with how their utility handled the situation. One respondent shared, “I just want to share that we were VERY fortunate. I want to give a shout out to Hilco, my electric coop. We had rolling blackouts but they were 45 min-1 hour long at a time and we maybe had 3-5 blackouts per day.” Nonetheless, a large majority of households are concerned about increased cost on their energy bills and are confused about how to get help with repairs or the cost of high bills.

When asked how concerned they were about being able to afford their electricity bill before the winter storm, almost 45% were NOT concerned. Looking ahead, that figure drops to 23% of respondents expressing no concern, while 40% are VERY concerned and 35% are somewhat concerned. Many of those who are VERY concerned about their future electricity bills have been disconnected from their electricity service for a past due account in the past year (75% out of 324 “very concerned” respondents). The most commonly cited reasons for this disconnection was lacking the funds to pay their electricity bills (48%). Half of these same respondents are not aware of the Texas Comprehensive Energy Assistance Program (CEAP) — a utility assistance program for low-income households that is administered by local agencies. We asked respondents if they had contacted their electricity or gas provider to discuss their bill, and one person wrote, “I have called both companies and they have put me on a payment plan but even then the payment plan is still too high because they want half[.] half of them together is one of them total so I don’t know what to do[.] I’m going to call the c e a p that you just mentioned later today when they open.

This added concern about electricity bills is decreasing quality of life by forcing households to stress over their finances and set their homes at uncomfortable temperature levels. These trends could become worse, and potentially deadly, in the summer, which is why it is critical to confront the issues that compound and sustain energy insecurity.

There was no apparent relationship between one’s concern about future electricity bills and their current electricity rate plan. Almost half of surveyed households get their electricity from a fixed rate plan (~46%) with a notably high number of respondents unsure about what type of rate plan they have (~22%). The majority of households reported paying their electricity bills online (41% pay online, not Autopay); only about 30% use Autopay and almost 13% of people responded that they pay by phone (45% of whom live in a rural setting).

The storm not only provided immediate pain in the form of lost utilities but has also resulted in damage to people’s residences. We found that ~30% of surveyed households had burst pipes and ~11% had damaged appliances, 12% had fallen trees, and 11% had roof or other structural damage to their home. Of these households reporting damage (n=331), 44% will not be able to file an insurance claim or receive FEMA help and 25% are unsure.

Overall, the storm impacted families both immediately and will have lingering effects that persist for quite some time. Households, after dealing with the immediate trauma, have experienced additional hardships as a result of the storm, most commonly stress and mental anguish (~55%) and spoiled food (~40%).

TEPRI’s next level of analysis will compare these results by the respondents’ self-reported financial well-being and utility type. This winter storm event gave many Texans an opportunity to experience managing without the essential services — electricity, gas, and clean water — upon which our lives rely. This experience is but a sliver of insight into the experience of energy insecurity that TEPRI is dedicated to addressing.

Lawmakers at the state and federal level are working on policies and legislation to deal with the inequities and limitations of our energy system. Last week, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan (ARP) which includes $4.5 billion supplemental funding for the federally-funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) as well as over $20 billion in rental assistance, which can also be used for utility bills. The amount of this funding that Texas will receive will be finalized in the coming weeks. The total amount of utility bill assistance. In Texas, LIHEAP is integrated into CEAP to help families pay gas and electric bills in all 254 counties in Texas. Community Action Agencies (CAAs) and a handful of other nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies are responsible for distributing these funds directly to utility companies on behalf of eligible customers who apply for services to help pay for electricity and gas (certain conditions apply). To be eligible for LIHEAP, Texas households must earn no more than 150% of the Federal Poverty Level. (In 2021, $39,750 per year for a family of four.)

TEPRI will follow these developments closely to raise awareness of the immediate bill assistance (through programs like CEAP) as well as collaborating with our partners to design programs that improve residential energy efficiency, access to energy-saving technologies, and, by extension, help overall financial well-being.