SAN ANTONIO, Texas – When the lights went out on Monday evening at the Alazán-Apache residential project in San Antonio, located in one of the city’s poorest zip codes, the neighborhood traffic signals flickered and shopkeepers pulled down their shutters.
The residents had no choice but to huddle under blankets and hope that their children would not get sick.
“I have to take my children somewhere to keep them warm. I don’t know where, ”said Ricardo Cruz, 42, who lives with his wife and five children between the ages of 5 and 13 at the courts of Alazán-Apache and has been without electricity since 7pm on Monday evening.
While the Texas blackouts left roughly 4 million residents without power in brutally cold weather, experts and community groups say many marginalized communities were the first to be hit by blackouts, and if history is your guide, they could be last be reconnected. This is particularly dangerous as low-income households may lack the financial means to escape to safety or to recover from the disruption.
In particular, experts fear that energy prices will rise as demand increases Many families are left in the lurch, unable to pay their electricity bills for the next month, and trigger blackouts at a time when they are most vulnerable. In Texas’ deregulated electricity market, prices can fluctuate with demand, potentially increasing utility bills for poorer households who already spend a disproportionate amount of their income on utility companies.
“Whether it’s flooding from severe weather events like hurricanes or such a severe cold, the story of our response to disasters is that these communities are hit first and suffer the longest,” said Robert Bullard, professor at Texas Southern University and an expert on wealth and racial differences in relation to the environment.
“These are communities already hardest hit by Covid,” he said. “They are the households that have two minimum wage jobs, the essential workers who don’t get paid when they don’t go to work.”
In Houston, local environmental groups said neighborhoods like Acres Homes, a predominantly black and Latin American neighborhood in the northwest of the city, were among the first to lose power. “The pipes are freezing. They run out of water and electricity, ”said Ana Parras, co-executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, or Tejas, a community group that advocates for local color communities.
Many of the city’s hardest hit communities already have poor infrastructure. “The houses there don’t have a lot of insulation,” she said.
Research has also shown that lower-income minority communities in Houston and elsewhere tend to live near industrial sites and are more exposed to pollution. This is worrying as the icy weather has forced the closure of large refineries and other industrial sites.
Large industrial complexes tend to release bursts of pollutants into the air when they are shut down and when they resume operations. In the days before and after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 caused Houston’s network of petrochemical plants and refineries to release millions of pounds of pollutants, raising health concerns in surrounding communities. And power outages mean that many air monitoring stations are likely to fail.
“It is a very sad situation,” said Ms. Parras, considering that “we live in the world’s energy capital.”
In San Antonio, some residents turned to their cars as a source of heat. In the driveway of a family home on West Side Street, Jesus Garcia was in his car, running the engine to keep warm and charge his cell phone.
The 78-year-old lives on the other side of the neighborhood, but his house went dark two days ago. So he came to his friend to stay there. But their power went out too and the streets were too dangerous to drive home last night.
So he stayed a second night and wasn’t sure exactly when he would be returning home. “You have a lot of people fixing all of these things, but I don’t know what’s going on,” he said with a shrug.
At a 7-Eleven gas station on the edge of the West Side, one of the few open gas stations, cars were parked down the street to buy fuel. Inside, most of the snacks and bottled water were gone. And the pipes of the store were frozen.
Under Interstate 37, less than a mile from downtown, about 20 tents sheltered some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, the homeless, from the deadly cold. They stood in groups around campfires that were fired with wood by a Christian ministry across the street.
But a burst whistle meant the ministry couldn’t offer the showers it usually does. Tonight, a Baptist church is setting up an emergency shelter nearby.
Desiree Lee Garcia Curry, 37, said she was sleeping in the tent city after losing a room in a hotel. A few nights ago she was sleeping under a tarpaulin when ice began to build up on the floor.
“The hotel let us stay a full day, then kicked me and my roommate out,” she said. “I’ve lost half of my things.”
Greg Woodard has a tent here too. Five days ago, when the polar vortex hit south Texas, the 39-year-old considered taking refuge in another church nearby. But he wasn’t allowed to bring his books. He is studying at Alamo City Barber College. “I’ve decided to take my risk in the cold,” he said.
James Dobbins reported from San Antonio and Hiroko Tabuchi from New York.