Insights From the Texas Freeze of 2021

Published on:

February 10, 2022

Insights From the Texas Freeze of 2021

Lows in single digits, wind chills well below zero, snow on the ground for over a week. You’d think I was describing a week in Chicago or Minneapolis, but this was reality for most Texans in mid-February 2021. For the majority of Texans living south of the Interstate 20 corridor, snowfall is a once-every-3-to-5-years event, and when it does fall, the snow is completely melted away less than 48 hours later. Most of our winters are limited to a handful of frosty mornings after cold fronts and the coldest temperatures we see in January or February are in the 20s.

However, a polar air mass reached all the way to the South Texas Gulf Coast in 2021, bringing winter conditions more typical of midwestern states.

South Texas Gulf Coast Freeze in 2021
Photo by Hal Needham

This, understandably, was a major shock to Texas residents, as many of us have never experienced a Minnesota winter and had no idea how to prepare for such an event. As a result, millions of Texans lost access to electricity and running water. My parents, living in Fort Bend County near Houston, had a power outage for three days straight. Pipes in the region are not properly insulated and so many homes had burst pipes and thus no running water until the pipes could be repaired. ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council Of Texas) manages the Texas power grid that runs separately from the national grid that runs all other 47 contiguous states. ERCOT power officials did not expect the level of demand that occurred when temperatures plummeted to the lowest recorded since the 1980s. Our state’s power grid is, in addition, not equipped to deal with prolonged cold and ice, and thus resulted in the power failures.

“[ERCOT] initiated rotating outages at 1:25am on February 15” to avoid overwhelming the power grid. Areas would then alternate being on and off power to prevent the entire grid from collapsing and sending the state into a blackout. More than two-thirds of Texans (roughly 69%) lost power during the week of the storm, for an average of 42 hours, according to a University of Houston study. Some people went without power for up to five days.

Interestingly, according to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, the Oklahoma City area had more extreme temperatures and weather than Texas that week, but the area had less power outage issues due to being connected with the national power grid. There was an article published in May 2021 by BuzzFeed discussing indirect deaths from the event. What is an indirect death? For example, if someone needed a nebulizer for a respiratory condition, but couldn’t run it because the power is out, resulting in that person’s death. These deaths were not included in the official death toll from Texas Department of Health and Safety (DHS) since they were officially due to the victim’s health or other natural causes, instead of the weather. However, the BuzzFeed article claims that up to 702 people (this is including Texas DHS’s official count of 151) died due to the cold weather and the subsequent transportation and power issues and other subsequent issues impacting the state last February. This 702 number, according to BuzzFeed, is based on a “statistical model to predict expected deaths in any week, given long-term and seasonal trends” and adds them to the official 151 death toll. Neither number includes deaths from the concurrent pandemic of Covid-19, which are recorded separately.

Texas Freeze in 2021
Photo by Hal Needham

I reached out to some weather service offices in colder climates, particularly in North Dakota and Minnesota, where, every winter, temperatures plummet into the -20s Fahrenheit or colder. I inquired about how they do preparations for their cold winters.

According to JP Martin, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Bismarck, North Dakota, the fatalities from cold weather are very low in count and when they do occur, alcohol consumption was usually involved. This, interestingly, is due to the fact that alcohol gives the body a false sense of warmth. Regardless, North Dakota takes winter very seriously. Brad Hopkins, Observing Program Leader at NWS Grand Forks, North Dakota, explained that both North Dakota and Minnesota Departments of Emergency Management conduct a “Winter Weather Week” in the fall season as outreach to citizens about cold weather preparation including car maintenance, winter gear, and house maintenance (pipes, wall insulation, etc). This type of outreach does not occur in most of Texas, contributing to the general unpreparedness we experienced 11 months ago.

When an event is in the forecast, NWS offices around the country will issue warnings/watches/advisories for their regions and place many infographics on the official site and also to social media. Local news stations will broadcast these impacts to inform as many as possible about the significant cold coming. North Dakota and Minnesota see a few severe cold outbreaks each year, so the infrastructure is more equipped to handle intense freezes and heavy snow. Pipes in homes today in the region are also more insulated in the colder climates there, and rarely freeze or burst. The only significant damages come from water main breaks, according to Martin, due to the state’s higher preparedness. Texas, of course, doesn’t have the level of preparedness, contributing to the power failure disaster that unfolded. Our power plants and wind turbines are only prepared for the state’s milder winters, not midwestern-style cold outbreaks.

The state of Texas has used this as a valuable learning opportunity and taken steps to better prepare for future extreme winter conditions.

The Texas Tribune did an article on this published in December 2021. The article states that storm preparedness is often a neglected area of local governments, but is one of the most important to fund to assist the community during natural disasters and extreme weather. Many cities have now acquired generators for shelters, which can act as warming centers for people. During the February 2021 event, many warming centers and shelters in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex also lost power during the rolling outages.

Cities have expanded water bottle supplies to provide safe water to citizens. This previously had been an issue in San Antonio where water pumping stations were disabled by the power failure, and people without power in their home were unable to boil the water for safety. San Antonio now has a plan to have certain water pump stations operate with a generator in case of major power outages, which can serve as backup pumps.

Cities now also own tire chains for emergency vehicles to safely operate on icy or snowy roads, which are especially required in regions where cities do not own snow plows to clear major roads. This should help with the number of indirect deaths mentioned above along with other emergencies that may arise in the wake of a crippling winter storm.

Unfortunately, most of these preparations are not quick fixes and take months or years to fully implement in Texas cities. Thankfully, some of the preparedness measures are a quicker fix, including better communication of information to the public, which is arguably the most important disaster preparedness measure.

In my city of College Station, home of Texas A&M University, we reached a low of 5 degrees Fahrenheit at the peak of the cold air mass after the main snowfall event occurred. This wasn’t an all-time record low, but it was certainly in the top five coldest mornings in the climate records and tied the record low for the day, February 15. The same day had a high of only 20F in the afternoon, which was the second coldest on record for daily maximums, narrowly behind the high of 19F on January 10, 1962 (official temperature records).

Temperatures in the College Station/Brazos Valley area remained in the 30s or below for 10 days as a series of winter storms paraded through, bringing cold rain and sleet, followed by the main snow event, the deep freeze, and then another major freezing rain event before temperatures returned to average in the 60s Fahrenheit. John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist for Texas, explained that this was common for temperatures in Texas, where it was in the top five coldest lows, but areas in Northeast Texas, near Tyler and Longview, did see all-time record lows broken. When considering daily record lows, many Texas locations experienced a new record low for the day at least once during the week long event.

The case was similar with snowfall accumulation as well. Many stations in Texas did not see their snowiest event, but it was a top 10 event. Locations west of San Antonio, such as Del Rio, did record their snowiest event on record in February 2021, with Del Rio picking up a foot of snow. Most locations in Central and North Texas received 3 to 8 inches of snow, with lower amounts in South Texas and along the Gulf Coast, where milder marine air limited the amount of snowfall. Overall, according to the state’s climatologist, this event was a 1 in 20 to 30 year event when considering the entire climate record going back to the later half of the 1800s. However, in our warming 21st century climate, this cold wave event would be more like a 1 in 100 year event.

There's no question that the Texas freeze was a historic event. Due to the unprecedented power outage crisis, and the length and severity of the cold temperatures, the month of February 2021 will be remembered for decades and used to better prepare for future winter storms in the region.

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