Taken by Storm
Following the disastrous winter storm that hit Texas on February 14 and revealed systemic weaknesses in governmental disaster preparation, Tufts students are urging for impactful legislative action against climate change.
Caused by an unstable polar vortex, Winter Storm Uri was felt across the entire country. The storm was one of the biggest winter storms to hit the South according to earliest known records. With temperatures as low as minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit, the lowest temperatures recorded for the region in 30 years, the storm caused serious destruction in Texas, such as burst pipes and heavy flooding, with estimates predicting that damages could cost over $200 billion.
According to the New York Times, four million people were without power at the peak of the storm. Due to the lack of electricity, safe drinking water became scarce, and boil-water orders were implemented across the state. According to the Dallas Morning News, at least five people were killed in the storm.
Although the storm occurred more than 1,000 miles away from Tufts itself, it hit home for many Tufts students whose families were affected. “My family was very lucky,” said Neil Powers, a freshman from Texas. “I know some relatives who lost everything, but when you’re in Texas you learn to have a decent supply of fresh water and food for situations just like this.”
However, not every student was as lucky as Powers’ family. “It was like [Hurricane] Harvey 2.0,” Priscilla Mach, a freshman from Houston, Texas said. “[My mom] is getting chemotherapy and radiology, so she has to clean her stitches every day, and until two days in, there weren’t people checking in on her to see if she had access to clean water to take care of that.”
Being away from home caused anxiety and stress in students on campus who were worried about their families. “It was hard checking in on people and everybody had bad news to give. There was guilt about not being there and not being able to help,” Mach said.
For many students, the state’s lack of heat, water, and governmental assistance during the storm reflected larger systemic problems within Texas and the United States as a whole. “My two main reactions to the events that unfolded were gratitude and rage,” said junior Elliot Trahan. “Gratitude that my family was mostly alright, and rage at the sheer disregard for human life that the state government exhibited during the crisis.”
Mach shared this sentiment, saying that “the scariest thing was reading and looking into the sewage and electrical systems in Texas [that are] not connected to [systems] out of state, [and seeing] how outdated they are.” In an Instagram post, Tufts’ branch of the Sunrise Movement, a nationwide climate change organization, echoed this: “Texas has a power grid that is deregulated, privatized, and removed from interconnected networks to avoid federal regulation and increase profits to a small number of wealthy individuals … this is why currently there is a mass power outage across the state.”
The lack of preparation for such extreme weather revealed an urgency for climate action in governmental capacities, said Trahan, who is part of Sunrise at Tufts. “I definitely never imagined that one of the first major climate disasters to devastate my home state would be a winter storm,” he said. “Texas just gave us another terrifying reminder of how much harder climate disasters hit in a society in which profit is valued over human life.”
Sunrise Tufts organizers have urged the Tufts community to help victims affected by the storm. On Instagram, they stated that the storm was “a climate crisis event/class genocide/life-taking disaster,” and listed various organizations for students to donate to. Furthermore, the Tufts chapter also echoed both the national movement and the Texas chapter’s calls for the resignation of Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. The post noted that Abbott blamed the storm on the Green New Deal, despite it not having been passed into law, and that Cruz went on a family vacation to Cancún while millions of his constituents went without power and water.
Outside of campus organizations, students made personal efforts during the storm to assist victims. Trahan said his partner helped coordinate mutual aid through the Sunrise Movement Austin. “I am not exaggerating when I say that my partner saved people’s lives just by sending check-in texts from her cozy place in Rhode Island,” he said.
While student efforts are important, larger governmental actions are necessary to avoid similar disasters in the future. Colin Orians, the director of the environmental studies program at Tufts and a researcher of climate change and climate mitigation, said, “It is imperative that politicians start planning for extreme events. They will come, and responses after the fact will cost society billions and cause disproportionate harm.”
Sunrise Tufts said, “The failures in Texas’ infrastructure are disproportionately affecting BIPOC, the homeless, and people with disabilities.” According to Trahan, Sunrise Tufts hopes that there will be climate legislation that will be tailored to these groups by addressing issues such as houselessness, healthcare access, poverty, and racism.
Students outside the movement share the need for urgent climate action following the storm. “When you have every scientist in the world going to every media platform that will listen to them and telling people, “you need to make changes now,” how can you not listen?” Mach said.
Ultimately, the sad and disastrous effects of the storm reinforced the need for humility and compassion in times of stress. Trahan said, “As the storm in Texas has made clear, even if we can’t halt any of the effects of the climate crisis, it is still worth it to build a world in which people care about each other.”