The Pandemic Made the Polar Vortex Over Texas That Much More Dangerous

The Frontline interviews disasterologist Dr. Samantha Montano about how we can prepare for the unexpected. Texas wasn’t built for extreme cold and snow, but climate change may mean more snow is in its future.

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Icicles form on a bush in downtown Houston, Texas, on February 15, 2021. (Photograph by Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images)

It might be cold out, but our planet’s warming has everything to do with the extreme weather the country is experiencing. Our leaders’ failure to act on the climate crisis is why so many people have suffered. Though Republican leadership took to the airwaves to shit all over the Green New Deal, wrongly blaming wind energy for the grid’s failure, a Green New Deal level of infrastructure change is what’s required to prevent this from happening again in the future.


When these types of horrific weather events unfold, my mind always goes to those who are most vulnerable: the elderly who live alone in their apartments. The undocumented family who’s too scared to ask for help. The newborn babies who have no idea what’s going on. How can they better prepare themselves? And how can our governmental leaders do better next time? How has the pandemic made everything that much more severe?


Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re always thinking about those already experiencing the climate crisis. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. For this edition, I invited self-proclaimed disasterologist Dr. Samantha Montano to share her expertise and opinions. She’s an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Every time disaster unfolds, I know Samantha will have wise words to share.


This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


Sam, when we think about the failures that happened here—the way that our government officials failed us, the way that our energy grid failed us, the way that disaster response failed us—what stands out to you as some of the biggest mistakes?


I think you made a good point. There are the failures that have actually led to the disaster occurring. That’s more on the energy systems and those decisions that are made within ERCOT, but then there’s also potentially failures within the actual response to getting people the help that they need as this disaster has unfolded over the past several days. I think it’s important to separate both of those.


My area of expertise is more on the actual response to the disaster itself. In that sense, I think you’re looking at a situation where the event is so geographically widespread that the response is a really difficult one. You have pretty severe differences from what I can see in terms of needs across Texas alone—let alone other states. That becomes much more complicated to coordinate as opposed to an event like a smaller tornado where the damage is more geographically confined and you can kind of zero right in on those impacted communities. So I think coordination and communication are two really important factors that, in retrospect, we’ll be able to go back and evaluate to see if and where there were breakdowns.


I think what’s been quite impressive about this event is the community response, like mutual aid systems that pulled together last minute to assist the elderly or undocumented communities. Can you talk to me a little bit about the role that community relationships play during events where communities are just so ill-equipped to handle? Snow in Texas is not common!


Well, we see the importance of social networks and community cohesion in every disaster regardless of what the hazard is. I think we’ve definitely seen that play out in Texas over the past several days. I know as I’ve been watching online, the groups that I’m seeing people recommend donations go to tend to be mutual aid groups. They’re tending to be local nonprofits or local food banks. I think those recommendations are pretty reflective of this shift and this recognition of the importance of local aid during disasters.


I’ll also point out here that our emergency management system is designed to have nonprofits and grassroots groups be a central player in the response. Sometimes, when we see mutual aid groups passing out food or bottles of water, it can feel like we’re witnessing a failed government response—and sometimes that is true—but sometimes the government is expecting that nonprofits and other groups are fulfilling those needs. In fact, even in pre-disaster planning, you’ll often see community plans with specific organizations slotted in to provide things like meals to people. These groups are definitely playing a huge and important role in Texas right now and across the South.


I imagine that these groups are welcome, right? Because there’s a trust that already exists between these groups and the communities they’re serving versus foreign federal officials who may have zero relationship with these communities.


Yeah. When disasters happen, the survivors of the disaster themselves are the people that are there first. You know, it’s their communities. So, yes, certainly there tends to be higher levels of trust. This can lead into another issue that we tend to see during the response to disasters. Local groups, whether they’re spontaneous volunteers or smaller local nonprofits, are very much active in the response for many hours, if not days, before national organizations can make it into the community to help. In the interim, these smaller groups have created their own systems for how to meet the needs in their community, and that can sometimes run a bit counter to what external groups or agencies are wanting to do in the response. That can create some tension between those two groups.


Fascinating. That’s why it’s important to have all of these plans set in place before the event happens, right? To prevent that type of conflict?


Yeah, it’s great anytime that you can have local nonprofits written into those plans and participating in the creation of those plans. That’s the ideal planning scenario. But I think it’s important, too, that there is a recognition that this is what happens during disasters. We always see that the locals who have been affected are the first ones responding. We always see emergent groups form during disasters. We always see spontaneous volunteers helping. At the same time, we also see that these external groups come in to help, too. This tension that forms is something that happens regularly. Even just having an awareness that this dynamic exists and happens is really important.

“It’s really important that we’re thinking about what’s happening in the South, not only in terms of this climate-related event, but also in terms of what it means that it’s happening in the middle of a pandemic.”



Yeah. At this point, Texans are familiar with hurricanes, right? They have a sense of what to do when a hurricane happens or when floods happen. Some of these people may have never even seen snow before, though. I’m just thinking about all these “new normals” that the climate crisis and the warming of our planet is creating. That’s a pretty common phrase in the climate world— this “new normal” that we’re living in. How can people prepare for what they don’t expect? For what they previously would have thought could never happen where they live? Even in New York, we’re subtropical now. Hurricane Sandy was the type of event that people wouldn’t have been anticipating decades before.


My advice here is that, as individuals, we need to really think through what our risks are now and moving into the future. In Houston, you might think, “Okay, we flood, we have tornadoes, we have hurricanes, we have droughts, we have heat waves.” You have the hazards you’re used to experiencing, and you’ve developed a depth of knowledge about what you need to do to adapt to those various hazards. As you said, given climate change, a lot of us are going into new territory and having to deal with hazards that we haven’t dealt with before, or we’re having to deal with these hazards that are manifesting in a way that we’re not used to experiencing.


I think the first step there is this knowledge piece of actively working to be more aware about what those risks are where we live and how that’s changing. The second thing I would say, at an individual level, is once you have a better understanding about those risks, you should rethink your existing preparedness. If you live on the Texas coast, then you probably have some kind of preparedness kit at your house with some water and flashlights at the very least. That’s a good start for something like cold weather. Some of the same supplies that you’re going to need for a hurricane are the supplies that you’re going to need for winter weather.


Now that so many people have had this experience, unfortunately, they should take stock once it is over and say, “Okay, what do I want to change about what’s in my house? What resources do I have? What decisions have I made? What would I do differently next time?” Doing that own individual after-action report to assess how things went. I want to also acknowledge that obviously we are in the midst of a pandemic, and that adds this layer of complication to all of this. Also, given the economic situation right now, a lot of people don’t have the money to spend on this purchasing preparedness. So it’s also really important to think about what we expect our local, state, federal governments, and other organizations in our community to change to help with that overall community preparedness.


I’m really glad you mentioned some of the disparities that exist.


I’ve been thinking so much about those birds-eye video clips of the food lines in Texas. There are videos from all across the country, but especially in Texas, over the past few months because of the pandemic. Food banks were talking about how they’ve doubled the number of people they’re serving because of the pandemic and the response to the pandemic. And to think about those images in the context of what’s happening now is really alarming. If you are somebody who is reliant on a food bank when there isn’t a winter storm, how can you be in a position to stockpile food? So I think it’s really important that we’re thinking about what’s happening in the South, not only in terms of this climate-related event, but also in terms of what it means that it’s happening in the middle of a pandemic.


How can we make sure that we design disaster response plans with the most vulnerable in mind? That they’re not left behind—whether that’s undocumented communities, non-English, speaking communities, the elderly. Are there any secret ingredients to ensure this happens equitably?


From an emergency management perspective, one of the most basic things that needs to be done is to involve these groups in the planning process and preparedness efforts. It can’t be a situation where an emergency management agency is just writing plans for undocumented communities without any input from them about what their needs are. That’s a starting place.


Also, making sure that the nonprofits and organizations serving these marginalized communities on a day-to-day basis are involved in the planning efforts of emergency management agencies is absolutely fundamental. They have a much better understanding of what those needs look like. Once that input is included, I think you need to start rethinking some of the programs that a local emergency management agency might oversee.


This is going to look different from community to community. Imagine you are trying to do an individual and household preparedness initiative in a community, and you’re handing out checklists of supplies that people need to buy: five days of food and water, weather radios, a savings account with emergency money for evacuations. If you’re handing that out in a low-income community where people are reliant on food banks on a day-to-day basis, they’re probably not going to have the money to buy those items. It’s great that the emergency management agency is trying to help increase the preparedness of the community, but those recommendations may not match the actual reality and lived experience of the people who live there.


Making sure that those recommendations and programs are aligning with what those community needs are is fundamental.