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After brutalizing much of the U.S., storm surge shines a spotlight on disparities

The storms that have descended on much of the country, and their after-effects, have hit vulnerable groups the hardest, especially communities of color. Dr. Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who focuses on wealth and racial disparities related to the environment, joins Stephanie Sy from Sugar Land, Texas to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A huge storm system has shifted east tonight after brutalizing the United States' midsection. It's leaving at least 40 dead, plus a legacy of mangled power grids, broken water systems and political fallout.

    Stephanie Sy reports on this day's developments.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    New misery for a new part of the country. The arctic front that pummeled the Central and Southern parts of the U.S. pushed into the Northeast today.

    In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy urged people to be alert.

  • Gov. Phil Murphy:

    It's a long time-wise storm. This goes deep and into tomorrow, so keep — keep your wits about you. Do the right thing. Stay home if you can.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Heavy snow blanketed the region, with the most accumulation in parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachia. In its wake, the storm left a wintry mess that has already stretched for days in Texas.

  • Alicia Hinkle:

    When people are making comparisons like, oh, Texas is shutting down for three inches of snow, you guys just have no idea what is really going on.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    High school teacher Alicia Hinkle and her mom, Juanita (ph), who live in a suburb much Dallas, are just two of the many Texans scrambling to kept warm and fed amid ongoing power and water outages.

  • Alicia Hinkle:

    That was the struggle. So, the first morning, we did not have a gas stove top, so we had to — I mean, I wrapped some potatoes. My mom was laughing at me. And I just kind of put them in the fireplace.

    You end up going to, without me, a gas station.

  • Woman:

    Went to large Buc-ee's just north of (INAUDIBLE). And we were able to get a couple of sandwiches. So we did that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Gas station sandwiches.

  • Woman:

    Yes.

  • Alicia Hinkle:

    Yes.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Eating gas station sandwiches.

  • Alicia Hinkle:

    I'm sure a lot.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Juanita and her husband set up camp by the fireplace, but, by midweek, it wasn't keeping them warm enough. And they all moved in with Alicia's sister at her house near Dallas.

  • Alicia Hinkle:

    Many people rely on the busing system and the train system that we may have in the Dallas metroplex. And just getting out to it, just having to kind of lug what you can, finding these warming stations that may be available, it just seems easier when you think about infrastructures in other states that are used to this.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Power is finally being restored for millions of Texas residents. The numbers still facing outages fell below 500,000 today.

    Officials from ERCOT, which manages the Texas power grid, said that, while the weather could yet bring more transmission trouble, they hope to reduce the number of forced outages.

  • Dan Woodfin:

    You would expect that those — any outages like that would be limited and we would be able to rotate them, as opposed to these more extended outages, if they are required. We are certainly going to try to avoid that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The nonprofit grid operator and other state officials have come under fire for not doing enough to prepare for the cold conditions, including from the mayor of Dallas, Eric Johnson.

  • Eric Johnson:

    Our people are suffering right now. And we don't have control over the power grid. We rely on it, but we don't have any control over it.

    Those who do have control over it, ERCOT, which oversees the grid, and starting at the very top, those folks need to look at what happened, figure out who is responsible, and then changes need to be made.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Texans are facing another unfolding crisis, obtaining drinkable water. About 13 million people in a number of cities were under boil-water notices today.

  • Woman:

    How can we boil water? We don't even have power!

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Frigid temperature this week have damaged water systems throughout the state and frozen pipes. In Houston, people lined up at a water faucet in this park to fill up buckets, while others collected rainwater and melted snow.

    As our reporting has showed, the storms and the aftereffects have hit vulnerable groups the hardest, especially communities of color.

    Dr. Robert Bullard is a professor at Texas Southern University. He focuses on wealth and racial disparities related to the environment. And he joins me now from Sugar Land, Texas.

    Professor Bullard, it's a pleasure to have you on the "NewsHour."

    Tell me what folks in your area have been going through in recent days. What are they lacking?

  • Robert Bullard:

    Well, first of all, I think it is important to understand that this blackout, in terms of loss of power, is more than just about energy. It's also about those communities that were struggling before the storm, in terms of struggling with energy insecurity.

    And this storm has really shone a spotlight on those disparities, in terms of communities that don't have not only electricity, but no water, no transportation, private cars to get to the grocery stores, to buy food and water. And the same communities are devastated because of health disparities, a lot of asthma, a lot of diabetes, and people on dialysis machines, that they can't operate their medical equipment without electricity.

    So, it poses really a great danger, more than just being cold.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So what you are saying is that, even as we look at still hundreds of thousands of people in Texas that are going without power for multiple days, that there were communities there that already didn't have consistent power?

  • Robert Bullard:

    Well, because of the fact that a lot of low-income families have problems paying electric bills.

    Low-income communities and people of color generally pay a larger percentage of their household budgets toward energy, heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. And so any time you get a spike in utility bills, in some cases may double, that creates a big problem.

    And, again, it's — these are issues that low-income families have to deal with in major disasters, whether it is a hurricane or a flood or, in this case, we're talking power outage.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    When you think about climate change and its impacts on people, why is it important to focus on these communities of color and these existing disparities?

  • Robert Bullard:

    Well, I think, when we talk about climate change, climate change really has to be looked at more than greenhouse gases and parts per million.

    We have to talk about the inequities that exist in our society that make certain communities more vulnerable. Because of where they live, their location in terms of low-lying areas, areas that are prone to flooding, areas that are urban heat islands because of lack of trees, green canopy and all of those kinds of things.

    And so it is really important that we plan for making sure that our climate action plans are resilient and will protect the most vulnerable. When we don't do that, we basically will plan for leaving certain populations behind, on the other side of the levee or in the flood zones, or in the heat islands, and, in this case, basically without power, and people whose lights go out first and who are the last one to get power back.

    That is the inequity that we must address when we deal with climate plans and plans for dealing with just energy transition.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    As far, Professor, as what folks in your area and throughout the state of Texas are facing right at this moment, in the midst of a winter storm, have you seen any evidence that communities of color are experiencing, for example, power outages at a greater rate than other communities?

  • Robert Bullard:

    What we find is that this area has been hit hard by the outages.

    But if you talk about the areas that have experienced the most devastating impact, it's one thing for — like, I was out of power for two days. My lights came back on. But it's different for me than it is for a low-income family that have lots of people in the household. They're dealing with COVID. They're dealing with the fact that they don't have power.

    Now we have a boil-water advisory, which means you can't wash your hands, you can't social distance. And so the impacts that would occur for low-income families will be different than another family that has means. These are issues that are cascading, that are created by this power outage.

    And, to a large extent, people are just looking at the outage, these rolling blackouts. But, for many communities, it's more than just a blackout. It's all these other issues and challenges and disparities that come to the front.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Dr. Robert Bullard, I can't thank you enough for coming on the program and discussing these ongoing issues. Thank you.

  • Robert Bullard:

    My pleasure.

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