Texans With Disabilities During Winter Storm Uri
A Qualitative Study
Publication Year: 2022
In this qualitative study, I examine the experiences of Texas residents with disabilities who endured Winter Storm Uri and the ensuing blackouts. I interviewed 47 Texas residents with disabilities and six nondisabled parents caring for children with severe disabilities. The study was guided by three research questions: (1) What were the specific pathways by which Texas residents with disabilities experienced social vulnerability during Winter Storm Uri? (2) How did people with disabilities exercise resilience in negotiating these vulnerabilities during the storm? (3) What forms of care did participants both provide to others and receive from others during the storm? The interviews reveal the hardships people with a wide range of disabilities experienced during this cascading disaster, including the inability to power life-giving medical equipment and the intensification of pain and health problems due to the loss of heat and water. Findings also show that participants were not passive victims in the face of these life-threatening challenges; disabled people and parents of those with severe disabilities went to extraordinary lengths to survive and to help others survive the disaster, including providing and receiving critical forms of care from family and community members during the storm. In addition, the study illuminates the short-term impacts of Winter Storm Uri and its long-term consequences, which some participants were still negotiating a year later. This report identifies the specific dangers disabled people experienced during this disaster, as well as their difficulties in procuring public services to address their needs. As such, it informs efforts to make emergency prevention and response measures more inclusive of community members with disabilities.
“Winter Storm Uri” is the informal name given to the February 2021 North American Winter Storm, generated by the convergence of three arctic fronts that brought extreme cold and freezing precipitation across 25 U.S. states. The state of Texas incurred the greatest human and financial toll from the storm. As surging power demand and restricted power supply catapulted the state’s independent power grid toward a complete collapse, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas implemented what were supposed to be rotating power outages to prevent catastrophic failure of the grid. These power outages ultimately left over four million Texas homes without electricity, some for over a week (Busby et al., 20211; Cramton, 20212). The widespread and prolonged loss of power had cascading effects, causing both systemic and individual water and gas outages, all occurring during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic before the rollout of vaccines (Busby et al., 2021; Hixenbaugh & Traveza, 20213).
While the state of Texas has reported a final official death toll of 246 from Winter Storm Uri (Texas Department of State Health Services, 20214), a Buzzfeed analysis of excess mortality across the state during the week of the storm puts the death toll at more than 750 (Aldhous & Hirji, 20215). By either measure, Winter Storm Uri stands as the deadliest disaster in modern Texas history (Rosenthal, 20216). The financial costs of Winter Storm Uri are estimated to be between $200 and $300 billion, making the disaster one of the costliest in U.S. history (American Society of Civil Engineers—Texas Section [TexASCE], 20227). These catastrophic human and financial consequences were largely preventable, having been caused by under-investment in both the reliability and resilience of the Texas power grid (TexASCE, 2022; Federal Energy Regulatory Commission et al., 20218).
Though people with disabilities are more likely than nondisabled people to experience harm in disasters, they remain understudied in natural hazards research (Stough & Kelman, 20189). This study was designed to collect empirical data on the experiences of people with disabilities during the storm and to further efforts to better incorporate disability into natural hazards scholarship. The report summarizes preliminary findings from interviews I conducted with 47 Texas residents with disabilities and six nondisabled parents caring for children with severe disabilities about Winter Storm Uri. Findings illuminate the struggles they experienced during this cascading disaster; the resilience they exercised to survive; and the care work they gave and received during the disaster. Findings also reveal the short-term impacts and long-term consequences of Winter Storm Uri, which some study participants were still negotiating a year after the storm.
A Note on Language: I use both person-first language (people with disabilities) and identity-first language (disabled people) interchangeably throughout this report in recognition of varied preferences in disability communities (Ladau, 202110).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.)11 defines disability as “any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions)” (para. 1). Disabilities can be present at birth or the onset of disability can occur later in the life course due to illness, injury, or trauma. Approximately 61.4 million community-dwelling (i.e., noninstitutionalized) U.S. residents (25.7% of the population) live with a disability (Okoro et al., 201812). Twenty-eight percent of adult residents in Texas live with a disability (Disability & Health Data System, n.d.13).
Research has shown that disabled people are among the groups most socially vulnerable to adverse disaster outcomes. Disaster scholars define groups as “socially vulnerable” when they are likely to experience heightened risks to the negative impacts of disasters, combined with having lower levels of resources to rebound from the shocks associated with such events (Drakes et al., 202114). In most cases, these vulnerabilities are socially-constructed, meaning they are not inherent to an individual or community, but are produced through long-standing structural inequities.
Evidence has shown that people with disabilities shoulder disproportionate harm in the wake of - disasters and face steep barriers in the disaster recovery stage (Subramaniam & Villeneuve, 202015). Individuals with disabilities are up to four times more likely to die in disasters (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 201416; Stough & Kelman, 2018). Disasters can also intensify the hardships associated with disabilities by exposing people to environmental threats (e.g., excessive heat, cold, smoke, dust, wind, etc.) or by depriving people of community support networks, medication, or mobility aids (Priestley & Hemingway, 200817; Tsuboya et al., 201718). Disabled people have been found to face discrimination and barriers in the built environment as they negotiate each stage of a disaster (Stough, 202119). For example, during the preparation and response stages of an extreme weather event, public communication can be a barrier for Deaf community members when information is not communicated in American Sign Language (ASL), and for blind community members when information is embedded within images, such as screen shots, which cannot be read by screen reading software (Bennett et al., 201820). During the response stage, people with physical disabilities often experience accessibility barriers, mistreatment, and even exclusion when seeking assistance through emergency shelters (Stough, 2021; Twigg et al., 201121; Van Willigen et al., 200222). Finally, some evidence has suggested disabled community members are more likely to incur costlier repairs during the recovery stage of disasters compared to nondisabled community members (Stough, 2021; Van Willigen et al., 2002).
Academic scholarship is beginning to emerge on the disparate impact of the Winter Storm Uri disaster on socially vulnerable groups (Adepoju et al., 202223; Lee, Maron & Mostafavi, 202124; Nejat et al., 202225). Yet, thus far, scholars have not examined disability as a dimension of inequity in this disaster context. Currently, the evidence we have about the impact of Winter Storm Uri on people with disabilities comes from journalistic accounts and a few local and state public reports. The advocacy agency Disability Rights Texas (2021)26 conducted a survey of Texas residents with disabilities and those who provide care to people with disabilities around the state. Of the 597 survey respondents, nearly two-thirds reported they lost power for more than 24 hours during the winter storm, and 22% of respondents reported they were without power for more than four days. Moreover, 80% of respondents reported they lost water for more than 24 hours during the storm, and 32% reported they lost water for four days or longer. The extended loss of electricity put people who rely on power-dependent durable medical equipment in peril (Huff, 202127), and hamstrung many people’s ability to use their phones and other devices to reach out for assistance (Disability Rights Texas, 2021). The State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry (STEAR) is a statewide database of Texas residents with disabilities that local governments can ostensibly use to perform welfare checks during emergencies. Evidence suggests, however, that STEAR was not appropriately utilized during the storm, as few wellness checks were provided to disabled community members (Barned-Smith, 202128; Disability Rights Texas, 2021). Both the previously mentioned Disability Rights Texas survey and the City of Austin After Action Report (Winter Storm Review Task Force, 2021) documented widespread issues with communication, including emergency management information being disseminated in formats inaccessible to those in the blind and Deaf communities. Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated disability-related dangers during the storm. At the time, strained hospitals were sending COVID-19 patients home to recover with the aid of breathing machines, but these patients often lacked backup generators or batteries in case of power outages (Hixenbaugh & Treviza, 2021).
While it is important to document the unique vulnerabilities people with disabilities experience in disaster contexts, it is also necessary to recognize that disabled people are active agents in their own survival and contributing members of their social networks (Stough & Kelman, 2018). Common disability tropes portraying disabled people as a monolithic group that is universally homebound, isolated, and passive persist in emergency management research and practice (Roth et al., 201829). Thus, disability activists advocate for emergency management approaches that recognize disabled people as “networked” and “interdependent” community members (Connon & Hall, 202130) who possess rights in all stages of disasters (Priestley & Hemingway, 2008; Stough & Kelman, 2018). Advocates also assert that leaders of disabled people’s organizations be recognized as key stakeholders who should be at the table in emergency management planning (Roth et al., 2018).
This qualitative study was guided by the three research questions: 1. What were the specific pathways by which Texas residents with disabilities experienced social vulnerability during Winter Storm Uri? 2. How did people with disabilities exercise resilience in negotiating these vulnerabilities during the storm? 3. What forms of care did participants both provide to others and receive from others during the storm?
These research questions were explored through interviews conducted with Texans with disabilities who endured Winter Storm Uri. At present, I have conducted 47 interviews with community-dwelling Texas residents with disabilities. I have also interviewed six nondisabled parents who are caregivers for children (both adult and minor) with severe disabilities. I conducted the interviews between November 2021 and May 2022 under the approval of The University of Texas at El Paso Institutional Review Board (IRB).
Table 1 provides demographic information on the study sample, including participants’ disability status. It should be noted that some participants have multiple disabilities; thus, the sum is higher than the 53 study participants.
Table 1. Characteristics of Interviewee Sample
|Hard of Hearing||1||1.9|
|Caregiver for Child with Disabilities||6||11.3|
I employed multiple strategies to recruit participants for this study. I shared my recruitment announcement on multiple local Facebook groups in various regions of Texas. I also shared the recruitment announcement in Facebook groups specific to Texans with disabilities and chronic health conditions. In addition, I established relationships with disability-focused organizations and agencies, such as Disability Rights Texas. Several disability-specific organizations around the state shared my recruitment announcement via email within their networks. I also employed the snowball method, asking participants to share information about the study within their social circles (Lareau, 202131). Finally, I recruited some participants by establishing connections with organizations that are not disability-focused, but work with low-income and unhoused populations in several metropolitan areas.
I shared the study consent form with participants via email prior to their interviews. Participants had the option to reply to the email stating they read and understood the consent form and consented to be part of the study. They also had the option to provide verbal consent at the start of the interview. Enabling flexible options for providing informed consent is important for research involving disabled participants, and I obtained permission to offer these flexible options as part of my IRB proposal.
Interviews were conducted over the phone or on Zoom, according to participant preference, and lasted between 45 minutes and one hour, on average. I recorded the interviews using the Zoom platform or the Recordator phone conferencing system. I provided a $15.00 Amazon gift card to each participant upon completion of their interview.
The preliminary findings I present in this report are based on notes I took immediately following each interview. In preparation for this report, I documented demographic information for each participant from the interview recordings. I also transcribed specific quotes from participants and verified details in their stories using the recorded interview files. I am in the process of transcribing all interviews and will complete a more robust analysis of the data using NVivo qualitative data analysis software once all transcripts have been generated. All participant names used in this report are pseudonyms.
As a disabled scholar myself, I maintain an ethical commitment to sharing my study findings back to disability communities. I will share this report, along with future publications, with all study participants. I will also share publications within the disability-specific social media groups within which I recruited participants and the leaders of advocacy organizations who assisted me in disseminating my recruitment announcement.
Reflecting broader patterns among Texas residents, study participants had a wide range of experiences related to Winter Storm Uri. Participants experienced varying combinations of utility outages for different lengths of time. Some were recovering from COVID-19 on top of preexisting disabilities and chronic health conditions. Others feared contracting COVID-19 which influenced their decisions about how to endure the storm. Many recalled how temperatures in their homes plummeted to 30 and 40 degrees, how they were unable to cook food, and how hygiene deteriorated without the ability to shower or flush toilets. While these conditions were experienced by millions of Texas residents regardless of ability status, my interviews revealed the unique dangers many Texas residents with disabilities faced during the storm. Participants described how the interaction of their impairments and the collapse of public infrastructure limited their options for managing during the storm.
Impact of Public Utility Failures
Some participants faced immense hardships, and even life-threatening conditions, due to the extended loss of power in their homes during Winter Storm Uri. The crisis generated by the loss of power was particularly acute for those who rely on durable medical equipment, such as powered wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, ventilators, and powered hospital beds for life-giving functions, mobility, and pain management Furthermore, many participants were unable to evacuate due to the inaccessible homes of loved ones or fears about contracting COVID-19, a serious concern for those participants with conditions that made them especially vulnerable to the devastating impacts of the virus.
Grace is a 59-year-old White woman who uses a ventilator due to having only 20% lung capacity on her own. Grace and her husband had done all they could to prepare for the possibility of an extended power outage. Yet their preparations were not enough to get them through the prolonged period they were forced to go without power. During her interview, Grace recalled the most harrowing night of her experience. After managing for three days without power, Grace got down to her last back-up battery to power her ventilator. In addition, outdoor temperatures got so low that their generator locked up. Grace wept as she recalled how scared she was that night, as she faced life-threatening conditions. And she explained, “I still have PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] about it.”
Within this dire context, participants’ options were often constrained by their disabilities. For example, some participants decided not to evacuate to the homes of loved ones who had power because those homes were not accessible for them. Victoria is a 60-year-old Hispanic woman who uses a wheelchair. When Victoria lost power in her home at the onset of Winter Storm Uri, she had the option of evacuating to her sister’s house, where power was still running. Victoria did not have a way to transport her wheelchair, however, and she did not want to give up the autonomy that her wheelchair provides, including toileting, if she evacuated. Facing the prospect of giving up her autonomy, Victoria decided to endure the storm in her home without power rather than evacuating to her sister’s house.
Due to electric and gas outages, many study participants were forced to endure frigid temperatures within their homes and did not have the ability to cook or heat up food. As the result of freezing temperatures inside their homes, those with physical disabilities and certain chronic illnesses experienced an intensification of their health conditions, including heightened physical pain, discomfort, and spasticity (stiffness). Those with forms of paralysis were in particular danger in the freezing indoor temperatures.
Will is a 29-year-old White man who has significant physical disabilities that limit his mobility. Will and his family lost power for three days and continued to experience rolling blackouts for an additional two days. The temperature in Will’s family home dipped into the thirties during this time. With limited movement due to his disabilities, Will could not get adequate blood circulation to his feet in the freezing indoor temperatures. He recalled how his feet turned “very purple” during the three days his family went without power. Will feared if he went much longer without heat, his feet would have to be amputated. As Will described, “I was scared I was going to lose my feet. That’s how purple they were.”
Daniel, a 44-year-old Hispanic man, initially opened his apartment to two friends who had lost power. Soon after, however, Daniel’s apartment lost power, too. This was a very dangerous situation for Daniel because he is a quadriplegic who could die if he gets too cold. Daniel’s friends kept his body temperature regulated by placing hand-warmers on his chest and feet. The care Daniel both gave and received during the storm illuminates how people with disabilities played roles as interdependent actors within their social networks during the disaster.
Several participants resorted to dangerous methods to stay warm during the storm. Colleen is a 72-year-old White woman who is paralyzed. Colleen and her roommate tried to stay warm the first night of the power outage by keeping their gas stove on. They abandoned this strategy the next day after relatives warned them by phone about the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Christina is a 39-year-old White woman who lives with multiple serious chronic illnesses. Christina and her husband went to extraordinary measures to keep themselves and their five children warm during the days they went without power. After burning through their firewood, they burned recycling and everything else they could in the fireplace as their only source of heat. The night before their power was finally restored, they were running dangerously low on anything left to burn. Christina and her husband had decided that, if power was not restored by the next day, they would have to resort to chopping down the large tree in their front yard. After a four-day ordeal, their power was restored the next morning.
A number of study participants did not have access to running water during part or all of Winter Storm Uri. These participants experienced varied combinations of having no running water at all and having running water that had to be boiled. The loss of water generated unique stressors for these participants related to disability. Parents caring for children with severe disabilities, for example, frequently discussed the difficulty they experienced trying to provide ICU-level care at home without water for cleaning equipment. In addition, participants with disabilities discussed how the loss of water intensified their disabilities.
Monica is a 28-year-old Hispanic woman who lives with complex chronic illnesses. Monica had already experienced a sharp decline in her health after contracting COVID-19 prior to Winter Storm Uri. The severe conditions she and her husband endured inside their apartment the week of the storm further exacerbated these health issues. During her interview, Monica shared her vivid memory of the agonizing thirst she experienced during the disaster, as she had to ration what little water they had to be able to ingest the 15 pills she is prescribed to take every four hours to manage her disabilities. Monica’s preexisting health conditions also worsened as she tried to skip medication to ration their dwindling supply of drinking water.
Several participants discussed how the physical exertion required to manage without running water greatly intensified the pain they were already experiencing due to the frigid temperatures outside and inside their homes. Deborah’s experience is a poignant example. Deborah is a 39-year-old White woman who lives with significant pain due to multiple chronic illnesses. Deborah had no running water in her home for a week after the power outage damaged equipment at the water plant in her small town. In order to get water to flush the toilet, Deborah spent hours each day shoveling snow from small plastic food storage containers into a trashcan, which she would then carry into the house and fill her toilet tank. Because Deborah’s pain is concentrated in her neck and shoulders, performing these physical demands for days caused a sharp decline in her health. Reflecting the contributions many participants made to others during the disaster, Deborah had given a case of water to her neighbor, who was caring for a newborn baby. When Deborah realized she, herself, was running low on drinking water, she ventured out to purchase water, which turned into a multiple hour ordeal in which her car got stuck. This ordeal significantly worsened Deborah’s symptoms. As Deborah explained, “Even going outside in the cold was enough to really, my body just wants to shut down. But I couldn’t, you know, I had to have water…There was just no choice.”
Participants employed creative strategies for managing without water, which demonstrates their resilience. Tracy is a 53-year-old White woman with physical disabilities. When Tracy began to run low on water, she turned to the Nextdoor app to ask for and receive help from previously unknown neighbors. In response to Tracy’s post asking for assistance with water, a neighbor responded that she had extra water she could provide, but that she was not equipped to get out and drive in the treacherous weather conditions. Another neighbor then responded that she had a truck and would pick up the water and deliver it to Tracy. Thus, between the two previously unknown neighbors, Tracy received an essential supply of drinking water.
Participants had widely varied experiences with cell phone and internet outages. Some had uninterrupted service. Others had spotty service. Recognizing their phones were an essential lifeline, many went to extraordinary lengths to keep their cell phones charged when they lost power. A few participants lost most to all cell phone and internet service during the storm, and these participants named the loss of connection to the outside world as one of the most psychologically distressing aspects of their experience enduring the disaster.
The loss of telecommunications was a uniquely stressful experience for blind study participants. Because they do not drive, these participants rely on their phones to coordinate much of their transportation, including getting bus schedules, requesting rideshare trips on platforms such as Uber, and coordinating rides with family and friends. Several participants discussed how they felt that their transportation lifelines had collapsed around them due in part to telecommunications infrastructure failures. Roberto is a 40-year-old Hispanic man who is blind. Roberto and his wife, who is also blind, had extremely limited cell phone service during the storm. During his interview, Roberto described feeling that his independence had been stripped from him during the disaster. After going more than a day without any heat source in their home, Roberto made the difficult decision to ask his parents to make the dangerous trip to pick him and his wife up. Even after making this difficult decision, Roberto had difficulty communicating with his parents due to their spotty cell phone service. Roberto repeatedly tried to get through to his parents, finally shouting, “Come pick us up now!” during a moment of connection.
A Broken Safety Net
During Winter Storm Uri, emergency safety nets for the general public, and for disabled residents specifically, largely failed to protect residents from life-threatening danger. In some instances, overall infrastructure failures impeded the normal functioning of emergency services. Ken is the father of a 19-year-old daughter with severe disabilities who requires the use of multiple types of durable medical equipment. After realizing they needed to evacuate their home due to the prolonged loss of power, Ken attempted to call the fire department for assistance moving his daughter downstairs. When he placed the call, however, he was connected to a fire department in an entirely different jurisdiction. Ken ultimately had to walk to the nearby fire department where he was finally able to get emergency medical technicians (EMTs) to come and assist him.
During the week of the storm, local municipalities opened warming shelters where people could receive shelter and other basic services. None of the participants in my study made use of these warming shelters, however. Participants discussed concerns that caused them to view this option as a last resort. Many were especially concerned about the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 in these crowded public settings. Others worried they would be discriminated against in the shelters due to their disabilities, or they did not want to leave their pets behind. Finally, some said they simply had no way to get to a warming shelter.
Some participants found themselves caught in double binds as they navigated bureaucratic rules. Lucas is a 37-year-old Hispanic man who is blind and diabetic. Lucas’s health was in sharp decline after enduring two days with his wife in their apartment without power or water, and with little food. Lucas called 311, but dispatchers told him if they came to get him, they could only take him to a warming shelter, not to another home. Lucas thought going to a warming shelter at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic would be too dangerous.
Lucas’s friend, who is also legally blind, had power in his home. Fearing Lucas and his wife were in critical danger, Lucas’s friend walked four miles in the frigid temperatures, snow, and ice to Lucas’s apartment. After packing backpacks with a few essentials and their tiny dogs, the three subsequently walked four miles in the disastrous winter conditions, holding onto one another, to reach their friend’s house. During his interview, Lucas conveyed that he does not think he would have survived the disaster if the friends had not collectively decided to make this treacherous journey.
Study participants also expressed feeling betrayed by the failure of disability-specific services, and some participants did not know such services even existed. No participants reported receiving a wellness check as the result of registering with STEAR. Moreover, many participants did not even know STEAR existed. In addition, several participants reported having jumped through bureaucratic hoops with their utility companies to register as a household that required power to operate critical care devices long before the storm. Yet, when they lost power, the utilities did nothing to meet their essential need for power over an extended period of time. Marybeth and her husband provide ICU-level care at home to their 40-year-old daughter, who has severe disabilities. Marybeth had completed the cumbersome paperwork required to be listed on their power company’s critical care registry. Despite this preparation, however, the family endured days without power and water, staying in the house even as part of their home flooded from a burst pipe. Marybeth shared her frustration about the failures of these disability-specific safety nets:
"I…felt like, "Why do we have this registry? And why is it so incredibly difficult to get on it if, again, it doesn't mean that the cavalry is coming?" Because what I figured out real fast was there was not a cavalry, and they were not coming."
During the storm, one participant, Leah, made an extraordinary decision that helped to keep emergency services operating in her rural town. Leah is a 28-year-old White woman who lives with multiple chronic illnesses, one of which mimics cancer. Leah works part-time as an EMT. The first day of the storm, the fire station out of which Leah was working lost power, and the ambulances could not make it up the steep hill to get to the fire station in the ice and snow. Leah made an extraordinary decision. She asked for, and was granted, permission to host the EMT team at her house during the week of the storm. Though Leah did not have power, she had a propane heater that could keep her team warm and allow them to sleep in between shifts. Against her doctor’s urging, Leah made the decision to stop taking her chemotherapy medication so that she would be alert during this distressing week. Even as she, herself, was enduring pain due to her chronic illnesses, Leah’s sacrifices helped to keep a frayed emergency response system running in her rural area.
Short-Term and Long-Term Impacts
The problems some study participants experienced during the week of the storm did not immediately dissipate when temperatures warmed and utilities were restored. Several participants experienced significant damage to their houses and apartments due to burst pipes. Others became ill or experienced an intensification of disability-related limitations as a result of the disaster. Most participants discussed long-term psychological stress they have endured as the result of their experiences during Winter Storm Uri.
Norma is a 67-year-old White woman who lives with her adult daughter who has Down syndrome. Norma and her daughter were recovering from COVID-19 when Winter Storm Uri hit. Their ordeal did not end once power was restored. Norma’s daughter took a shower at a relative’s house. The water turned out to be contaminated, which led to a serious ear infection that required surgeries and took five weeks to heal.
Vernate is a 63-year-old Black woman with multiple physical and mental disabilities. When she and her husband lost power at their apartment, they evacuated to their son’s home so she would have access to the electricity needed to run her oxygen machine. In her son’s crowded apartment, however, Vernate had to sleep on a worn-out sofa in the living room. Sleeping on this unsupportive sofa for days intensified Vernate’s physical disabilities so much that she was barely able to walk by the end of the ordeal.
Becky is a 49-year-old White woman who has multiple physical disabilities caused by abuse from a former intimate partner. At the time of the storm, Becky was living in a subsidized one-bedroom apartment with her boyfriend, his ten-year-old daughter, her adult daughter, and her infant grandson. The family was recovering from COVID-19 when Winter Storm Uri hit. Becky and her family endured a harrowing week trapped in their upstairs apartment with no power and a burst hot water heater. She and her daughter went to extraordinary measures to keep the baby warm. Yet Becky’s struggles did not end once power was restored. Shortly after the storm passed, black mold quickly spread over everything in their apartment. With the assistance of a community organization, Becky and her family moved to a hotel room, where they stayed for a month. Becky had difficulty communicating with the apartment managers, and she was unable to relocate due to restrictions associated with her Section 8 housing voucher. Knowing she had to get back into her apartment, Becky convinced the apartment manager to get the mold cleaned out and to hang drywall. In exchange, she promised to paint the apartment herself. After painting her apartment despite her physical limitations, Becky was bedridden for weeks.
A subset of participants with physical disabilities experienced long-term loss of their mobility due to damaged durable medical equipment, including power wheelchairs. Sandy is a 64-year-old White woman living in a rural area. Sandy’s power wheelchair, refrigerator, and air conditioner were damaged by power surges she experienced in her home during the storm. She submitted an application with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funds to replace these critical items, but her claims were denied because she could not prove they were damaged by the storm. It took Sandy approximately a year to get her wheelchair replaced through her insurance company. Without a working wheelchair, Sandy was seldom able to leave her mobile home. When I asked her how she moved about her home during this time, she replied, “Scootin’.” In a desperate attempt to receive assistance to get her wheelchair replaced, Sandy wrote a letter to Texas Governor Greg Abbott, asking for assistance and appealing to their common identity as wheelchair users. She did not receive a response from the Governor’s Office.
Finally, many participants discussed experiencing long-term psychological distress as the result of their experiences during Winter Storm Uri. Participants often used the term “PTSD” to describe the long-term psychological impact from the storm. This psychological distress surfaced again when another winter storm swept across Texas in early February 2022, one year after Winter Storm Uri. Rita is a 44-year-old American Indian woman who lives with both physical and mental disabilities. Rita was unhoused during Winter Storm Uri, and she and her then husband survived the entirety of the storm in a tent under a highway overpass. During her interview, Rita described the recent psychological distress she experienced when she heard that winter weather was once again headed in her direction. “This year when they said we were going to have another one, I had a panic attack immediately…I'm housed now, but I was like, ‘I can't live through that again.’ It was horrible."
Preliminary findings from this study point to the particular vulnerabilities people with a range of disabilities experienced during Winter Storm Uri. Some participants reported how the storm put their lives in danger while others detailed the ways it intensified the physical and psychological difficulties associated with their disabilities. Findings also illuminate how public infrastructure and bureaucratic systems at times impeded these individuals’ ability to seek and receive critical public services. Participants’ stories also reveal the resilience and ingenuity they exercised as they faced dire circumstances during the Winter Storm Uri disaster. Finally, participants’ stories illuminate remarkable patterns of care they both gave to and received from family, neighbors, and even previously unknown community members.
This study had some limitations, which should be noted. First, data presented in this report should be considered preliminary and are based on notes I took after each interview, along with a few transcribed quotes. I will conduct a more robust data analysis and publish the results in scholarly journals once transcripts for all 53 interviews have been generated. The demographic characteristics of my interview sample also present some limitations. First, the sample currently does not include participants who identify as culturally Deaf. Given many in the Deaf community do not identify as “disabled,” it was difficult to reach this community through disability-specific networks. I am currently working on targeted efforts to build connections with leaders in the Texas Deaf community to recruit Deaf participants for the study. Second, White Texas residents and individuals from urban and suburban regions were over-represented in the current sample. Because of my geographic distance from the areas of Texas heavily affected by Winter Storm Uri, I relied on informal disability networks, particularly on Facebook, and advocacy organizations to share my recruitment announcement. These strategies were more likely to reach residents who were better connected to disability communities, including those in metropolitan areas and those with higher levels of education, who are more likely to be connected within disability networks.
Preliminary findings from this study point to important avenues for future research. Future research on specific disasters should attend to disability as a significant dimension of social vulnerability, and the voices of people with disabilities should be amplified in future studies. Furthermore, there is a need to better incorporate disabled populations who are more difficult to reach, including those in rural areas and those who do not belong to disability advocacy organizations or online disability communities. Finally, future research should explore how disability communities, including formal activist and advocacy organizations and social media networks of disabled people, play roles in the dissemination of information and resources in disaster contexts.
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