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Building Resilience Centers in Houston

Public Citizen News / May-June 2021

By Michael Coleman

This article appeared in the May/June 2021 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

When temperatures tumbled into the single digits for five days in Texas in February, the state’s electrical grid failed, leaving 4 million people shivering in the dark.

At last count, nearly 200 people died in the catastrophe, most of them from hypothermia. In the aftermath of the tragedy, politicians and energy industry officials began pointing fingers and assigning blame, but Public Citizen’s Texas office went to work on proposals to protect Texans.

At the Texas Legislature this year, Public Citizen lobbied for bills that would increase investments to reduce energy demand in communities across the state and force the fossil fuel industry to weatherize their infrastructure. We’re also advocating for innovative community resilience centers to give Texans – especially the most vulnerable – shelter in storms to come.

A bill, H.B. 4090, introduced by U.S. Rep. James Talarico, would award grants or loans guarantees to entities that invest in solar energy and energy storage at facilities that can be used to provide “essential community services” such as free water, food, shelter, medical care, and other help during disasters.

Kaiba White, Public Citizen’s energy policy and outreach specialist in Austin, said the deadly Texas freeze jump-started civic discussions about protecting people during episodes of dangerous weather, whether it be extreme heat or cold, fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, or other life-threatening events.

“We are urging our state and local governments to put funding toward solar energy with battery backup at key facilities to help communities during emergency situations,” White said. “These energy upgrades can be used for multiple purposes to get the most value from the investment. In addition to creating resilience hubs at local government and school buildings, it may also make sense to provide low-cost loans for nonprofits and other private entities to install solar and batteries in exchange for agreeing to provide free essential community services during emergencies.”

The Austin City Council has already directed the city manager to begin planning for so-called “resilience hubs” in Texas’ capital city. The idea is for a resilience hub to be located within a 15-minute walk of most residences because driving is unsafe during some emergencies, such as snow and ice storms. The resilience hubs would provide people with a temporary place to sleep, eat, get water, charge their phones, receive basic medical care, and more. In addition to local solar power that doesn’t rely on the notoriously unreliable Texas power grid, facilities could collect rainwater to be stored on-site if water services are interrupted as they were during this year’s Texas freeze.

Andy Tate, a spokesman for Austin, said in a written statement that executing the shelter plans will require new spending, but the city is committed to following through. “City staff have produced a number of climate resiliency recommendations, with many projects in various stages of implementation,” Tate said.

DeeDee Belmares, Public Citizen’s climate justice organizer in San Antonio, said she will initiate conversations with officials in Texas’ second largest city to potentially use older, vacant city properties as community resilience centers.

“Resilience hubs are being planned in cities around the nation to help communities prepare for extreme weather events,” Belmares said. “Winter Storm Uri left more than 300,000 people in San Antonio without electricity and water for days. It also showed us that the city and our utility companies were not prepared for a storm this size. It is now up to community organizations and grassroots groups to take ownership of their neighborhoods and make plans to protect residents for heat waves or ice storms.”

Public Citizen also supports efforts to build community resilience centers in Houston. Stephanie Thomas, Public Citizen’s Houston researcher and community organizer, noted that Resilient Houston, the citywide resilience plan signed into effect by Mayor Turner in 2020, calls for solutions to help mitigate dangers presented by the climate crisis and other upheaval in Houston communities. Houston is among American cities hit hardest by the crisis, especially increasingly frequent and ferocious hurricanes.

“Houstonians have been hit by disaster after disaster, leaving the most vulnerable community members to struggle time and again to rebuild their lives,” Thomas said. “Resilience hubs are one solution among many to give support to communities when these extreme weather events occur.”