Winter Power Outages Put Health at Risk

I used to look at power outages as minor inconveniences. Probably because most of the ones I had experienced lasted a few hours or less.

But with more frequent and longer power outages, we realize they’re more than inconveniences.

Some of them are costly. Due mainly to frozen and refrigerated food that spoils during a blackout.

Some outages pose health risks. Including serious ones. And in some cases, even death. Just ask the folks in Texas and elsewhere who endured Winter Storm Uri in February.

Indoor Icicles an Iconic Image

The Deep South experienced snow, ice and a long-lasting deep freeze. It was unlike anything residents had ever seen before. More than 200 people lost their lives.

Nearly 10 million homes and businesses lost electrical power. All due to record-breaking frigid temperatures. And a killer storm featuring snow and ice.

On February 15, it was colder in Houston, Texas than it was in Houston, Alaska. And Oklahoma City experienced its coldest morning since 1899. Water pipes in homes froze and burst.

In Houston, icicles were hanging from kitchen faucets. Ambulances in San Antonio were unable to meet the demand. In Galveston, officials called for refrigerated trucks. They were needed to hold bodies found in homes without power.

Electrical Demand Outstrips Supply

Texas established a winter peak demand record for electricity during the cold snap. Temperatures fell into the single digits or lower in some areas.

Warming centers were forced to close because they lost power. Walmart closed more than 350 stores in Texas and other states. The Texas grid simply was unable to provide needed power.

Temperature drops increased the demand for electricity. But cold and ice kept the supply of energy – especially natural gas – from being delivered.

U.S. Representative Marc Veasey of Texas said the power grid was minutes from failing. Only rolling outages saved it.

Is Texas Better Prepared Now?

Are Texas and other states now better equipped to handle another extreme weather event? It depends on whom you believe.

Texas legislature passed bills to make the state’s grid more resilient. Governor Greg Abbott said, “Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid.”

Curt Morgan isn’t sure that’s the case. He’s the CEO of Vista Corporation. It’s the largest generator of power in the Lone Star State.

He said his company spent $50 million to prepare its plants for winter. Including wrapping three inches of rubber insulation around electrical cables. And shielding valves, pumps and pipes with enclosures.

Weatherization Is Incomplete

Despite the work, Morgan says it won’t be enough to prevent another disaster. That’s assuming another severe freeze occurs this winter. He blames the state for failing to provide a sufficient supply of natural gas.

“The gas system was not weatherized,” he told NBC News and the Texas Tribune. “And so we had natural gas producers that weren’t producing.” He says the same thing could happen again this winter.

Other energy experts echo Morgan’s words. They claim the Texas grid remains vulnerable. Mainly because new regulations are not strong enough. There’s too much “wiggle room” for companies to avoid weatherization improvements.

Doug Lewin is an energy consultant in Austin, Texas. He said, “It’s not a technology or engineering problem. It’s a regulatory problem. We don’t have a regulatory system in place that holds the industry accountable.”

“If we see a recurrence of the storm we saw last year, people should probably be worried.” So says Adrian Shelley. He’s director of the Texas office of Public Citizen. It’s a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

Snow, Ice, Cold and Tornadoes

Texas is hardly the only state inadequately equipped to handle extreme winter weather. The same is true in many other Southern states. And let’s not forget that Uri also hammered the Southeast, Midwest and Northeast last winter.  

More than 170 million Americans were under winter weather alerts due to the storm. The costliest storm on record ($196.5 billion) was the deadliest winter storm in North America since 1993.

Uri also produced five confirmed tornadoes in the Southeast over an eight-hour period. And nearly an inch of ice in Pennsylvania.

Jim Robb is president and CEO of North American Electric Reliability Corporation. He said this in a statement.

“Extreme weather events, such as the one in February 2021, are unfortunately becoming more commonplace. And the electricity ecosystem needs to come together to operate under more extreme, longer-duration and wide-area weather events.” 

Variety of Health Issues

Obviously, winter power outages can result in hypothermia. But there are many other health risks that can occur in a blackout.

They include cardiovascular, respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses. Those who rely on medical equipment are particularly vulnerable.

And then there’s carbon monoxide poisoning. Sometimes it’s the result of gas-powered generators being used inside a structure. Such as a garage. Or too close to vents and windows in homes.

Yes, power outages can sometimes be just minor inconveniences. But when they occur during an extreme weather event – as they often do – the result can be far worse. Outages can negatively affect your health in a wide variety of ways.

That’s why it’s crucial to protect yourself and your family with a safe and reliable generator.

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