For many Central Texans, latest bout of cold weather and outages reopens old wounds

A man in North Austin attempts to scrape the ice from his truck windshield after a winter storm on Feb. 1, 2023. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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Power outages, downed trees and icy roads. Missed paychecks, damaged roofs and burst pipes. Little relief from the biting cold.

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[As freeze subsides, Austin vows to restore more power Friday]

Large swaths of Central Texas are yet again struggling with the sequels of severe winter weather — a story that has become too familiar and too painful for many — and some experts worry these repeated winter crises are having a negative impact on people’s mental health.

Luz Maria Garcini, assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice University and a licensed clinical psychologist, said weather events have been traumatic for Texans over the past couple of years.

“The loss of control and autonomy in their environment leads to anxiety,” she said. “This sustained anxiety leads to depression because you get exhausted and people start isolating.”

Adam Fetterman, assistant professor for the psychology department at the University of Houston, said this phenomenon is an old concept known as learned helplessness.

“You have no control over your life and can’t predict what is going to happen. So it keeps happening and you keep getting traumatized,” he said. “At a certain point, there is nothing you can do and you just shut down and it can lead to depression.”

Garcini said Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 was particularly stressful because it hit at a time when Texans were already on edge.

“It was during a time of financial crisis and the pandemic. People were losing their jobs and there was a lot of uncertainty when it came to immigration,” Garcini said. “Then this tragedy struck and people weren’t able to have a warm home or lost their home all together. It was quite traumatic. It’s not just one stressor, but everything that surrounds it.”

Several days of freezing rain this week have paused normal life for many in Central Texas once again. The resulting power outages are not as widespread as in 2021 and are mostly due to localized issues like downed power lines, but they’re still reminding Texans of the disaster from two years ago — and the pain associated with it.

San Antonio resident Kim Mair said she experienced many of the same anxieties this week. She said the 2021 freeze led to broken pipes at her home and was a disaster for her family. Cold weather now gives her anxiety about the power going out.

“When I heard some people say it was snowing by them, it was dread. Instead of it being happiness and excitement, it was dread,” Mair said. “How many people are going to die this time?”

Awais Azhar, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, lost power early Wednesday morning in his apartment about 3 miles from the main campus.

He was living in the same place two years ago and remembers how frustrated he and other classmates were with the lack of prompt communication and solutions for students without power from the university. He said he felt many of the same feelings over the past two days as he and other residents struggled to get answers and information about resources.

“How are we going through the exact same thing two years later?” he asked. “That’s something very hard to understand as a resident.”

The winter weather has also had an impact on working families with children in school.

Esmeralda Alvarado, a Pflugerville resident who works as a housekeeper, said she has not worked since Monday and has lost about $700 so far. She has had to rethink her family's finances during the winter months. If she doesn’t work, that means less money for groceries and Christmas presents. The unpredictability of the weather has made it much harder to budget.

“We never know what’s going to happen,” Alvarado said of the workdays she might have to miss because of the extreme weather. “We never know if it’s going to be one week or two weeks or three weeks.”

She said that she misses the structure schools provide. Many school districts in Central Texas have been closed since Tuesday.

Alvarado said her kids don’t want to work on anything academic-related when classes are canceled. Being stuck at home also means her kids can’t release any energy, she said. They have a hard time going to bed and sometimes get into fights over toys or what to watch on TV.

Christa Stoebner, an Austin resident and mother, said she lost power in her apartment building and has been staying somewhere else since Wednesday. The food she bought before the storm hit went bad.

Since the 2021 winter storm, Stoebner said she feels a sense of nervousness and stress any time there is talk about severe winter weather.

“I’m basically nervous as a parent,” she said. “I worry about what the situation is going to be for my 8-year-old when something is coming.”

Luca Maxwell Gibreath, an Austin resident, said his home’s power has been out for a couple of days, leaving the apartment cold and with very little food. He said he hurt himself during the 2021 winter storm and now has a disability that makes it hard to walk.

“I won’t say I’m traumatized by the ice now, but it does make me hypervigilant and over-cautious about going outside,” he said. “I don’t want to go out, but my dogs need walks, so they’ve been keeping me going out and facing it.”

Many have struggled with leaving their pets at home while temperatures drop inside. Susanna Sharpe, a communications coordinator at the University of Texas at Austin, was without power for more than 20 hours and said her biggest cause of anxiety during this storm has been her elderly cat that cannot leave her home. Her house was built in the 1950s and has little insulation, forcing her and her husband to seek warmth at friends’ homes when temperatures dropped to 50 degrees inside.

Sharpe said the winter storm in 2021 caused a lot of anxiety about feeling trapped. This year has been more tolerable because she has been able to get warm at friends' homes without being afraid of getting COVID-19 from having contact with others. But Sharpe said she worries that these kinds of problems will continue to happen every time it gets cold.

“It gives me this slight feeling of foreboding that more of this is in our future because of the extremes of temperatures that are increasing,” she said.

Fetterman said the feeling of frustration or fear is not uncommon in these types of situations.

“We as humans do not like uncertainty,” Fetterman said. “We like to predict the future. It’s why people get so annoyed when a forecaster gets the weather wrong. We want that feeling of control.”

Fetterman said having weather preparation plans and emergency prepared kits can help ease some of the stressors associated with weather trauma.

“Having those plans and supplies in place can be very helpful and can provide some peace of mind,” he said.

He also encourages everyone regardless of their mental status to do a mental health check-in.

“People think they have to be in the throes of depression to get help, but that is not the case,” he said.

Disclosure: Rice University, University of Texas at Austin and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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