A downed tree in Portland, OR on Jan. 13, 2024.Jenny Kane/AP

Upon snowfall in January, Nashville residents found the rare phenomenon almost enjoyable. A local musician shared a video, singing in the snow, along with the caption “I thought when we moved South we did not have to worry about snow…too hot to be cold!” However, the cheerful mood in Music City disappeared as the situation turned dangerous and incidents started to occur. Subsequently, power failed as equipment faltered in the cold.

The struggles faced by Nashville residents were not unique. The prolonged winter storm led to power outages for over 750,000 Americans. Clean water was unattainable in over 75 localities across both states, including Springfield, Oregon, where more than 60,000 inhabitants were compelled to purify their water for four days post pipe bursts and water infrastructure damage caused by the storm. Even as roadways have opened, the refreezing of water on streets and unforeseen calamities like cave-ins continue to make travel perilous.

Reportedly, over 70 Americans have succumbed. A majority of those fatalities are indicative of structural inadequacies—collisions on icy roads, hypothermia due to heat and power shortage, and tree-related harm—all of which could have been alleviated with improved infrastructure and urban planning.

Experts have promptly highlighted the contribution of climate change to the severity of the storm. Owing to a disturbed polar vortex, exacerbated by global warming, the polar jet stream is more inclined to bring extreme cold to specific regions. Ironically, climate scientist Jennifer Francis mentioned to the Associated Press, “When the Arctic is off-the-charts warm (like now), we’re more likely to see frigid cold invade places like Texas that are ill-equipped to deal with it.”

Some states, such as Oregon and Tennessee, are also unprepared for such scenarios, and they are witnessing the consequences. While eastern parts of Oregon have historically encountered regular snowfall in the double digits, the Willamette Valley (where most of Oregon’s damage was sustained) typically experiences, like Tennessee, five inches of snowfall annually. The average temperature in both locales never descends below freezing.

The lack of snow infrastructure in states accustomed to limited snow occurrences is unsurprising, as per Josh Bruce, associate director for applied research at the University of Oregon’s School of Planning. “We’re not going to have lots of snowplows and de-icers, because we don’t see these events particularly often,” he stated.

However, the issue extends beyond two underprepared states. The overall US infrastructure has consistently been insufficient for regular use, let alone the exacerbation caused by the climate crisis. Similar shortcomings have been observed conversely: Stateslike Massachusetts, renowned for its snow strength, encounter escalating wildfire danger—a threat Oregon has long been ready for.

“Nationally, when it comes to vital infrastructure specifically, the US doesn’t rate particularly well,” Bruce states, referencing years of public works and engineering evaluations. Joseph Schofer, emeritus professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University and the host of The Infrastructure Show, a podcast, concurs that our infrastructure is “in need of an update.” He indicated that infrastructure is designed for a “certain range” of stress and demand. “When conditions surpass that range, we are unprepared,” Schoefer explains. “Now, the threats have changed and they are much greater.”

Schoefer mentions that the lack of readiness was a deliberate choice. “We didn’t plan for that. We didn’t anticipate it. Should we have anticipated it? Historical evidence did not suggest it, but the trend line did.”

Bruce urged me to look beyond the current storm cycle to the systems behind it. “In this event, electricity was a major concern,” Bruce said. “Many people experienced power loss, and if their only reliance was on electricity, things would slow down and come to a halt.” The snowstorm demonstrated that Oregon could have enhanced canopy management, which would have lessened power outages.

It also revealed that the power grid lacked sufficient backups when its lines were damaged, a scenario that could occur in various disasters—including those more common to the region. In 2022, Oregon’s legislature passed a bill investing $220 million in fire preparedness, but the strategies concentrated on wildfire-specific responses such as risk mapping and prescribed burns. “Everybody will focus on the winter storm and overlook the context: how does this event fit in with the wildfires that we had in 2020? How do we consider the possibility of future flooding?” Bruce poses.

In 2020, during a particularly severe wildfire season in Oregon, the Oregonian reported that 50,000 residents lost power. Four years later, in the latest winter storm, grid failures left 200,000 without power. In February 2022, 132,000 people in Tennessee lost power due to a winter storm. The year before, 260,000 households in the state lost potable water also due to winter weather. “People’s attention spans are really short.” Bruce remarks.

Throughout the US, energy experts caution that power grids are unprepared for this weather—particularly amid the shift to green power. “There’s a fundamental difference between the gas and electric systems,” Ted Thomas, a former state energy regulator in Arkansas, stated to EnergyWire, alluding to the fact that pipelines are constructed “incrementally by contract,” in contrast to the widespread planning of a power grid. “When they are strained like this and we are relying on gas in extreme weather, it creates a challenging situation.”

Grid experts are devising plans to establish power stations that can withstand new disasters, especially after all power plants in New York state came perilously close to losing power in 2022’s Winter Storm Elliot. “You need to build a grid that’s bigger than the weather,” another expert informed EnergyWire.

The issue, however, lies in the US’ systematic delays in infrastructure investment. “We’re not consistently investing,” Schofer remarks. “We’re not repairing roofs when there’s a growing issue, every 10 years or so. We’re waiting every 40 years, [until] the roof is leaking, and then we exclaim, ‘Oh my God, I need a lot of money.’”

Even substantial investments such as the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure deal only scratch the surface of the necessary resources. The bill, which allocates over $343 billion for major projects like coastal restoration and road improvements, is not entirely as beneficial as it appears. “Upon careful reading, only half represents new investments and the rest constitutes routine investments.” While it’s a step in the right direction, Schofer tells me, “it’s a fraction of what we require.”

The country’s disinvestment in infrastructure disproportionately affects certain groups. “More vulnerable populations tend to experience a greater impact,” Bruce explains. Studies demonstrate that individuals reliant on electrically powered medical devices were disproportionately affected by winter storm outages. Communities of color and low-income communities have substandard infrastructure due to systemic disinvestment, making them more vulnerable when storms strike.

“Communities that lack a political voice tend to either be disregarded or negatively impacted by infrastructure decisions, whether that involves constructing highways through low-income neighborhoods or not investing in certain areas. That’s the reality of our culture and society,” Bruce states.

Bruce urges lawmakers and planners to adopt a multi-hazard approach. “Whether it’s an earthquake, a flood, a landslide, a windstorm, a drought, or a winter storm,” Bruce comments, “the more diversity in those systems, the better”—both in terms of having systems that cater to multiple events and maintaining backups.

Bruce recommends that states invest in microgrids, self-sufficient local power grids that will enhance the overall grid’s redundancy. This could involve installing solar panels and battery storage at crucial facilities like hospitals and fire stations, so they do not fail when the wider grid goes offline. 

Ironically, some responses to extreme weather necessitate a dependency on fossil fuels. Throughout Oregon, Bruce explains, “There have been activist efforts to eliminate natural gas usage in residences. Many are advocating for no use of fossil fuels ever. Personally, I don’t think that’s feasible—at least not currently, until we have better sources of backup power.”

Schofer agrees that climate-resilient infrastructure and decarbonization do not always align. “[Green energy] is another demand on resources. How much can we allocate for this? Another perspective is to ask, ‘If I have to rebuild, can I do this in a more environmentally friendly manner?’”

But Bruce warns against uncritically accepting certain green energy plans. “Batteries for electric vehicles or battery walls currently require some metals that have negative impacts. Extracting these affects tribal communities and natural areas. All of this involves trade-offs.” 

Three weeks after the latest storm, both Tennessee and Oregon are still recovering, with promising bills in the pipeline. The latest version of Tennessee’s Transportation Modernization Act pledges to significantly reduce the state’s extensive road repair costs, but not eliminate them. In Oregon, there is considerable support for a bill to finance housing infrastructure, both to address homelessness and bolster climate resilience. 

As temperatures rise and the next catastrophe looms, the question remains: is it sufficient?