Legislature can prepare Texas against gray swan events

This piece was originally published by the Austin American-Statesman.

From the coronavirus pandemic to the winter storm that knocked out essential infrastructure across the state, the past year has been marked by several “unprecedented” events. And for each of them, we have been caught unprepared.

There is an important lesson here: Many of the events we consider unlikely are still very possible. They’re known in the business world as “gray swan” events. They may not happen often or even soon. But probability says they will happen at some point, and the resulting impacts will be significant enough that we have to be ready for them.

Gov. Greg Abbott has declared reviewing the state energy grid and expanding broadband as emergency items this session. These are critical infrastructure needs in which Texas can take lessons from the past year’s events to equip our state better for the future. We should apply the same perspective to all policy areas — including education, workforce development, health and natural resource management — by anticipating future events and viewing issues through the combined lens of recovery and resilience.

But first, we have to start with data. While the implications of this storm are still unfolding, too many have jumped at the opportunity to frame the narrative and advance a political agenda. The only agenda we should be advancing is that of providing safe, secure and reliable services to all Texans.

As this year’s Texas Voter Poll found, what voters demand from our officials are solutions. That means taking the time to listen to and work with experts to make sure that we understand exactly what happened — including what worked, and what didn’t — so that we can build in the resiliency that will allow us to reduce damage and quickly recover from future disasters.

Ten years ago, Texans suffered through a winter storm that knocked out power for millions of people. Twenty-two years before that, another extreme winter storm brought Texas’ electric grid to its knees. We have to anticipate facing similar threats in the future; and we have Texas data to help craft policies that will mitigate the harm of the next storm.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the Zurich Insurance Group and the American Red Cross made specific recommendations for Houston to build the resilience necessary to avoid future floods and hurricane disasters.

We can’t prevent every catastrophe. And we can’t build a system with 100% resiliency. But we can’t ignore reality, either. Research shows that Texas is going to face more extreme weather events by 2036. By skimping on new infrastructure or deferring maintenance, we are merely putting off the inevitable — and raising the price tag, both in terms of economic and human costs.

As the old saying goes, “pay now, or pay later.” By assessing our systems and infrastructure, we can identify weak points that must be strengthened and ensure that critical systems have built-in redundancies that will pick up the slack when a failure occurs along the line. By making those assessments and investments ahead of time, we can keep costs down. In other words, pay a little now and save a lot later.

This year’s winter storm affected every county in the state and could end up costing Texans tens of billions of dollars, making it the most expensive weather event in Texas history. We can help protect against future losses by building and maintaining a resilient, reliable and cost-competitive energy infrastructure.

But whether it’s water and electricity, broadband, education, health or government performance, the Texas Legislature has an opportunity this year to apply the same goals of planned resilience broadly across state policy so that, when the next disaster strikes, we’ll be ready.