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Why is Texas facing so many extreme weather events?


Like many Southern states, Texas has been ravaged by extreme weather in the last couple of years - from tornadoes to tens of thousands of acres burned in wildfires. Local media there has called it once-in-a-lifetime weather. Environmental journalist Amal Ahmed joins us now from Dallas to tell us why this is happening. Welcome.

AMAL AHMED: Thanks so much for having me.

RASCOE: So, first of all, tell us what we're actually seeing in terms of weather in Texas.

AHMED: Yeah, so this past spring has been full of tornadoes and wildfires. There were a couple of tornadoes that hit recently in central Texas and then the end of March, also - the March and April has been very hot and dry, so we've seen record wildfires this season - mostly in west Texas and the Panhandle.

RASCOE: And so how is that different from in the past?

AHMED: Tornadoes - you think of that as a much later in spring kind of thing. So it's certainly earlier in the season. And I believe with the wildfires, you know, at least the drought conditions are almost as bad as the drought of record in 2011, which was the last time that we saw probably as intense of a wildfire season.

RASCOE: I would think that climate change is a factor in this. Can you talk about, like, what is causing this change?

AHMED: Yeah, I think with wildfires, that's a lot easier to kind of track. You know, hot, dry conditions - that's definitely something that climate change is increasing, particularly pushing those temperatures and conditions into, you know, earlier spring or late winter. Tornadoes are harder to sort of pin down to climate science. Scientists say it's because the records for tornadoes and, like, how often they happen are pretty hard to prove going back as long. And also the conditions being, like, warmer air colliding with cooler air and the humidity and all of that - like, these things are becoming more common in earlier spring and late winter.

RASCOE: So it sounds like the changes are happening. So it is having an impact. How is it affecting the people who are really most vulnerable to these types of changes?

AHMED: So I guess the idea, you know, behind natural disasters that I've heard a lot from folks who study these is the idea that the events themselves are not disasters, right? So a wildfire in and of itself is not a disaster. A tornado in and of itself is not really a disaster. And it's kind of when we have any of these extreme weather events hit a city or collide with a town, destroying farmland - like, that is really kind of the natural disaster part. That is when you have people struggling to recover from that - rebuilding their homes, recovering all the losses financially, dealing with government agencies - right? - going through this kind of alphabet soup of programs and agencies and all of that.

RASCOE: You've talked a lot about how energy efficiency could make a difference or, like, weatherization of houses and how a lot of that is not happening in Texas or is not mandated to happen in Texas. Like, how does that impact someone's home to not have it be weatherized to withstand really hot weather or really cold weather?

AHMED: Yeah, I mean, we saw this certainly with Winter Storm Uri last year, right? Homes that are sort of built to older standards are not really going to keep a set temperature for a very long time. You're going to be pumping in more heating or cooling, depending on the season, to stay comfortable. So for low-income families or households, that means a much higher energy bill than you'd be paying, you know, if you had upgraded windows, if your insulation was retrofitted and all of that - right? - or even if you had more efficient appliances. Housing, in a lot of senses, is just such an important tool in terms of climate resiliency and in disaster recovery, as well.

RASCOE: How can people prepare to survive this kind of weather? Like, what can they do on their own?

AHMED: Have a go bag ready. Like, if you're in an area where evacuations might be something that you're facing, right - whether it's wildfires or a flood or something like that, you know - with tornadoes, it's harder to predict - but supplies for a couple of days if the power goes out - important documents, you know, licenses, IDs, things like food and water, flashlights, things like generators and whatnot - these are really great to have if you can afford it - right? - in case the power goes out or something like that.

RASCOE: That was environmental journalist Amal Ahmed. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

AHMED: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.