Last week was eventful to say the least. Texas was visited by record breaking low temperatures. Our infrastructure broke down, leaving millions without heat, without power, and without water in sub-freezing temperatures, and we continued to be under a water boil notice a week after it all began.
While this was a challenging experience for my family, I recognize that we were way more comfortable and had more resources than most. As more time passes, stories of suffering in the community and also stories of acts of service are surfacing. My hope is that by taking a moment to capture this experience in a blog post, maybe an idea below will help someone else who is trying to prepare themselves for a “next time” (skip down to the bullets at the bottom if you just want to jump to that part). Additionally I hope this will serve as a record for my own family about our responsibility to do our part and use our privilege to hold people in office accountable to ensure our infrastructure is better prepared for unusual weather events and for supporting our most vulnerable communities.
For us it all started the night of Valentine’s Day. We got up around 1:30am to see the snow piling into a fluffy blanket enveloping the yard in a way we’d never before seen. Around 15 minutes later, the air filter fans in our room turned off, leaving the house in silence.
Fortunately this was our second unusual snow episode of 2021, the first of which left us without power around 8 hours in January. So we knew to expect a power loss and we tried to be as prepared as possible. In some ways we were, and in other ways we weren’t.
The weekend before this all began I made sure that we had fresh groceries that would last us comfortably from Sunday through Tuesday… not realizing the below freezing temperatures would continue until Saturday. Fortunately (unfortunately?), because the pandemic was already in full effect, we had a decent stash of frozen foods and pantry goods to sustain us beyond that. This has been important because the power and generators went down at many Texas grocery stores, and shelves were emptied in the days beyond the storms, and roads made stores not accessible to many during the storms.
There have been many things going through my mind this week, and I find myself just plain tired. My brain went through too much outside-the-box thinking and what if scenarios, coupled with poor sleep, concern as gas and firewood dwindled, panic when a neighbor’s house caught fire and subsequently burned to the ground, worry for relatives and neighbors, and being just plain worn out from boiling water for washing hands, brushing teeth, and trying to wash dishes – and we were lucky enough to have cold water the entire time. Many were working only with snow as their water source. Having water allowed my husband to regularly change our chickens’ water to make sure it was thawed the entire week. Turns out the chickens are quite hardy in low temps if they have a draft-free coop, water and if they are kept well fed. I focused on rotating food and water for the wild yard birds in our yard. That helped my mentality tremendously, as they brought me a lot of joy to watch and took my mind off things.
Being the person that I am, I made a list about the things that worked and the things that did not in this unprecedented situation. I even made note of the things that I appreciated within the experience (which does not mean that I ever want to do this again – just a way to ask my brain to look for the good).
The parts I appreciated included my ritual of feeding and identifying the birds through the window, as well as taking a moment to appreciate the unusualness of having such a long chunk of time disconnected from screens as a family. I also found my 12 hour shifts as “fire keeper” satisfying.
I would wake, start the fire, and keep it going steadily until just before bedtime while my husband braved the outdoor things needing to be done. We spent many hours around our little fire trying to keep warm, sometimes telling stories, sometimes reading, sometimes trying to scare each other. I enjoyed that and would welcome more of that kind of talking and sharing together under less stressful circumstances. The fire experience remained enjoyable … until we started running out of wood, which was cause for concern.
I also enjoyed the steady descent into darkness that began hours before bedtime each night. I found it helped me prepare for sleep, and also helped us get to bed earlier, which was ideal given how poorly we were sleeping in the cold all piled together.
One morning at 9am our indoor thermostat read 42. I imagine in was a bit colder than that during the night. Our drafty house was chilly to say the least for those three days, but having a lot of blankets, sleeping together and having dogs willing to go under the covers to warm feet helped tremendously as a way to raise body temperatures.
I also appreciated how little we were wasting during this time. Every bite of fresh food, particularly fruits and veggies, was valued and eaten, knowing it would be several days, if not longer, before we made it to the grocery store again. Nothing was dismissed just because “it didn’t sound good.” If we made it, we ate it until it was gone before making something new. There were no leftovers to toss in the days ahead.
After the lights turned back on, I found myself switching lights off and bringing us back into a darker lighting – this was in part because we wanted to conserve energy so other houses could continue having power restored, and partly because it was what we had become used to. I liked that it opened my mind to how much waste we’ve been allowing in normal times (apparently covid times are normal now). Having our home begin to heat into the 50s felt like luxury the first day it returned.
Things that worked.
- Having clothes for the pets. This helped take the chill off of them when they weren’t willing to do something sensible like sleep in the same room. It wasn’t just a way to make them look adorable. It was the difference between them shivering and being stressed versus being comfortable.
- I was really grateful we had a small stash of dry firewood, despite never having used our indoor fireplace before. It wasn’t as much as we would ultimately need for comfort, but what we did have got us through several days of low fires without heat in the house, especially on the day that it was in the single digits outside. We have been building a backyard office, and I was grateful for the untreated lumber scraps we salvaged from there, and also from recent wood working projects. They burned great. We were lucky we had a few starter logs from recent camping trips. Next time I will make sure we have more on hand.
- I was grateful for neighbors checking on us and one another, and opening their home and fireplaces to those without.
- Our neighborhood had a 48″ water main blow the road apart a few days before the storm began. City officials told some of the neighbors to expect water to be turned off while it was repaired. This actually didn’t end up happening, but because of this, we had some water jugs in our garage that came in handy in the storm and the subsequent water boil. We also had filled a few buckets outside for flushing toilets prior to the storm.
- We had a small camping generator that could hold 2.5 gallons of gasoline. This came in tremendous handy when we needed to boost our refrigerated goods with power, plug in our phones or use wifi to call out while cell signals were down. I highly recommend having one of these if you can afford it. Ours is only big enough to run a camper for a small amount of time, but that was highly valued when we wanted to boil water with our electric tea kettle or a small space heater for an hour.
- Another unexpected advantage was having our only working refrigerator located in our garage. When the power went out, the elements kept food much colder than if it had been in the house. Incidentally, our house fridge was fried in the last snow day power outage. Turns out $99 refrigerators from craigslist sometimes pay for themselves and then some.
- We had a large bag of sand handy to put on sidewalks, and this was really helpful so we didn’t slip walking to get groceries throughout the day.
- Recycled brown grocery bags were a great source of fire tinder. We were glad to have plenty in our garage.
- Having a cellar in Texas. The person who built and lived in our house before our family dug an enormous crawlspace under our pier and beam house. It turns out what he created was ideal for keeping pipes and water heater insulated from the elements. We were fortunate that neither were damaged in the storm because of it. A few times we checked the temperature down there, and it was actually a few degrees warmer in the cellar than in our house! Prior to the day it all began, we ran a space heater down there and I do think that was held down there a while and helped a lot when the power went out.
- Having a few N95 masks that our daughter’s school gave its community members on hand. This was reassuring to know they were an option if we needed to gather with others and also came in handy when my husband volunteered to help shuttle water to communities that were shut off once the roads opened up.
Other things that worked well:
- Having a lot of rechargeable flashlights, including solar powered.
- Having a solar powered cell phone charger for the few times we had service enough to check on anyone.
- Having a stash of AA and AAA batteries for small flashlights. Both of my kids had a little battery lantern they kept by the bed at night in case they needed to get up in the darkness. Having this really helped alleviate worries with my youngest.
- Having a shower head water filter (which we purchased during a city-wide water boil that lasted two weeks after flooding a couple of years ago). This helps remove a lot of the icky stuff that is a part of untreated water.
- Having a gas stove a part of our camper. It is really wonderful to have a gas camping stove or camping gas burner to work on for meals, and to have propane on hand.
- Having a supply of herbs, teas, honey and supplements on hand for covid or other illnesses, as well as any vitamins or prescriptions already filled. I really appreciated nervines like passionflower and homeopathic nervous system calming remedies when our neighbor’s house was burning and anxiety was running high for everyone.
- Having a Berkey water filter. These things are amazing and really help with peace of mind year-round in our ever increasingly contaminated water system. We continued to need to boil our water, but technically the Berkey is supposed to work in a pinch, even if we had to fill it up with water from our creek or from snow.
- Having lots of matches.
- Having winter hats.
- Having multiple small thermometers to put around the house, cellar and refrigerator / freezer. This helped to know when pipes were getting too cold and also for making sure freezers and refrigerators are stayed cool before they reached a point that was questionable.
- Having a good shelter for our chickens that was closed off from drafts and filled with extra pine shavings, as well as a wind-breaker area.
- My partner figuring out how to siphon gasoline from his truck for our generator. If he hadn’t been able to figure that out and the power outage had lasted longer, the generator would no longer have been an option, which would have been a problem with not only the continued freezing temperatures but also the rising temperatures at the end of the week and the lack of power to the refrigerator.
- Having large batch of soup already made before the power outage began. This was easy and worked well for everyone, and was a complete meal on its own with meat, vegetables, broth, and a hot meal.
- Having a small amount of cash and our identification documents in one place. If our neighbors’ house fire hadn’t been contained, we would have needed to leave quickly, and fortunately we know exactly where documents were that we’d want to make sure were protected and came with us.
- Having a small amount of paper plates, paper towels and toilet paper on hand. When there’s no water, it’s helpful to not accumulate dirty dishes.
- Knowing where our water main cut off was located and knowing how to turn it off.
- Having a gas powered chainsaw to cut up scrap wood for firewood.
- Having new fire extinguishers. We used our indoor fireplace for the first time during this storm. It was comforting knowing our fire extinguishers were new and working if things went wrong, especially on the days that we weren’t accessible to rescue workers.
Things that didn’t work and things I’d want to do better next time.
- We needed way more firewood. And firewood that we had cut earlier in the year should have been stored under a tarp. We had some that should have been useable, but because we never anticipated running through so much of the dry wood that we had set aside under a covered area, it was left in the elements in our yard and was too wet for sure.
- Gas for the generator. It was touch and go whether or not we’d have had gas for our generator beyond day three until my husband managed to figure out how to siphon gas from his truck (which is designed specifically to prevent siphoning). It would have been better to have trailed siphoning prior to being in the middle of the cold weather.
- I would have appreciated more premade frozen food to work from that could be heated on a gas stove or over a fire. I really liked having frozen pot stickers that could be heated with just a little water in a pot. Eating something hot when you’re cold is incredibly comforting.
- A snow shovel might have been nice, but my husband did pretty well with a basic flat shovel to create walkways so we wouldn’t slip on ice.
- We needed cold weather clothing. Living in Texas does not require one to have waterproof winter gloves, winter jackets or shoes. I would like all of these for next season, as well as more wool socks and wool leggings. We had a few of the socks and long johns but when you’re not bathing for a week, as few extra pairs would be (and smell) wonderful.
- We ran short on chicken feed and should have had that better stocked up. We managed to make it work all the way through the week and got more on the day that it all thawed (albeit not the kind they are used to), but we should have had an extra 50 pound bag from the get go. Turns out chickens need to eat a lot of grain during cold weather to keep warm, so we were feeding them extra and ran out sooner than we anticipated. Next time we’ll have an extra bag on hand.
- Making sure we had flood clean up materials if a pipe had burst. Fortunately that was not a concern this go around.
All in all we were very fortunate and did great. There are things we’d do differently for sure, but for the most part it was reassuring how well prepared we were, despite living in a poorly insulated home with pipes that were meant for triple digit heat, not a week in sub 20 degree, and sometimes single digit, temperatures.
It’s unacceptable how many vulnerable communities and families were in truly life-threatening situations and without resources to avoid hypothermia or meet basic survival needs. Not to mention the people who did lose their lives. Now that we’re through the storm, so many are experiencing financial hardship trying to repair their living environments. Take care of yourself and each other on the recovery side of all of this.
If you can volunteer, the city of Austin has listed the following ways folks can volunteer: http://austintexas.gov/help-atx-winter. Additionally Austin Mutual aid has been doing important work that should have otherwise been covered by our government infrastructure. Here is a list other organizations supporting Texans with recovery.