Winter Weather

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The Texas Winter Storm Pushed My Resilience To The Limits. Again.

During an unprecedented winter storm, Texans pulled together despite myriad struggles. Just like we did last spring.

In the span of about 24 hours during last week's winter storm in Texas, the general vibe of our home devolved from a cheery chili-making, snowman-building, posing-for-a-photo-in-the-once-in-a-decade snowfall kind of feeling, to cold, dark, and worried about our family’s safety. It was similar to the uncertainty we felt in the earliest days of the COVID-19 outbreak, though unlike the slow-build of early pandemic worry, this crisis popped up rather suddenly, as our entire state’s infrastructure was crippled in just days.

Here in Houston, we watched with awe as the northern and western parts of the state were blanketed in fluffy white snow, eagerly awaiting our turn. Over the weekend, I baked some banana bread and prepared to stay home for the next few days due to icy roads. I knew we had candles and flashlights from hurricane season in case the power went out, which the news warned may happen if there was too much ice build up on the power lines. “We would be just fine for a few hours while the lines get fixed,” I told myself as I lugged the box of hurricane supplies out of its designated spot in the depths of our hall closet.

I felt like I was preparing for a weak tropical storm — something we're used to in Texas. Basically, we needed to stock up on a few extra days worth of food during our next grocery run, grab a couple of cases of bottled water, and have flashlights in an easily-accessible place. I wasn’t worried. If anything, we were excited about getting to play in real snow. Nothing online or in the news gave me any indication that I should be seriously concerned. Prepared, yes. But not afraid.

We built this miniature snowman on Monday. After we lost power, the snow play ceased because we were afraid we would be unable to warm back up.Photo courtesy of Ashley Jones

What I wasn’t prepared for was watching our entire state experience a natural disaster of this magnitude. Not that anyone ever is, but the weight of the dominoes that started to fall as the state’s power grid began to fail; icy roads prevented essential travel; and the temperatures inside of the homes of my friends and family started dipping into the 30s, was crushing. Nevertheless, much like when the entire world began to change last spring, we had no choice but to roll with the punches.

Because our own long-term power outage started about 24 hours after the storm entered Texas, I was able to learn a lot on social media about how to keep warm and stay safe if it happened to us. I knew to block off one room in our home for my family to camp out in, cover the windows with thick blankets, stuff towels under doors to keep the heat in, and pull whenever supplies we would need into that room.

The second I realized that our power was out and not blinking back on, I raced around our apartment to gather our non-perishable food, bottled water, and various toys to keep my 6-year-old occupied. He was such a trooper coloring and building LEGOs by candlelight, but I was also immensely grateful that I remembered to charge his iPad the night prior to losing power.

Keeping a 6-year-old occupied during a blackout is no easy task.Photo courtesy of Ashley Jones

We were without running water for a couple of days and then went several more without clean water as the city’s water system was compromised during the storm. I texted my parents after bathing myself and then my 6-year-old with two stovetop pots full of boiled water to thank them for sending me to science camp the summer after fifth grade. A water conservation experiment I did there required showering using only a gallon jug of water — that experience definitely came in handy this week.

I don’t know a single person in our state who wasn’t impacted by this storm in some way. One of our neighbors has relied on oxygen since being hospitalized with COVID-19 last month. About 12 hours after we lost power, she had to call an ambulance when her supply ran dangerously low.

My cousin in a rural part of central Texas melted snow so that their family of five could flush their toilets. A friend in Austin braved icy roads to evacuate her apartment after losing power, only to find herself in a home where the pipes burst and flooded that residence. Some family friends here in Houston sought shelter in a hotel when they lost power (at a point when rooms were still available and major price gouging hadn’t yet occurred) only to have the hotel lose power after they settled in.

These stories aren’t unique, they’re just the ones that I have first-hand knowledge of. I’ve stayed in near-constant contact with close friends and family through this time and we have all experienced some degree of power loss, water loss, damaged pipes, food insecurity, and have all struggled for warmth at some point.

Our family used this makeshift "water station" when our water stopped running, and then throughout the city's boil water advisory.Photo courtesy of Ashley Jones

One thing I know for certain is that Texans are resilient. Truly. The stories of neighbors helping neighbors you see posted on social media really do paint an accurate picture. Once the roads were clear of ice, my own husband left to help pass out free barbecue plates with his employer. We were still without power and water ourselves. The restaurant where he works was closed by the storm, but a crew showed up for several days in a row to cook and hand out free food to those in need of a hot meal. Everyone was still wearing masks and staying six feet apart, because oh yeah — we're still in a pandemic.

The implications of last week’s storms are far-reaching. So many families are just one disaster away from experiencing food insecurity or homelessness, and this crisis was that one for many. Businesses that spent the past year struggling through the pandemic were impacted by the storm as well, having to close when the roads were iced over and then remain closed because the power was out, the water wasn’t safe, or to make plumbing and heating repairs.

Although some schools are now back in session with more expected to open doors again this week, most in Texas had to be closed for at least a week, if not more. (The panic of watching for school closure updates is still a fresh wound, having not fully healed despite my kids returning to in-person school in September 2020.)

The past year of dealing with the pandemic has taught me (and many other parents — moms especially) that adapting to the mess around you might not be comfortable or fun, but it's do-able. You do the best you can with what you have. You shift, pivot, and change your plans over and over again until you find what works. Being forced to stay resilient despite crumbling infrastructure, inept government entities, and a myriad of uncertainties means that you just do whatever you have to do to get through. And in this case, to survive.

Over the past week, I watched as local Facebook groups were filled with threads containing updates about which gas stations had gas to fill up generators, which plumbers had availability to fix busted pipes, which grocery stores had milk and eggs, and which restaurants were open despite being under a boil water notice. That early-pandemic feeling of community was ever-present on social media.

It is incredible to see everyone pulling together and pitching in, but it’s also exhausting to see your home state suffer. Texans are slowly getting back to normal, but just like with the COVID-19 pandemic recovery, it’s going to be a long road.

Because the power was out for so long, many homes experienced food spoilage, and for some, restocking is not easy. Even though the grocery stores were open shortly after the roads were clear, they were quickly cleaned out by shoppers, and for a few days, deliveries were impossible due to road conditions. There will be many people who will need to rely on food banks during this recovery.

Access to safe water also continues to be a struggle for many Texans this week. Between busted pipes and a week of faucet dripping, systems across the state experienced low water pressure. Many communities are currently relying on bottled water for health and safety. We may call this particular event “unprecedented,” but there are places like Flint, Michigan that this type of clean water scarcity is actually precedent. After what Texans have experienced this week, my heart is heavy with the weight of that understanding.

I’m sure that following this week’s events, there will be plenty of research into what went wrong, and I’m hopeful that the issues will be addressed to help prevent future disasters like this one. In the meantime, please support Texans during this time if you can by donating to help our communities get back on their feet.