We’ve all read the headlines and tragedies out of Texas the last couple weeks. So much of the media coverage has focused (and rightly so) on questions of how this could have happened and who’s to blame.
But to those of us in the disaster preparedness community, the most important stories have come from the people on the ground.
For the last two weeks we’ve talked to Emergency Essentials community members in Texas who are fighting with the basics of survival—staying hydrated, warm, and fed—even as snow falls and utilities fail.
One of those community members is Randall in San Antonio. He’s offered to share his story with us of what it’s been like living through this historic disaster. The lessons he and his family have learned are something we all need to hear.
Within two days temperatures in San Antonio went from 80° to 32° degrees and six to eight inches of snow fell in some places.
This Snowstorm Didn’t Just “Come Out of Nowhere”
EE: So, let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about that first day you knew the storm was going to hit.
R: We knew something was going to happen around the 10th or 11th of February when they started talking about the storm rolling in.
EE: And you told me that you and your family had a heads up—maybe more than others—because you pay such close attention to the weather.
R: Yeah, the first thing I do every day is look at the weather. I look at the clouds. I look at everything that has to do with the precipitation. The pressures. The pollen and the dew points. Everything.
Because I keep on top of things, I knew as far back as early January that the polar vortex was collapsing, and it was going to release the arctic hounds. The information is not hard to find. It’s on sites like Weather.com. It just misses its place in the mainstream media because of all the politics and because weather patterns are not on peoples’ radars.
EE: There’s lesson number one, I’d say, especially in this day and age of increased weather disasters. Part of being prepared is doing your homework and paying closer attention to weather than the mainstream media shows.
R: Yes, even with that though, I figured we might get some freezing rain or fog, but really, I thought that would be the worst of it. I was not expecting a week solid of ice and snow and having everything below freezing for so long. There were six to eight inches of snow in some places!
A 15-minute trip to the store became a four-hour slog through traffic and long lines.
The Last Chance to Prepare
R: Around the 10th or 11th of February it started to rain and got really cold. The temperatures went from 80 degrees on Tuesday to 32 degrees on Thursday.
On that first day, it froze up our car pretty quickly with a sheet of ice to the point where the car stopped working. We hand't winterized it. So we had to de-ice it just to leave our house. This was the last chance to prepare and everyone knew it.
When we finally got out, we went to the grocery store first. The largest store in town—a name that everyone in the country would know well—was closed. Their doors were shut. Their parking lot was empty. There were a few workers standing outside telling people to move along. And the next day they were closed too.
I think they had some food spoilage or something. I mean, I'm just speculating. No one ever said.
EE: I know the store you’re talking about, and that’s important to note. You live near a large city, so there are other options. But I've lived in small towns where if that store were closed during an event like this, there'd be real trouble getting any resources at all. It would be even more panic.
R: Agreed. At that point we went over to another store and they had just a few things left. Mostly soy milk and things people didn't want. We managed to get some bread, eggs, and a few batteries though.
Then we filled up the tank with gas and just went back home because the crowds were relentless. The line to get in was 20 minutes. It was 10 times deeper by the time we left.
Also, it was hard to get around because all the traffic lights were flashing. It took us an hour and a half to get to the store, and two hours to get back home. It usually takes 15 minutes.
With power, cell phone service, and Internet out, this AM/FM radio was an information lifeline for days.
Saved by the Radio
R: By this time the cell phone towers were down. I couldn’t get 4G. Our home network was down. I didn't have any information about what was going on.
Thank goodness for our Ready Hour emergency radio. I was using that to listen to the weather forecast and emergency alerts. That was a major help to us.
Living in the Cold for a Week
EE: At that point, how long were you in the cold?
R: It was about four days in the cold without power.
EE: What's it like to live in the cold for that long? Without heat. Fully exposed.
R: It wasn’t fun. Living in Texas, winter preparedness wasn't something we'd spent a lot of time considering.
The cold penetrates everything. You can throw blankets on and it's only going to help for so long. Your body can't push out that much heat for days on end, especially when you can't eat enough. Your body needs food to generate power and heat, and you can’t get that if you’re rationing and going hungry for days.
Blankets can only do so much for prolonged cold exposure, so the family huddled on the couch together to stay warm.
EE: How did you deal with the cold?
Just the most fundamental thing: we resorted to body heat. My dog laid on my chest and I snuggled with my wife. You need to get close to people.
And yeah, it may have been a little weird. I have an 18-year-old son and a 10-year-old son and we were all just sitting huddled together on the couch.
A Scary Choice: Food or Heating?
Unfortunately, we didn’t have quite as many heating elements as we would have wanted. So we had to make the choice of using our propane to cook with or to keep warm. What's more important?
We went with heat, but even then it wasn’t close to enough.
The rolling blackouts weren't enough to get real use from the heater/AC, refrigerator, or water heater.
Rolling Blackouts Didn’t Make Things Much Better
EE: After a few days the grid recovered enough to get power to you on a rolling basis. Would you say it was better at that point? Was the crisis averted?
R: I hate to say it, but no. The rolling blackouts were frustrating. They would cut off the power long enough for the house to get really cold, and turn it back on enough to almost get it to 60 degrees. And then it would shut off for hours and it would get super cold again.
And the whole time I'm looking out my window at my AC unit outside, just thinking, “please don't die on me.” It scared the heck out of me and definitely increased my stress even more. It was constantly going through these defrost cycles over and over again. I knew this couldn’t be good for the system or for our electric bill.
Same thing with the water heater. The little time the power was up wasn’t enough to heat up water. The fridge either. So there was power intermittently, but we still were just as cold and hungry as before.
Water went out for days, and when it came back it was opaque and undrinkable.
The Water Was Out—Then It Was Undrinkable
EE: Water outages were obviously a big deal, too. Did you guys have to deal with that?
R: At first the water was on inside -- and thank goodness for that. But pretty soon we did start having problems. We had an incident with freezing pipes early on. I was out with a heat gun, melting the block of ice around our outside faucet.
A few days in, they started shutting down our water mains. They said that the pumps had frozen and that they were doing cycling shut-offs in different neighborhoods in the area. When the water was on, it was opaque. You couldn't drink it.
EE: Did you end up on a boil order?
R: Yeah, we’re still on it. And all of the water in the surrounding area is just gone. You cannot go to the grocery store and find water right now. At this point I know that there are people in the city who still do not have water at all. I think it’s due to burst pipes, things like that.
My mother who lives nearby is still dealing with a burst pipe in her attic. There’s a PVC shortage now and plumbers are quoting her as much as $700 just to look at it.
Lessons Learned. This Is the Most Important Part!
EE: Looking back, what would you have done differently?
Power and Heat
R: First thing’s first: I’m definitely picking up a generator and I’m going to start storing fuel. I've researched this and fuel is the hardest thing to store and the hardest thing to keep with you in a crisis. It's expensive and the generators take a lot of it.
But it’s just something I have to do.
There’s also propane. I feel confident that if we’d had a larger propane supply—just a few extra cans—we would have been much better on heat and cooking.
A bigger, nicer, more energy-efficient stove tops the list of items for the emergency supply.
Cooking was a big thing. We had something called “canned heat” and a foldable stove that really saved us. It’s a little fuel cell with a big wick. We used it to boil water, to make basic food, and to heat our rooms. All of that and we used just one unit plus part of another. It lasted forever!
Once this is all over, I'm adding a bigger, nicer, more energy-efficient stove to cook on.
Buy Supplies Well in Advance of Disaster
Like I said, getting supplies during the disaster was really tough. We were able to go out after a few days and we actually got so lucky. We got into a sporting goods store and picked up some batteries, hand warmers, and camping stove equipment.
I spent hundreds of dollars—I wasn't even sure it was all going to work with the equipment I already had—but we just grabbed it because we knew it would be gone in minutes.
EE: That's an important point. One of the big reasons we don’t prepare is that we don't want to spend the money. But listening to your story, I’m seeing that you ended up having to spend the money either way. You were just doing it in the middle of the crisis, and at that point you had to take what scraps you could get.
I guess I’m saying, you're going to spend the money one way or another, so why not spend it up front, get exactly what you need, and maybe even find some sales here and there along the way. You may end up spending less.
R: Exactly. Plus, as COVID showed us, people will jack up the prices and suddenly you're paying a premium for ordinary things.
Get Your Finances in Order
R: It’s not just what happens during the disaster, but I’m looking ahead now, too. There will be a lot of dominoes that fall from this event for us down the line. Our bank account is taking a hit, you know, and the electric bill will be going way up.
Don’t Go Cheap
R: And I’ll be winterizing, too. I feel like it's non-negotiable for me to spend money on that now.
When you're trying to keep warm with something you cheeped out on when you could have gotten something better—and you’re freezing because of it—it just doesn't make sense. It's not good for you, and it's not good for your family. It’s an insurance policy basically, and you want the best insurance policy you can get.
EE: Agreed on all points, Randall. Thank you for sharing, and we’re so glad you and your family made it through ok.
R: Thank you!