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Old Man Winter Messes With Texas

Here's what happened when my Houston apartment building lost power, heat and water

The subtle click, followed by a deep silence, jolted me awake just past 1 am. I remember opening my eyes and thinking how quiet and dark my apartment had become. It was Monday morning, February 15th and, although I didn’t know it at the time, my week of hell had just begun. 

Outside my apartment, a winter storm that had started in the arctic had crept across the country and descended over my normally muggy home town of Houston, the energy capital of the world. Another long night of dread worrying about the weather was ahead of me. Growing up in Texas, you are no stranger to bad weather. We have heat storms, sand storms, rain storms, ice storms—every kind of storm really. During Hurricane Harvey, I remember listening to the rain pound against the roof for days. 

But this seemed different. As I lay there in the dead of night, the muddled sound of raindrops on windows gave way to the sharp crack of ice in darkness. For the next several hours, the power clicked on and off, waking me every time. After the building’s third electrical seizure, I gave up on sleep. At roughly 5 am, power went out for good. It would not return for days. The sun of Monday morning’s clear, cold dawn offered no reprieve from the ice. Days of struggle were just beginning. You could sense that the human suffering was going to be immense and I had a front row seat. 

If you know anything about Texas you know that we are very proud of our state. This is a stereotype but it is also very true. What made this so shocking, not only to us Texas-loving Texans but to the entire world, was that a state with pride the size of, well…Texas was brought to its knees by a winter storm. Millions in the Lone State were left without electricity or water in subzero temperatures for days. This was not the Texas that we all thought we knew.

Having the size of Texas’ population impacted by the crisis created distress at a staggering scale. Texas wasn’t ready. Disaster after disaster, particularly for Houstonians, has hardened the state, honing each family’s ability to prepare for the worst. Despite the training, few of the state’s nearly 30 million residents were prepared for what Sunday night would bring. Hurricanes, tornados, droughts and chemical explosions have now all been eclipsed by 5 inches of snow in what is expected to be the costliest disaster in the state’s history. Still recovering from the latest unprecedented event, one that I need not mention, Texans had many questions. But there was one question above all else, one that property owners have been asking for years: do you know a plumber who is available? 

As the encroaching cold front moved southeast across the state throughout the day Sunday, residents naturally reached for the thermostat. By the time the storm had made its way to Austin the power grid was imperiled. Temperatures dropped in Houston, the state’s largest city, late Sunday night, pushing demand for energy over the edge as power plants across the state froze over and shut down. 

What ensued was a near complete breakdown of society. First the electricity went, cutting off communication for millions. The internet was gone and cell phone signal was intermittent as telecommunications providers rushed to understand the scope of the problem. Cut off from information, what few bits of news got through to Texans promised rolling blackouts to help the state’s grid. By the fourth hour without power, it was clear the blackouts weren’t rolling, they had rolled in and stayed. The entire system was breaking down. 

Slowly, you could start to feel a chill. With not much more to do than think you couldn’t help but notice the indoor air temperatures starting to sink. We had all heard about the outside temperatures which were as low as 4 degrees. But what we didn’t all know at the time was the enormous scale of this event. The storm blanketed 268,597 square miles, an area bigger than the entire country of France, requiring practically the entire state to take measures like dripping faucets to protect pipes from freezing. On Monday it was colder in Houston, Texas than in Anchorage, Alaska. 

My apartment complex seemed to have been partially spared, some units had power, others didn’t. Generators kicked in, operating one elevator and hallway lights for our eight story mid-rise. A few hallway sockets worked. On-site property management staff worked Monday to use one of the few working outlets to brew coffee for residents in the hallway. My fellow tenants and I bundled up and gathered around the pot in our masks, the pandemic still an ever present threat. A hot cup of coffee and a friendly smile from neighbors and staff was the first good thing in nearly 12 hours. 

Apartment complex staff was in the same boat as us, just as unaware of the current state of things as anyone else. Still, Monday morning staff sent out an email (to the few that could check their email) detailing what they did and did not know. Providing a creature comfort and regular communication may not seem like much but in the dire circumstances Texas faced, throwing even the smallest lifeline really did create a sense of community. It really was us against the world. Soon, charging stations began popping up on various floors, shifting to whichever outlet was currently operational, spontaneously organized by residents and communicated by staff, disseminating info gathered by tenants about which stores were open and who still had supplies. 

Throughout the day, as the power situation worsened, the terrifying reality set in for millions of Texans. We had now been told that we were facing down three more days of freezing temperatures, leaving you to wonder how long you can hold on without power. As the sun set that night it was replaced with abject darkness. By Monday night, millions had been without power for nearly 24 hours, their apartments and homes reaching 40 degrees or colder. Desperately trying to stay warm, friends, families and neighbors who had electricity and heat opened their doors to those less fortunate, only to lose power themselves hosting a home full of climate refugees.

By Tuesday food became an issue. Entire fridges and freezers full of food were ruined. Not that it would have mattered, without electricity, cooking wasn’t an option for many. Stores with pre-made food were sold out by the early afternoon Monday, not to be restocked for days. Those lucky enough to have gas stoves or outdoor grills lit them with matches, cooking whatever was on hand and unspoiled. I had my first and only meal of the day Monday at 5 pm, an old box of Kraft Mac & Cheese I split with my fiancé. We walked a mile and a half both ways through the ice to a vacationing family member’s home with a gas grill just to cook it. We sat eating in the silent dining room, watching our breath in the frigid million dollar home. This was not the Texas we all thought we knew.

We were faced with the reality of having no electricity, no heat, and no way to cook. It already seemed like nearly unbearable conditions. Then we lost water. Millions of Texans dripping faucets to prevent pipes from freezing slowly depleted water tables across the state. By Tuesday, water pressure was non-existent. By Wednesday, there was no water at all for most. Those that had water were ordered to boil it on stoves that didn’t work. 

It is such a helpless feeling when you can’t get warm, when you can’t eat because you can’t cook, when you can’t flush the toilet, can’t run the sink to wash your hands. There was nothing in the world I wanted more than a warm shower yet there was nothing that felt more impossible. After a while, you start to lose hope. You can’t get online or use your phone to get any good news. There isn’t a resupply in the morning, stores are sold out of everything except for one thing: empty shelves. The only thing to do is sleep and worry. Sleep was far off for most too, camped out in front of a fireplace with their entire family. 

So we worried, mostly about when the power would come back on. Briefly it would and we would have a short taste of hope. Then we would worry when it would go back off as we use our precious allotment. We worried about our family and our friends, we tried to reach them, never knowing if our messages were going through. We worried for those less fortunate than us. At least our apartment wasn’t totally freezing. At least we had quality flashlights and some potable water from our hurricane closet, something most Houstonians have learned to keep. My father had been released from the hospital after his battle with COVID-19 just weeks earlier. At least I didn’t have to worry about his health situation as well. One small mercy among a week of trial and tribulation. 

The unpredictability was frustrating. There’s really no way to know when you’re going to have electricity or cell service even. Official communication from state and energy officials offered no clarification. Millions were in a statewide lottery for their basic survival necessities. By Wednesday residents were bringing buckets and bowls to the pool, taking the water to use it to flush toilets. Some complexes locked pool areas. I’m glad mine didn’t. On-site staff couldn’t provide much, they could at least let us access water. Protecting water in a pool seems trivial in a primal fight for basic necessities. Thursday night our complex organized a food truck to come by, another lifeline. After a few days eating pre-packaged food, a hot fresh meal was a godsend. 

Older multifamily complexes were hit particularly hard. When they were built, Texas building code didn’t require pipes to be insulated, leaving residents vulnerable. Houstonians, worried about flooding outside, were being flooded from within and above as buildings became cascading waterfalls from burst pipes. Frozen sewage lines prevented some residents across Texas from using toilets. The best efforts by property managers to prepare for the storm still left many complexes vulnerable. 

With few working smoke detectors, sprinklers shut off to prevent freezing and residents desperately looking for any way to stay warm, the threat of fire was also a major concern. Fighting fires was a serious challenge for departments across the State. With little to no water pressure and frozen hydrants, firefighters had to shuttle in water in tanker trucks. 

For communities that had to be vacated, staff sent emails to residents urging them to contact their renters insurance provider to make claims on property damage and dislocation expenses. 

Owners are also facing major costs and the prospect of higher insurance premiums, already rapidly rising over the past three to five years in the face of repeated inclement weather. The cost of the storm is just beginning to take shape. It will take weeks to assess the damage. Across Texas, some residents can’t even get a plumber to come check the problem until late March. A statewide shortage of plumbers and plumbing supplies threatens to extend the suffering weeks. 

I count myself as one of the lucky ones. Our complex, built within the last five years, was more prepared than most. Our on-site staff was as helpful and communicative as possible, doing what little they could. After Harvey, every on-site leasing agent in Houston has been asked the same question by every prospect: did it flood? When I look to sign another lease, I’ll be asking a new question: what did you do for your residents during the 2021 winter-pocalypse? My guess is that I will not be alone.

After having to live through this preventable disaster I realize more than ever how important it is to find ways to make our infrastructure more resilient and our buildings better able to keep people safe from the elements, as extreme as they may be. This is not the Texas that I thought I knew and not the Texas I want. But if there is one thing I know about Texans, any prideful people really, is that they stand up for themselves. We will not accept this and we will do what it takes to make sure it won’t happen again.

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