Frigid In Texas
Updated: Mar 2
Others had it worse, but the Freeze of 2021 wasn’t fun for us, either. I feel like it’s a touchy subject because I got lucky and I had resources others might not. But I’m on the tail end of it, one more night of freezing and there’s lessons that are fresh in my mind. Best to get them out on paper so to speak.
In case somebody’s dredging this up as a historical account, In February 2021, a cold front and storm came through Texas starting Sunday night through Friday night (2/19/2021 as I write this). Temperatures dropped below freezing (getting as low as 12 degrees in my part of Houston). Snow, freezing rain and ice took over. We got maybe an inch of snow, but the ice closed roads. Power failures rippled across the state as generation systems (mostly legacy tech) weren’t weatherized and froze up. People lost power for hours to days at a time while their pipes froze and burst and they huddled in their homes which aren’t built or insulated for this.
How Did I Fare
Let’s go over what precautions I took and what worked or didn’t. There’s some lessons here. The wife and I prepared a big batch of chili and potroast on Saturday so we wouldn’t have to go out during the week. We figured the roads would be icy. That didn’t turn out so good. Well the food did, but the plan didn’t survive contact with the enemy.
Sunday evening, we lost power for about three and a half hours. Remember, your fridge food can survive four hours, then it’s time to toss it. A transformer blew, and Centerpoint managed to fix it by 7PM.
Monday, I awoke to find the internet died and the water down to a trickle. That turned out to be a partial freeze that I got cleared out by lunchtime. The internet came back that night, after a dull day of no TV.
Tuesday tried to be funny. The no-internet greeted me when I woke but returned by lunchtime. The water stayed at a trickle due to the water supplier having freeze-up problems. I bought some buckets and setup drip catching from the melt-off on my roof. Darn near filled up 20 gallons that afternoon.
Wednesday brought me another serving of no-internet and once I’d woken up, the power went for four hours. In that time, the temperature in the house dropped from 69 degrees to 59. After a couple hours, I moved the fridge food into some coolers in the garage. We moved the critters to the bedroom and settled in for sitting around when the power came back. About twenty minutes later, the power came back. During the outage, I also fit in a long wait at Kroger to pick up a prescription and some breakfast and granola bars. Nobody touched that section, instead they grabbed all the perishable and cookable foods as if we’d have reliable power or the ability to wash dishes for a second meal. More on that later. I also found a leak at the outdoor spigot, so I turned the water off at the house. Trickle was gone, so that drip farming paid off for flushing. Internet returned at 5PM, which was a welcome respite from a trying day.
Thursday and Friday were more stable. Power and the internet stayed up for us. The Water company put out a boil notice, but I’d already done a hard shut-off to my house. Drip farming slowed down each day, today, but we’ve got enough to get to Saturday when there’s nor more freezing. I’ll be fixing the leaking pipe and hopefully nothing else will break when I test the lines. Parts are in short supply, so I’ve got what I need for this one planned repair.
Advice For Next Time
The idea to cook food to eat in advance sounded good, but it relied on assuming power and clean dishes to heat it. I have a gas grill with a side burner. I can cook without power. But what happens the next day when I need the same pan to cook again. Washing dishes with limited water (dirty drips off my roof are not boilable) isn’t easy. It’s a flaw in the plan so I shifted.
Stock up on disposable dishware/flatware
We switched to disposables as much as possible. I’d use a real bowl to heat a bowl of chili in the microwave, scoop it into a fake bowl and then refill and heat. That cut our dish usage in half. We used plastic spoons figuring I had more of them and worst case, could toss them when the end came (we’re gonna wash and reuse/recycle). Same thing with drinking cups. We kept separate plates and bowls for “dry” edibles, so we could brush the crumbs off and re-use for each meal. Cluttered my kitchen to stage, but kept our dish consumption down.
Buckets to the Rescue
I already owned two old five gallon buckets. I ended up enlisting wash basins and the tank from my shop vac for drip farming, along with buying four more buckets. That’s a lot of water, even if you don’t fill them to the brim. Can’t drink it, but works for flushing. We didn’t have any precipitation after Sunday, otherwise I would have set up a tarp along my fence to make a catcher. Pics of that kind of setup are floating around the net.
Breakfast and Granola Bars
It’s not exciting to eat for days, but nobody buys these bars. They are individually wrapped, and don’t require any prep or dishes. This is what I should have gotten before the storm came. Now I was able to get them several days in because people are stupid, but if things had been worse, I could have had no power and water and the roads impassable to get to the store. In short, these are nearly perfect for being trapped for a week.
Fill Up the Cars Before the Storm
I actually didn’t do this, but I had plenty of gas in both cars. However, if we had to bug out, it’s a good idea for the tank to be full. After some hurricanes, it can be days before gas is available.
Clean out the Rain Gutter
Mine got gummed up a bit over the last month, and that causes overflow off the front edge, instead of the downspout. My gutters are needing replacement anyway so one of those spouts is gone. Making it a great spot to catch water. So that’s water I missed from the early overflow days.
Cover the Pipes
I wrapped the outside pipes and disconnected the garden hoses. I’ve got a new idea to wrap the PEX hoses with tube foam where I can or flop some insulation over them. Single story homes are susceptible to pipes freezing in the attic. Remember, we have ridge-vents so heat escapes the attic at the peak. Our homes aren’t designed for cold, they’re designed to shed heat.
Eat Up the Perishables ASAP
As mentioned, cooking up a massive batch of food before the storm risked wasting it. We should have done the opposite, eat up as much as we could in the days before when we knew the storm was coming. Saving resources on meals with stuff we already had. Basically get the fridge empty, not full.
Tuppermaids of Ice
Get every container you can fit filled with water and into the freezer ahead of time. A full freezer can keep 48 hours without power. If you can, rotate some of those frozen containers to the fridge and restock the freezer. That way both sections are full of ice. That’ll help protect the food you have left (like ketchup and BBQ sauce).
Fill the Flush Buckets Early
Using melt-off to fill buckets is resourceful, but it’s better to fill them up before the storm and set them aside (ex. In the tub). You will still need a plan to refill them, but get ahead of the crisis. Also, remember, if it’s yellow, it’s mellow. Don’t waste water trying to flush after a piss.
Charge Your Toys
Get your battery chargers, handheld games, eBooks, etc charged up in the days before the storm so they have as close to a full charge as possible. You might have to trade off activities as each one dies, but it’s better than having them all die ten minutes in.
Get an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)
I have several, one of which just runs my cable modem and router. This keeps the internet going longer in an outage, or I can turn it on for ten minutes each day to contact people, etc. Plus, these soften power blinks, so the devices don’t reset over a half-second outage. New ones have USB ports, so if you shut it off and its connected devices, you have a crapton of juice you can use to recharge phones.
Turn the Water Off If Leaving
This one is based on true not-me stories. People set the faucets to drip and then left. Then the drain froze and flooded. Both cases were renters, so they damaged somebody else’s stuff. Both cases the left to weather the storm somewhere else so this little booboo didn’t get discovered until the damage was greater.
Know Where and How to Turn Off the Water
Leaks can happen anytime. I should know, I’ve found a few while wandering my house and talking to clients on the phone. The first step is turning off the water. In my area, most homes have two shut-offs. One at the curb where the meter is and one at the house, usually inside, just where the pipe enters the house. I’ve got an additional one outside, right before that for some reason. These valves are old and seldom perfect, so turn them all off. Odds are good the second valve can block the trickle because there’s not enough pressure from the first. Then open the sink and tub valves (catch the water) so the pipes are emptied. That’ll stop further damage. Then address the site of the leak, cut a hole in the sheetrock, put a bucket under it, etc. I could write an article on my whole leak-handling protocol.
Don’t Pig Out
Hurricanes last about a day, but the outage side effects can be days or weeks. We knew this freeze would be a week long. While you do want to chow down on the perishables before or soon after the event in case an outage would cause them to waste, you need to ration out the rest of the food to last a week longer than the event. This is because people emptied the shelves before and during the event, and the supply chain takes a while to catch up. It could be longer than an extra week, but at some point you have to draw a line where the plan changes. I feel holding out a week is a reasonable position for anybody of any means to aim for. If you can stay out of the stores for a week, you’re helping folks who had it worse and staying out of the way.
Water Coolers Aren't Just Trendy
I bought a water cooler and six of the big five gallon bottles. Empties are swappable for a $6.99 at most stores. If a disaster strikes, I have between five and 30 gallons of potable water. More if I see it coming and refill before the storm. That water cooler works without power, but it also can make hot water. Fill up cup fifty-fifty with hot and cold water and you can wash your hands, brush your teeth. Over the week, I used a jug and a half. This was the most valuable asset to surviving the week because I was on good track to have plenty of water. Not having to worry about that helped a lot.
Stock Up On Unscented Candles
I know everybody loves the scented kind their friend who sold PartyLites keeps giving them, but if you have to run a lot of them for light and warmth, it's not healthy. Allegedly you can make a flower pot heater, but the simplest use is to light one in each room (on a plate setting on something stable) when the lights go out.
Batteries and Flashlights
LED flashlights are easy on power usage, so stock up on the tiny ones and keep a big box of batteries in your odds and ends drawer. I have a flashlight in each vehicle, by each door and in my nightstand so I have reliable places to go get a light.
Scale Your Emergency Supplies to Your Means and Space
I have a house. Some people have apartments. I can store buckets and water bottles in my garage more readily. On the other hand, my pantry is tiny. Those breakfast bars are easy to cram into a single box and stash in the corner. I don't aim for stock-piling for three months. But having nothing in the house to eat or drink tomorrow seems risky and easily avoidable with a pack of water bottles and can or two of ravioli and granola bars. Keep a few ice cream buckets around for when you need them.
Learn How to Wash Dishes With Scarce Water
I do not envision a process that has enough water to fill a wash basin, soaking dishes, cleaning them with soap, and having enough water to rinse the soap off. Let’s face it, under normal conditions, there’s a lot of water used to blast debris and sauce off of dishes before loading the dishwasher. Let alone not doing that step and plunging them into a tub of water to do it by hand. If somebody’s either figured out how or put up with less than clean dishes, more power to them. Until then, make your plans to not use any dishes, utensils or cookware for food, because you can’t get it clean and you can’t warehouse all your dishes being dirty.
I’m wrapping up this article on Saturday morning. It’s 33F outside. The high will be 54. When it gets around 45, I’ll start fixing that pipe. My biggest worry is that I haven’t diagnosed where the leak is correctly and that it’s in the wall and trickling out. I suspect that’s not the case because I don’t see signs from the inside where the shut-off valve hole is. But if I’m wrong, that’s damage to a room in my house and scarcity of parts to repair it to deal with.
There’s a lot wrong in Texas, that’s built up by political choices for decades. Even if it hadn’t, the freeze happened, and all the know-how I’ve shared here would still be needed. I’ve had time to find out who’s responsible for the bad decisions behind ERCOT. But right now, I can fix problems at my house. Then we’ll take a wrench to the folks who made it worse.