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  • Schuyler Beltrami

Reflections of When Texas Froze Over

A resident of Houston reflects on what it was really like to go through the massive winter storm that hit the state last week.

Houston Snow: A rare sight

Last Monday, I woke up and looked out my window to see what the night before had brought. All weekend long, I had been hearing about a large winter storm that would bring snow and ice to Texas, not just a small dusting of some white substance that does not really qualify as snow, but actual snow. I did not believe the weather reports, considering the fact that no sizable snow fall had fallen in Houston during the entire nine years that my parents have lived there. But as I peered out my window on that Monday morning, I saw that the meteorologists were correct. The streets and rooves outside of my house were covered in a layer of snow, the small stream of water across the street had frozen over like a Canadian lake in the winter, and the few of my neighbors, unaccustomed to such weather, who did brave the cold and go out for a walk, were bundled up in their thickest coats and jackets that a Texan could have. Seizing on this rare opportunity to enjoy snow in Southern Texas (a region with a similar climate to Florida), I took a walk around my neighborhood. I took some nice snow-filled pictures and enjoyed a hot chocolate and reveled in the ability to finally hear the typical “crunch” of snow beneath my boots; a sound I had not heard since I was back in Germany last year. But this winter fun quickly turned into a chaotic disaster, pushing the limits of the patience for the residents of Texas, and highlighting the ineptitude in our elected officials to deal with a winter storm.

Less than 48 hours after my stroll through my snow-laden neighborhood, I was sitting in a cold house with no water and no electricity. The heat was no longer working, toilets could not flush, wi-fi was not working and everything was dark. Ability to adapt became the name of the game. As the temperature in my house plunged further and further as the insulation of the walls and windows tried desperately to keep a small amount of heat inside, the jackets and coats became of great use to me inside my own house. Eventually, as we entered our second day of no heat, beanies and gloves became a normal part of my clothing ensemble. With no fireplace to heat us (after all, why would a house in the South need a fireplace? It does not get cold here, right?), our clothes became our only source of warmth. Fortunately, we still had gas to power our stove, so we were able to cook actual meals and not rely on ready-made meals from the supermarket. During the day, the situation was not too bad. The house was able to warm up due to the natural heat from outside, while the sunlight provided us with opportunity to read and entertain ourselves. During the night, it was worse. With no lights on in the house, with the exception of candles and a single battery-powered lantern, and no electricity to power any sort of technology, the nights were cold and boring. When there is nothing to do and you are sitting in the cold with no form of entertainment to keep you occupied, you go to sleep much earlier than normal. After all, sleep kills a lot of time and does not require electricity. So, instead of going to bed as I normally do, around midnight, I was going to sleep around 10 PM. I think my body was quite happy about that to be honest.

On the second night of my blackout adventure, I walked to my local supermarket (a quick disclaimer here: I chose to walk to get some exercise, not because of a fuel issue; although most gas stations did have to close since electricity is required to operate gas pumps). The supermarket was only allowing a certain number of people inside at a time, a process which had begun as part of the local COVID regulations but were now put in place to prevent a giant stampede of people all trying to buy much-needed groceries. After being allowed inside, it could be seen just how much the storm had affected the store and the supply lines: Water was limited to one case per customer, milk (almost depleted from the shelves) was also limited, there was no bread in the store, cereal was nearly sold-out. Most of what remained were items which had to be cooked (meat) or produce that needs refrigeration (fruits, like apples and pears), all made useless by the lack of electricity in the area. Walking back home from the supermarket, I was able to see my neighborhood from the street. The entire development was pitch black. Not a single light was to be seen in any house. The streetlights were all dark and there was a serene quiet, as no electricity, normally used to power heating units, turned everything silent. Walking through the streets, it was like a ghost town, as people remained inside trying to remain as warm as possible. In the fourth largest city in the United States, with over two million people residing in the city, nearly nobody had power or water: a complete breakdown in normal life.

As we huddled around the kitchen table, using our electronic lantern to give us some light as we played a card game and shivered in our coats and beanies, there was suddenly the sound of a flick. The house, as if stuck in pause for two days, awoke itself as TV’s turned on, heat began to come back on, Wi-Fi connections were re-established, and outlets began to charge iPhones and laptops once again. Hearing from our friends that in some cases power had only been restored for as little as an hour before being turned off again, we jumped up and ran to charge our devices. The house became flooded with light as we ran from room to room to make sure everything was working again. After the initial excitement of having power again, we sat and resumed our card game (now easier to play in a room full of light) and waited apprehensively. We all assumed the lights would be turned off again. But as the hours passed, the lights stayed on. Our devices were now fully charged, and the house was warm again. When I went to bed that night (at my normal time of midnight), I was worried about what I would find in the morning. But as I awoke the next morning, everything still worked. No more blackouts, no more cold. Finally, I was back in the 21st Century.

The next day, we had water again too. We had to boil it since it was unsafe to drink on its own for the first few days, but other than that everything was as it was on Monday morning. The temperatures began to rise, the sun came out, and eventually the weekend came. The end of a very hard week. And although having no lights and water for two or three days is surely not fun, I was comparatively luckier than many of my fellow Texans. For the homeless population of Texas, the cold was especially tough. Those who could make it to shelters found shelters with no power or running water and limited food and drink. In the Harris County Jail, one of the largest in the country, there was no running water, no heat and very little fresh food, making life miserable for over 11.000 inmates and staff. In other cities in Texas, like Dallas and Austin, the situation was even worse than Houston. Some people were blacked out since Sunday night and power only returned on the following Saturday as temperatures in the region plunged to 9°F (-13°C). The blackout disproportionally affected people of color more, as their neighborhoods were the first to lose power and the last to get it back. While commercial office buildings, made empty by the pandemic, retained their power and water, homeless shelters and crowded homes suffered in the cold. The number of fires rose drastically in Texas as residents, unfamiliar with how to act in the cold, turned on their gas stovetops to provide some warmth which inevitably led to fires breaking out. As major highways closed around the state and the roads became impassable, supply lines broke down with major supermarkets closing due to lack of items on the shelves, or lack of power and water. Restaurants already hit hard by the pandemic, in the best-case scenario were forced to close due to lack of proper heating, and in the worst-case scenario were flooded due to busted water pipes. It is easy to laugh at Texas for our response to the cold and the snow. As I sat in the cold of my house, my Instagram was flooded with memes about how stupid those Texans were. One of my friends in the Czech Republic texted me to ask how a city can shut down after “3 cm of snow”. I answered him by comparing the situation in Texas to a hurricane hitting the Czech Republic, a landlocked country. A storm this big was an exceptionally rare event in Texas’ history. Sure, the northern parts of Texas have snow on a regular basis in the winter, but never this much, this quickly. As the snow fell in parts of the state where snow has literally never fallen before, the residents there, accustomed to wearing shorts and flip-flops year-round, were caught completely off-guard. But the terrible response to the storm was only partly caused by the residents. A large part of the blame falls on our state government.

More on that in Part 2 of my reporting.

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