Going Snowhere: A Week in Texas, and How to Suffer Less Next Time

I’ve never seen a frozen lake in person… before this week. The birds seemed to manage all right.

This past week has been one for the books for my state of Texas. As you’ve undoubtedly seen on the news, the entire state experienced extreme winter conditions, including deep snow and ice, plus power failures that left over a million without power. This is the kind of story we’ll be telling our grandkids, right after we yell at them to stop hoverboarding on our lawns.

As I type this, the temperature outside is in the low forties. The last of the snow and ice that paralyzed Texas for the past week is melting, leaving the usual winter landscape of brown grass and naked trees. The worst is over, and now the hard slog of recovery begins for my state. And yet, my husband and I made it through what turned out to be a very unpleasant but survivable week.

On Monday, our pipes froze and left us entirely without running water for the week. My husband warmed buckets of snow on the stove so that we could at least have (dirty) water to flush the toilets, and I was spared the indignity of pooping outside, though I did seriously consider it. To brush my teeth or wash my face, I had to splash water from our bottled supply in my face. It was rather like camping, minus the actual fun and pride of roughing it.

I consider our household very lucky, as my husband and I had recently bought bottled water from Costco, purely by chance and not planning. Because we live in a semi-rural area, we have our own well, and are thus not concerned with the nearby city’s boiling water advisory. The worst after effect we’ve faced is a broken pipe, but my husband and I were able to fix it, thanks to his know-how from sprinkler repair jobs in his twenties. We faced a brief power outage this week, but the lights were back on within thirty minutes. The worst stories I heard came from friends and family in the Metroplex area: my sister’s house lost power and water several times, her in-law’s house flooded after pipes burst, and a friend was stuck for three days without power.

During our trips into town searching for open restaurants (no water equals no cooking dinner), my husband and I got a closer look at the desperation wreaked by the storm. Walmart and Target closed early on the first couple of days, and later were cleared out of all bottled water and many non-perishable foods. Car lines wrapped around fast food joints, nearly reaching the streets as they waited to order McCrap. Some restaurants remained open, though they couldn’t serve any water, just the sodas left in their machines. City employees halted garbage and recyclables collection.

Whenever I experience an extreme event like this, after it’s over, I try to ask myself what, if anything, I’ve learned from it. I ask, how might I better handle the situation next time. (I certainly don’t trust my state government to suddenly become enlightened about the dangers of too much deregulation.) It hit me yesterday: we got through a miserable but survivable week in our home largely because of chance. Because, for some inscrutable reason, my husband thought of picking up some extra flats of bottled water at Costco while doing an extra run for their addictive chicken tortilla soup. We happened to have enough protein bars, crackers, and peanut butter to see us through the day. Honestly, we didn’t even HAVE to order the pizzas and burgers we did, but they relieved the monotony. But it hit me yesterday how much worse the week could have been if we hadn’t had enough supplies on hand. In all likelihood, we would have had to evacuate our house, leaving it unobserved while pipes potentially burst and flooded the rooms.

Going forward, we will institute a policy of keeping two weeks’ worth of food and water in a closet, especially during the winter and summer months, when we face the potential for blackouts caused by extreme demands on the power grid. I have done some light reading on survivalism and prepper skills since we moved to the country. What strikes me most about the movement is how utterly dominated it is by the far-right wing in this country. Without getting too much into details, I am generally more leftist leaning, where my husband is a little more rightist. I’m not too concerned about a nuclear apocalypse or the New World Order coming to seize my guns, but I am worried about the increased occurrence of extreme weather events caused by climate change and crumbling infrastructure. I know most of my ideological compatriots share these concerns, but I rarely see any material from them about the necessity of keeping extra supplies on hand.

This time, it took Texans about a week for conditions to improve enough for the initial recovery phase, when roads are passable again and stores are largely open to sell what few supplies are left. To be on the safe side, I recommend that people stock up for two weeks in to avoid the last-minute panic buying of bottled water and non-perishables. Consider how much our lifestyles are shaped by the ability to access electricity at any time. When was the last time you used an actual flashlight to see in the dark instead of your phone? Ask yourself what is required to simply exist for a period of time, without entertainment or luxury. (Even bookworms who are fond of their tablets will find it useful to keep some paperbacks on hand, as I do.)

Unfortunately, much of the market for prepper gear is controlled by companies that you may not feel comfortable supporting. In lieu of the convenience sported by such companies’ survival kits, you can get most of what you need from grocery and hardware stores. To get through another week like this, I propose the following:

  1. Potable water. Three or four flats of bottled drinking water from Costco or other wholesale clubs. Make sure to calculate for your family size, plus a little extra for any pets that need clean water. You do NOT want to be stuck inside with a sick dog and no running water. I also recommend several gallons of distilled water to use in face washing and tooth brushing. In worst-case scenarios, it is true that you can melt and boil snow into a potable condition. But it took my husband a long time to melt even a little of the powdery snow in our yard to flush the toilets with. I would recommend instead keeping a supply of water purification tablets in the event your bottled water runs out during a crisis.
  2. Survival Rations. Two weeks’ worth of canned/preserved food that requires little or no preparation, such as the following: peanut butter, crackers, canned tuna and salmon, beef jerky, and dried fruit. Beans and rice are great basics, but they do require some heat and water to prepare, which wasn’t an option for many families this week.
  3. Heat and light. The average family can’t afford a backup generator to keep their house running, though it’s more common in some rural areas. Battery-powered devices such as flashlights or camping lanterns are your best friend in these scenarios. (Scented candles are nice, but nice isn’t sufficient to light the way in a darkened house.) In Texas, most houses don’t have working fireplaces and chimneys, so building a fire isn’t an option for most of us. My husband and I spent the week in our thermal layers and polar fleeces, but we were all right as long as our power held out and let us stay at 65 degrees. For people who lose power, layered clothing and blankets help, but they may also benefit from independent heat sources such as the canned heat product Sterno. This product is largely used in catering and buffet prep, but it can also be useful in an emergency for warmth or food prep.
  4. Spare parts and tools. First, get familiar with the materials in your plumbing: copper, steel, PVC, or CPVC. The materials used make a difference in the likelihood of your pipes bursting. If you have any plumbing know-how, you may be able to stave off some damage or fix a burst pipe completely. Even if you don’t, you may be able to find enough information on YouTube to walk you through a minor repair. Study these videos ahead of time, and make sure to keep some spare parts around the house, namely elbows, couplings, T’s, primer/glue, solder, and cutting tools, depending on the materials your pipes are made of. When my husband ran to Lowe’s for supplies after finding a burst pipe, he barely made it back with enough supplies to fix our problem. I dread to think how long it would take to get a plumber out here, inundated as they are with desperate calls from people in the Metroplex.
  5. Extreme weather clothes. This week, my thermal layers and polar fleece saved my literal and metaphorical buns. I used to feel silly buying such items in Texas, but I’ve since learned the folk wisdom saying, “better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.” Though this saying has undoubtedly inspired many a hoarder, I can’t help but appreciate it now. Everyone, even Floridians, should keep at least one set of heat-conserving clothes and heavy-duty jackets. Remember: if West Texas can freeze, nowhere is safe!

My heart goes out to all those affected by the last week’s storms. Although the deadly conditions are gone, I know the road to recovery is going to be long and tedious as people assess their home damage and make desperate calls to plumbers, electricians, and insurance adjusters. Although a large part of me is angry about the state’s mismanagement of our power grid, the realist in me also realizes this is unlikely to change. With a little foresight and planning, my family should be able to weather the next event with less discomfort and inconvenience. With a steady stock of supplies on hand, we may even be able to reach out to friends and family who are worse off than we are. And that, as much as how to flush a toilet with dirty snow water, is what I’ve taken away from this miserable week.

I’m an aging millennial with a love of writing, tech, and environmental issues news.