The state of Texas is one known for its barbecue, doing everything bigger, and, of course, the hot weather. Texans pride themselves on their mild winters and their ability to survive the scalding summers. “Real winter lasts a week,” they’ll sometimes joke. In that regard, February 2020 was no different than any previous February. That one week of winter came and went as it always went. But instead of a few warnings to cover the plants and the usual overzealous promise of a slight chance of snow from the weatherman, Texas was greeted with the winter more northern states would handle with grace.
A winter storm.
On Sunday, February 14th, Valentine’s Day plans across the state were being cancelled in preparation for the practically guaranteed forecast of snow on the horizon. True, cities like Dallas and Amarillo are no strangers to actual winter, but the southern half of the state is so alienated from the phenomenon that heavy winter coats aren’t stocked in all the retail stores. In place of heart shaped balloons, bouquets of roses, and boxes of chocolate for their beloved significant others, Texans were rushing to stock up on batteries, cases of water, and food. That same night, snow began to fall all across the state.
“It was cute at first,” recalls Sici Dias, a Houston resident. “However, after watching the height of the snow on my front lawn continue to rise for two hours, it wasn’t cute anymore.”
In Houston, temperatures plummeted from around 55 degrees Fahrenheit to 30 or below in a matter of hours. “We knew it would be cold, but we didn’t think it would be this cold,” Dias said. For a while, it appeared that Monday would be a snow day and life would return back to normal by Tuesday. According to Dias, though, it was not that simple. “We lost power Monday night and it would only come back on sporadically throughout the week.”
What made this winter storm so much different from previous ones is the devastating effect it had on Texas’ power grid. The majority of the state operates on one power grid, the Texas Interconnection, which is controlled by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). ERCOT didn’t require power plants on the grid to make significant cold weather preparations ahead of the winter storm, as they hadn’t anticipated the storm being as severe as it was. But with temperatures dropping to the single digits all over the state, power plants found themselves running into a handful of problems.
There was no shortage of natural gas, the primary resource used to power most of the power plants. Resource supply was never the issue here – the equipment was. In some areas, the pipes carrying natural gas, which is transported as a liquid, froze due to the moisture from the gas. In other areas, engines couldn’t power up at all, regardless of whether the pipes had frozen. Even the alternative energy plants felt the effect of the cold. Snowfall blotted out the sun, leaving solar plants all but useless. Wind farms saw their fans freezing solid. Even one of Texas’ two nuclear plants went offline because of the temperature drop. Some power plants powered through despite the challenges, but with the demand for power from homes desperate for heat far exceeding the supply, Texans were left to deal with rolling black outs of varying intensity.
For Jonatan Salinas, a resident of Austin, the rolling black outs were merciful on him and his family. “The power was out from about 7am Monday morning to around 5pm that evening,” says Salinas, almost remorsefully. “Except for Monday, I had the privilege of electricity and water. Not everybody was that lucky.” Indeed, only being without power for 10 hours the entire week turned out to be an unusual account. Never losing water is a privilege more people had, but it was still a pressing issue. And those who experienced an extended period without either were doing everything they could just to survive.
Brianna Williams, a resident of Austin in the Mount Bonnell area, did her best to survive with her parents and sister for 15 days – twice the length of the winter storm, but the storm was the cause, nonetheless. “On Monday, we still had power,” she begins almost jovially. “My sister and I spent a few hours outside in the snow. We had snowsuits from a skiing trip a couple years back, so it wasn’t terrible.” Williams recounted fun stories of snowball fights, mediocre snowmen, and a bad decision to prank her dad by shoving snow down her father’s pants. But the story takes a turn. “We had just enough time to come inside and take a warm shower before the power went out around 2 pm. It was all downhill from there.”
The rest of Monday, along with Tuesday and Wednesday for Williams and her family goes a lot like the experiences of a lot of Texans. Huddling up near fireplaces, witnessing the temperature inside the house plummet to almost 30 degrees, and eating food that doesn’t require cooking because electric appliances were receiving no power. “By Wednesday night, though, my parents were over barely surviving in their own house. Luckily, we had somewhere we could go instead.”
Williams’ father is a lawyer whose lease had just ended in an office space near their home. He had decided not to renew the lease, but since he was still in the process of removing everything from the space, he still had access to it. “The office still had power and internet. No heat, but at least we could distract ourselves with Netflix and see around at night. So, we grabbed the cats and whatever else we could think of and loaded it into the car.” Getting to the office was the first challenge.
“Living on Mt. Bonnell means you have to go up and down steep hills to get anywhere. Already scary, considering everyone speeds around here, but it was an absolute nightmare with the ice and snow on the road. All along the drive to the office, we’d see cars run off the side of the road or run into the backs of other cars. And they were just abandoned.” Across the state, reports of multi-car pileups were adding to what was already a nightmare for so many. The 130-vehicle pileup in Fort Worth left 6 people dead and many others injured. “Thank God my dad is from Utah and knows how to drive in this,” says Williams.
Reaching the office meant a reprieve from being in the dark, but not a break from the cold. And for a while, according to Williams, everything was at least a little bit better. “I’d brush my teeth and wash under my arms in the public bathrooms in the building. There were other businesses in the building, some of which had people working in them, though, so I had to sneak in there when nobody was around to do that.” Life was less than favorable, but it was at least somewhat livable. “I did have to sleep on a flattened cardboard box under the conference table with a blanket, though. That was…fun.” However, they say when it rains, it pours.
“We were still at the office two days later. And that’s when the pipes burst,” recalls Williams. “So now I had to brush my teeth with bottled water. That’s not a problem, I’ve had to do that before. What was almost inhumane was that the toilets no longer flushed.” To put it in less grueling detail, Williams in her family would all use one toilet until it couldn’t be used anymore, then move on to the next stall in a repeating process for three more days. “It was awful, and we felt forgotten.”
Thankfully, water pressure was restored to the building in a couple of days. “We got the news and the first thing we did was run to flush all the toilets. We didn’t want the building’s janitor to hate us.” Fortunately, power was beginning to come back around Austin, so Williams and her family packed up and returned home. “Our house still didn’t have power, but it had running, clean water. The office had running water, but it was not clean.” Back at home, the Williams family rode out the rest of the lack of power and cold weather until February 29th – a full 15 days.
The dreadful conditions Texans had to contend with during the winter storm showed them just how unforgiving the elements can be. But, it also shone a light on how poorly prepared the Texas Interconnected grid was for such a situation. In the weeks since, Governor Greg Abbott has called for reform within ERCOT, lawsuits have been filed against ERCOT and the power companies of individual cities. Above all, though, lives have been lost to the sheer cold and Texans will not forget what they went through during February 2021.
“I don’t know if I can live in a place that gets a lot of snow now,” Williams says. “I think it’ll trigger some PTSD.”