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Surviving the Coldest Weather and Prolonged Power Outages in Texas

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Introduction
The week of February 14, 2021, made history in Texas. The Arctic blast emerging from the Polar Vortex in the Arctic dipped to the south and rolled through Texas as the Winter Storm “Uri” blanketing the whole state with snow and deep freeze. On top of that, the power went out for an extended period lasting many days, and the water supply cut off. Texans had to endure untold hardship and misery that week.
Our Personal Experience
Our friends in Houston, Katy, and Pearland started sending messages complaining about the loss of power, heat, and running water on Monday. Around half-past six in the afternoon that day, our electricity went out with us in utter darkness that was our worst nightmare. The minimum temperature that night was the coldest in over a century at 50F with a wind chill of -10F. We had to hunker down and wrap in a pile of blankets to endure the frigid temperature. Our battery-powered lantern helped mitigate the darkness to some extent. I went to check on the running water and found the water pressure going down. Luckily, the water pressure came back to normal after a few minutes. Later, we heard that the generators in our Municipal Utility District (MUD) 360 distribution center failed and had to connect to the MUD 5 to restore our water supply. Our hats off to the kind gesture of MUD 5. Nonetheless, millions of Texans had their running water cut off.
Our power banks were handy to have our cell phones charged. Since there was no wifi, the internet access on our phones was sporadic.
Tuesday came with some hope, but we still did not have power. Our kitchen stove had electric burners, and hence, of no use without power. We had to use the burner on our gas grill outside our home to do some simple cooking. Those people with gas stoves could cook food in their homes. We then went out to inspect the roof, driveway, and sidewalks; they were all covered deep with snow compacted into ice. I saw water spurting out from the busted sprinkler pipe of my neighbor. I knocked on his door to let him know about that and waited outside to check if he needed some help. He had to turn the main water line off to stop the water flow. We still kept our hopes alive to get the power back, but it did not happen. In the afternoon, we went out and picked up Chinese. The night came, we still had no electricity. The pitch darkness of the night allowed us to reflect and introspect about our lives and ponder about our future. The night was not as cold as the previous one since the temperature hovered around 120F. We kept our phones charged using the power bank.
On Wednesday, I raised my hopes to have the power back since it was getting close to 40 hours since our electricity went out. We cooked our lunch at the grill burner. We also found out that one of our friend's garages leaked water from busted pipes. The sun came out and made us feel good. Finally, at 1:30 p.m., after 43 hours straight of the outage, our power came back, bringing incredible joy that we had never felt before; it was so sweet. We started charging our cell phones and power banks and heated our home. Then we took the shower that was so refreshing and healing that it felt like heaven. It was as though we achieved freedom after a long battle with darkness. Our pine trees stood tall, unaffected by the snow and freezing rain, and lost some papaya and banana trees. We were fortunate and blessed for having no severe impact on us or damage to our home.
The 43-hour straight outage forced us to think about the consequences of life in the U.S.A. without power. Without electricity, our lives become stagnant, lose all the luxuries that we had taken for granted in this country with no communication, no heat, and no television.
The Aftermath of the Winter Storm
The extreme cold weather claimed 24 lives, with 21 from hypothermia, two from Carbon Monoxide poisoning, and one from slipping into ice in Houston.
The weather forecasts from different TV channels predicting the Arctic blast from the north to dip down to Texas on Sunday proved correct. Texas froze like inside an icebox, and people had to endure a dreadful week without power and heat. Icy roads and the subfreezing temperatures hovering around 00F forced life to a standstill. The state suffered power outages lasting several days, the taps at homes ran dry due to the power outage and generator failures from freezing temperatures. The water pipes at homes, apartments, businesses, offices, and hospitals started busting, damaging properties.
People had to scramble to access clean drinking water. Some people resorted to scooping snow and heat it to use in flushing toilets and rinsing dishes. Some others used the water from the swimming pool for the same purpose. Texans with small children and senior citizens suffered most. People needing dialysis had to rush to the hospitals to accomplish that. People needing oxygen were suffering without electricity.
We received the tragic news of the passing of Pramod Bhattarai, 23, a Nepali student at San Jacinto College in Houston Tuesday, February 16, 2021. Nepalese Association of Houston (NAH) set up a GoFundMe account to collect donations and did all paperwork to send his body to Nepal.
People had to stand in long lines to get groceries, fill up the propane tanks and fill up the gas tanks in their vehicles. Farmers had to scramble to protect their crops, cattle, and chickens from the frigid temperature. The grocery stores welcomed customers with empty shelves, as the food supply chain got disrupted due to cold weather.
The water pipe ruptures in homes kept more than 35,000 plumbers busy working 16-hour days. Plumbing parts became a rare commodity. Plumbers from across the country drove into Texas to help people with repairs.
Many Texans also saw a change in their landscape post-winter freeze when their trees, plants, and bushes died.
Acts of Benevolence
Humanity prevails in both the good times and the bad times. The City of Houston provided accommodation to 297 homeless people in the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston. Lakewood Church and Jim McIngvale, alias Mattress Mack, of Gallery Furniture and other churches opened doors in their facilities as the warming shelters. The Lucille's and the barbeque restaurants provided free meals to the needy Houstonians. Houston Food Bank and other local businesses and organizations such as Houston Texans, Houston Astros, and Houston Rockets were engaged in distributing free clean drinking water and food to the needy people. People stepped up neighbors helped neighbors to alleviate the dire situation. Two brothers with American Professional Plumbing Services from West Virginia raised $30,000 and helped people in the Greater Houston Area fixing their damaged pipes for free.
Cause of the power outage and water supply disruption
The Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), an independent non-profit 501(C)4 Corporation, founded in 1970, manages the flow of electric power to 26 million Texas customers. ERCOT is a stand-alone utility, disconnected from the rest of the U.S. electrical grid. ERCOT is governed by a board of directors and subject to oversight by the Texas Legislature and the Public Utility Commission of Texas. The electricity is generated by the power plants and distributed to the public through local operators such as CenterPoint Energy, Entergy, and American Electricity and Power. ERCOT ordered rolling blackouts on Sunday during the Arctic blast due to the power generation problem caused by frozen natural gas plants, windmills, solar panels, and nuclear and coal power plants. According to Bill Magness, ERCOT CEO, the power grid was only 4 minutes and 37 seconds away from catastrophic failure that would have knocked out electricity in Texas for weeks. The winter storm reduced the power generation capacity by nearly fifty percent because the power plants were not weather-proofed for frigid temperatures. Seven members of the ERCOT board resigned following public backlash for their power outage mismanagement. The chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, DeAnn Walker, has also stepped down, and Bill Magness, the ERCOT CEO has been given a 60-day notice for termination by the board.
As for the water supply outage to millions of Texans, the main culprit was the lack of power, frozen generators, and broken pipes.
Staying warm and safe during a power outage
We need to stay warm when the heating systems do not function due to a power outage. It is best to wear layers of lightweight, warm clothing. Besides, close off rooms to avoid wasting heat, close curtains and blinds to preserve some heat, and stuff towels under the door to prevent air leakage into the home. It is better to assemble family members in a room. It is all about conserving the body heat and home heat. The fireplaces and wood stoves may be used for heating only if the house has proper ventilation. Food and drink provide energy and keep the body warm.
In preparation to cope with the frigid winter, uncommon in Texas, drain the irrigation system, wrap the external water pipes with insulating foams, and cover them with layers of towels with tarpaulin. It is also a good idea to cover the water meter to keep it from freezing. Dripping water from the faucets and leaving the cabinet doors under the faucets open help prevent pipes from freezing and rupturing. Locate the valves and spigots of the main water line outside your home to turn them off in case of water leakage.
Charge the cell phones and power banks and additional batteries handy. Using flashlights instead of candles is better. Do not heat the home with a gas stove or oven and avoid charging the cell phones in the vehicles parked in the garage to prevent Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Back out your vehicle from the garage if you have to charge cell phones or keep warm. If you have a generator, run it outside the home at least 20 feet from any window or door. Avoid using gas or charcoal grills, camp stoves, or similar devices inside the house because they exude deadly fumes. Consider installing a battery-operated Carbon Monoxide detector because Carbon Monoxide is a silent killer that is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. Avoid stepping into or crossing the downed power lines because they can still carry electricity. And remember, “It is better to be safe than sorry.”
Conclusions
The inclement weather of unprecedented scale in the week of February 14, 2021, took people in Texas by surprise. The frigid temperatures from the Winter Storm "Uri" from the Arctic blast, uncommon to Texans, tested their patience, endurance, and resilience. It was also a wake-up call for preparedness because climate change is real and could cause inclement weather any day, any time.
Most modern amenities we take for granted can get crippled and come to a screeching stop without power.
Texans also witnessed exemplary acts of the benevolence of providing accommodation to the homeless, opening up heating and warming shelters and giving away food and clean water to cope with this humanitarian crisis.
Deprivation of the electricity for an extended period of many days was devastating and caused people to die from hypothermia and Carbon Monoxide poisoning. ERCOT failed to communicate its inability to supply adequate power to the public in advance. ERCOT did a poor job of cutting electricity in the name of the rollover power outage and losing electricity to the public, extending multiple days. ERCOT was complacent and did not have an action plan to combat the winter storm turning into a major disaster. ERCOT planning and forecasting should include the broader climate and extreme weather conditions from the lessons learned from this winter storm and be more transparent.
Millions of Texans did not have running water because the water supply got disrupted due to the power outage and the frozen and ruptured pipes.
Keeping climate change in mind, the Texas Legislature needs to take appropriate action to prevent such catastrophic disasters in the future. At a personal level, we should review our emergency plan to cope with extreme weather conditions and exercise precautionary measures to any casualties from the frigid weather.

 

*Founding President, Trustee, and Past President, Nepalese Association of Houston (2000-2010), Director, Fellow, and Past President, American Society of Nepalese Engineers (2012-2016)


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