By Anne Trominski:
Flapper Press contributor Anne Trominski gives a personal perspective on last month's Texas snowstorm that left millions without power, heat, and water for days.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 13: The cold front has begun to make its entrance. Friends in various parts of Texas start posting their sightings of sleet and snow flurries with little-kid excitement.
You see, in Texas, snow is such a rare occurrence it is always a source of fun and excitement.
For most of the day at our house it’s windy and cloudy and unpleasant but no snow.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 14: It’s chilly in the house, and I’m moody most of the day. Valentine’s is generally one of my favorite days because my non-foodie husband, Derek, is obligated to take his foodie wife to an overpriced trendy restaurant. I know it’s not going to happen this year because of COVID. We’ve already made plans to keep our standing Sunday-night dinner with his parents, but we are going to acknowledge the holiday with takeout. My moodiness is just a symptom of ongoing isolation tiredness. I try to get over myself and be grateful for what I do have (which includes a lot of V-Day gifts and love from Derek). While we’re exchanging Valentine gifts, Derek’s dad calls us to ask if the restaurant we were planning on ordering delivery from is still open. He asks if we know what to do in the cold. Yep. We wrap the pipes and drip the faucets.
You see, in Texas, whenever freezing temperatures are forecast, we “wrap the pipes” so that we can keep them cozy warm so they don’t burst on us in the cold. To do this, some people impulse-buy foam pyramid covers for their outdoor faucets. Some people say that’s a rip-off and use duct tape and old towels. Some people challenge whether this practice is even necessary since no one in the North seems to wrap pipes. That’s when you start hearing about pipes being buried deeper in the North or the extreme changes in temperature that crack pipes only happening in the South. I don’t know if any of this is true. We have pyramid foam covers on our outdoor faucets.
I call my mom in El Paso. She says it’s snowing. She sends me a video showing a beautiful cascade of fat, fluffy snow. I ooh and aww appropriately. As I’m talking to her, I hear a noise outside our house. It sounds mechanical and clunky. I ask Derek about it, and he goes to check it out. He comes back in and says it’s our AC/heater unit. It’s icing over.
“That’s not good,” my mother says. (It’s common for me to carry on conversations with Derek in person and my mom on the phone simultaneously.)
We have a close friend who is an HVAC expert. Derek starts texting him pictures. In the meanwhile, he starts looking for supplies to scrape ice off the side of the unit. Derek finds an old dish-scrubbing brush and heads back outside. He comes back in and puts on real shoes (a.k.a., not flip-flops) and a jacket and a hat and heads back out again. Our HVAC friend calls Derek back. Derek walks in and out of the room answering his questions. I assure my mom that it’s going to be fine. She assures me it’s going to be fine. We hang up.
This weekend is going to suck if our heater goes out! I think to myself.
Derek comes in and turns off the heater to “let it rest for a while.” In the meanwhile, we’ll “keep an eye on it.” If the unit frosts up again, Derek will scrape it down again. We may need to turn it off periodically to let it rest. But it should be fine. We’ll just listen for that noise again. We drink hot tea.
Derek posts the situation online and someone suggested we use “emergency heat.” We discover we have an “emergency heat” setting on our thermostat. Derek tries that for a while. He’s not convinced it does anything. We both worry about how it will show up on the electricity bill. Apparently, “emergency heat” is more expensive than typical heat.
Meanwhile, Derek’s dad calls. By that time, we’ve discovered that GrubHub isn’t delivering. We all agree to cancel Sunday dinner. I allow myself a moment of quiet snit while I consider having to cook dinner on Valentine’s Day while my heater threatens to die. My inner diva makes use of her fainting couch. Then I get over myself and figure out what I can go cook.
That night we have an excellent vegan jambalaya and watch the Spurs game.
I read lots of posts online with lots of cold weather advice. I decide to follow all of it. Before we go to bed, I open the doors to the cabinets under all the sinks. We close all the doors in the house. We set all the faucets to drip. Derek brings our space heater into the bedroom so we can plug it in if the big unit goes out.
It’s almost midnight, and Derek goes to check to see if it’s snowing. “Yep, it’s snowing!” he says with little-kid excitement. I hover in the doorway as he takes pictures of the white blanket lying over our neighborhood. The wind has blown snow over the walkway to our front door. Derek makes footprints as he walks back.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 3:00 AM-ish: The power goes out.
I know because there’s now a beep coming from somewhere in the living room. It beeps about every five minutes or so.
As quietly as I can, I feel for my small flashlight on my bedside table to go investigate. It’s noticeably colder outside our bedroom, so I guess that door thing works. I think the beep is coming from the big surge protector that our TV and accompanying devices are plugged in to, but I’m not sure why that would beep or how to turn it off.
I decide to try and live with it and go back to bed where I lay listening to the beep. The power comes back on. I can tell because the heater kicks in. Also, our white noise machine, set to river sounds, clicks on. I decide to go to the bathroom.
The power goes out. The beep returns. I get up again—making as much noise as I want—and go in search of the beep and how to stop it. I come back to bed. The power comes on. The river returns. I roll over and try to get some sleep. The power goes out. The beep returns. This cycle goes on for most of the night.
At 7:00 A.M., my alarm clock on batteries faithfully goes off according to schedule. My internal clock is pissed after the night’s shenanigans and promptly hits snooze 52 times. At some point, I drag myself out of bed and blearily start trudging through my morning routine. I make sure I can’t hear clunking sounds from the heater. So far, so good. I decide not to open the blinds to conserve heat in our house even though they are mini-blinds so I know, rationally, this is a minimal gesture.
I check the weather. It’s not 9 degrees—it’s 10! I post my shock and obligatory snow photos on Facebook. Friends who live in Northern states and in parts of the world where snow is common reply with their photos of thermostats with negative temperatures. They do not seem impressed nor sympathetic. The Texans give me cry and shock emojis.
I realize how late it’s getting and go to wake up Derek whose alarm clock does not run on batteries. As he gets out of bed, he says something like, “Oh, did the power go out?” I think rude thoughts about his parentage.
I log into work and am grateful for a quiet Monday. I check Facebook, and there are lots of kids playing in snow and quite a few comments on power outages. This is the first time I see an article about rolling blackouts. Really? I think.
You see, in Texas, “rolling blackouts” is this thing that gets threatened by newscasters every summer when everyone cranks up their AC due to the 100-degree weather. But rolling blackouts rarely happen. If the power grid can handle all the ACs when it’s a 103, why can’t it handle heaters when its 10? I think to myself.
Derek’s dad calls; their power is out.
Throughout the day, Derek goes out to check on the heater’s health. He’s got the scraping of ice down to a system. He gives me updates. We discuss plans B and C. We say things like, “We’ll be fine,” a lot.
Derek’s parents still don’t have power. We tell them they can come over, but they don’t want to drive on the roads. We agree that’s probably safest. You see, in Texas, nobody drives when there’s snow or ice. Our normally busy neighborhood road has been quiet all day. Derek’s only seen two cars go by. We discuss those drivers’ mental health.
The posts about power outages are increasing. As the day goes on, I put candles in each of the rooms with a box of matches. I’m so tired that I declare that we’re eating leftovers for dinner. I snarf some food.
Then, I decide not to do the dishes.
Now we’re seeing posts about people not having water. One person posts a picture of her tub full of snow. I tell Derek that I’m going to fill our bathtub with water so that we won’t lose water.
As we’re getting ready to go to bed, the power blinks out. Derek shows me how to shut off the super annoying beeping surge protector.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 7:00 A.M.: My alarm goes off. I’m less zombiefied after a night without beeps, so I only hit snooze a couple of times. I can hear that the heater is on, but Derek’s clock is blinking, so the power must have gone out at some point. I’m very glad that I slept through it.
When I use the bathroom, the water is still running, but it seems slow as it comes out the faucet. I wonder if that means we have frozen pipes somewhere, but I don’t really know how that works. I check the weather; it’s still friggin’ cold.
I check Facebook and see lots of posts about power outages. Now they’re cranky. Some people still don’t have power. The city is asking people to conserve power. This is the first time ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) is invoked. I’ve never heard of it before, but I recognize “deregulation.” I roll my eyes. I’m a tree-hugging liberal living on one of the blue islands in the red sea of Texas; I know that form of Texas bullshit from when politicians tried to convince us that golf courses were worth risking the water supply. This is also the first time frozen windmills are invoked. Oh wow, is that a flaw in this type of green renewable energy, I worry for about 3 seconds. Then I remember that Germany has huge windmill farms, and it snows there a lot, so somebody figured that out at some point. Someone posts a map of the electrical grids in the U.S. There is the Eastern grid, the Western grid, and then there’s good ol’ Texas on its own separate grid. I’m relieved to see my mom in far-flung El Paso is safe on the Western grid.
Derek’s stepmom posts that the “rolling blackouts” are in no way timed. Power stays off for hours, and when it comes back on, it’s only for about 5 minutes. People online are speculating about whether where you live affects why you have power. Derek and I, technically, live in Converse, not in San Antonio proper. Is that the difference? My brother and his family live in Austin near a hospital and have had power the whole time. We’re fairly close to a fire station. Is that it? I spread sad emojis across people’s posts.
I get a reminder ding on my computer. It’s almost time for my 10:00 meeting. I go to sign on. The power blinks out. I go out into the living room, Derek is there. “I was afraid of this,” he says. We look out the window. Yep, still snowy. The surge protector beeps. Derek turns it off. “I don’t know why this is a feature,” he says.
We look around. I think I put a couple of things away. We both look at the dishes; no power means no hot water. And the water pressure is low. I think I find something else to put away. Derek texts his dad that our power is out now too, so they shouldn’t brave the roads just yet.
A few more minutes go by.
“I don’t want to start anything big in case the power comes back on and we have to go back to work,” Derek says.
Derek is putting things away and generally cleaning. Derek is a doer. Derek likes to check things off lists and accomplish tasks. He only sits still under certain parameters. “I guess I could put my Legos together,” I say. (Yes, I’m a grown adult who has Legos.) I start to put together the Mandalorian’s desert speeder. Meanwhile, Derek gives me updates from his phone. We discuss the stupidity of the independent Texas electrical grid that we weren’t aware existed prior to this. It seems so quiet in the house. I want to play music, but I don’t want to use up the battery on my phone. I hum the “Imperial March.”
Derek puts on his hoodie. “It’s getting chilly,” he says.
“Yeah, I may have to put on my big hoodie,” I say.
You see, in Texas, we don’t have cold-weather gear, we have levels of hoodie. I have a light hoodie that I wear almost constantly because, boy howdie, can you get a chill while drinking a kale smoothie in the AC. I have a medium hoodie that I wear when I leave the house. It’s a little thicker than the light hoodie, so it can handle things like wind and rain. Then I have my big hoodie. That’s my bad-weather hoodie.
I finish my Legos. I show them to Derek, who properly admires them. I start going through the list of things in my head that I mean to do on the weekends. One-by-one, most of them get discounted for power usage. A couple get discounted for water usage. I glance ruefully at the dirty dishes sitting on my counter again. I look around for my non-electricity-based projects.
The day goes on this way, filled with little tasks and the occasional checking of phones to discuss funny cold-weather memes and complain about the power grid. And the layering. Derek remembers that he has long johns. I put tights on under my PJ pants. He finds a hat. I do put on the big hoodie. He puts a vest on over his hoodie. I go foraging for a hat and find my Harley Quinn-themed winter gear that I impulse bought just because they were Harley themed and cute; I never thought I would have actual need of a knit cap and fingerless gloves.
We talk about random things. Stuff that happened in the last episode of WandaVision, things we want to do when it’s less COVIDy, how I once said I wanted to live in Vancouver, how much society relies on electronics, how we don’t have any camping equipment. We discuss lighting a fire. We have two Duraflame logs.
You see, in Texas, several people have fireplaces because they are pretty, but we don’t generally need them for heat, so most of us don’t keep firewood around. It’s very typical to burn just one Duraflame log at a time for a pleasant, efficient fire that makes your house a little too hot. We’re not sure whether we should save the logs for the night or not.
At about 4:00 P.M., the power clicks on.
It clicks off.
It clicks back on.
I jump up and run to the stove. I immediately begin to boil water. I make a pot of tea, a carafe of tea, and pour the rest of the hot water into a thermos. “That’s smart,” Derek says as he takes a mug of tea, “I knew there was a reason I married you.”
We agree that it’s too late in the day to go back to work. He puts amaretto in his tea. I put bourbon, lemon, and honey in mine. I plug my charger directly into a wall socket and stand by it while checking Facebook and sipping tea. I’m seeing lots of posts from people who have had no power for much longer than 6 hours.
That evening, Derek resumes his heater monitoring and scraping. We agree to eat leftovers because the microwave will heat up food quickly; I don’t want to be mid-cooking a meal if the power goes out again. I sit in my quickly warming house, eating hot food, drinking hot tea, watching movies, and scanning Facebook in utter guilt.
People have no power. People have had no power this entire time. My cousin in Houston posts a picture of his kids in sleeping bags in front of the fireplace. The pictures of the kids playing in snow now have captions like “keeping them busy” and “wearing them out.” People are going to each other’s’ houses to share heat and no one is mentioning COVID. People are talking about keeping their pets warm. One friend is using hand heat packs from their ski gear to keep her daughter’s pet lizard alive. People are putting food outside because their freezers are out. One friend has filled her ice chests with food and snow. There are lots of pictures of people figuring out new ways to cook with their barbeque grills. Derek’s stepmom mentions pulling her car out of the garage to sit in it and warm up for a while. My stomach drops, and I hope everyone knows to pull the car out of the garage first.
Then there are the water posts. One friend admits that she forgot to drip her faucets, so they’re getting water out of her pool to flush the toilets. Someone posts a picture of melting snow to wash dishes. One friend in an apartment had a fire sprinkler fall through his ceiling. He describes how the maintenance guy closed off the pipes on either side and then put out a bucket for when the ice melts. Then someone in Houston mentions “boil-water notice” for the first time. They can’t guarantee that the water is clean.
One friend says in his post that we all need to remember that we are living through a disaster and to act accordingly.
“I’m going to fill the second bathtub with water,” I tell Derek. The water pressure is noticeably lower than this morning. So I decide, once again, not to wash my dishes.
The online cold-weather advice has turned to survival advice. They advise things like building forts out of your furniture to keep yourself warmer. One talks about setting up tents over your beds. The terracotta pot heater posts begin. That would be great if we had a terracotta pot, I think to myself.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 17: My alarm goes off. I hit snooze and listen. I can’t hear anything. The power is out. I reset my alarm for 45 minutes later and go back to sleep. My alarm goes off again. Still no power. This time I don’t bother resetting my alarm before going back to dozing. At some point Derek stirs. “It’s 9:00 and the power is out,” I tell him. “Might as well stay in bed.”
We doze for a while, but at a certain point, we’re both awake just lying in bed. We start talking about the random things you talk about when you’ve got nowhere to be and nothing to do. The conversation comes around to 2020 and to how 2021 is going so far: How it’s one thing after another; How we’re tired of living through unprecedented times. I say I’m having so much trouble being hopeful anymore with all this stuff that keeps happening, one after the other. He says he feels sorry for me because he’s already gone through that and now he knows not to be hopeful. “You can’t live without hope,” I say. “Sure you can,” he replies, “you just have to lower your expectations.” I get mad. How can he live in a nihilistic universe where there’s no point and everything is awful? He bear hugs me. “We can be nihilistic together!” he says. I say things like, “You’re stupid. Weather is stupid.” He says things like, “Yes, yes, give into your hate.” There is a lot guffawing. I accuse him of being a closet hopeful person because otherwise he couldn’t cheer me up. He denies this adamantly. We eventually get up due to our bladders. I start to layer clothing.
“Good thing you filled up the bathtubs,” he says, “I don’t think we have any water.”
I call my father. My dad tells me he’s okay. He has no power or water, but he’s got plenty of bottled water. He doesn’t have any firewood, and he doesn’t want to go out to his grill because the porch is iced over. My dad has mobility issues, so slipping would be very, very bad. I’m relieved he’s being cautious. He tells me the snow hurts his dog’s paws. He tells me they are both trying to sleep through it all. He tells me not to worry. This will all be over by the weekend. The cold front should be gone by Saturday.
Time is weird. Saturday is two months from now. Yesterday was a week ago. I have no idea what hour it is. The curtains are all drawn, the doors are closed, so our living room is in perpetual twilight. I have discovered all our clocks are digital. Everything is digital.
“We need a lantern,” I say. “And one of those camping stoves. And we should always keep some firewood stored somewhere. Let’s become preppers,” I say. “I want a bunker.”
I don’t want to do anything. I want to sit and stew in my own unhappiness. Derek keeps finding stuff to do. He is our chilly cruise-to-nowhere entertainment director. He keeps making me laugh despite my best effort to be miserable. He asks if I want to play board games. I make guttural discontented noises. We play boardgames.
At some point, the water is back on, it’s just very low pressure. I decide I have to wash the dishes. I can no longer exist with my dirty dishes just mocking me with their unwashedness. The water comes out in a trickle, and it’s ice cold but I don’t care. It has to be done. When the dishes are finally out of the sink, I refill my big water-filter pitcher in the fridge out of habit. It takes forever, but I don’t care. I feel like I’m doing something.