2021 Winter Storm Lessons Learned , by Chill N. Texas

I am a long time reader of SurvivalBlog.com but this is my first time submitting an article to the blog. Much of this will be “train of thought” as I am reading through my notes that I was keeping during and immediately after the exceptionally cold winter storm that hit the Houston, Texas area in February, 2021.

I have been “preparedness-minded” most of my life, but didn’t consider myself officially a “prepper” until about 10 years ago. I have generally had the support (or at least she humors me) of the wife when it comes to being prepared, but as with everything else in life, you have to find balance so I’ve tried to keep my family prepared where we are, when we can.

For some context and level setting:  My family and I live in the greater Houston area. We are a family of five with near-adult children living in a suburb with a HOA,  one-story single-family home. It has natural gas appliances, and a wood-burning fireplace, on a municipal water supply. We try to maintain a baseline level of supplies at all times, for both natural/manmade events, as well as just general day-to-day living without having to run to a store every day or two to pick up something that we need but don’t have.

I won’t get into too many details related to timing since that has been covered in news reports, but when we started seeing weather forecasts that something unusual was heading our way (about 10 days out) we started to take a look around and “top off” anything that we thought we might need to stay inside for a day or two.  (We get icy weather every few years, and didn’t expect this to be much different from those events.) Unfortunately, that ended up not being the case, but in general, and especially compared to many people, we did not fare badly. I believe that this was a combination of being ready, being able to pivot and adjust to the actual situation (not just what we had planned for), and quite frankly just being blessed or lucky.

We lost power for a few hours Tuesday evening (while it was still very cold outside) and again on Wednesday afternoon also for a few hours, but other than those events we had power. We never “lost” our municipal water, but we did have very low pressure for several days and were under a “boil water notice” for several days.

If you read nothing else from this, please read this: The stuff that is discussed in preparedness articles/blogs is very real. The things that happened in this event are all things that we’ve all read or talked about and will be surprising to no one here. Things happened basically the way that we all thought it would. Lots of people were not ready for this, stores were cleaned out quickly, and then could not be restocked for several days due to either the loss of power at warehouses, or due to not being able to get trucks moving since all of the roads were iced up. By the second day of the storm, the news was rife with stories of people out looking for groceries and basic supplies and not being able to find them since stores were closed, without power, without staff (roads were icy), or some combinations of those.

I know I’ll be “preaching to the choir” on many of the following mentioned items, but wanted to put together a list of what went well, what didn’t go well, and some takeaways from this event that I hope that someone will find useful, or at least help to reinforce areas that someone might be lacking in. Note that this is coming from someone who thought that he was pretty much ready for this.

Good (What worked and/or went well)

Food – We generally try to stay well prepared in this department, and had no real issues here. There were plenty of our “normal” foods, we had no difficulty in preparing meals, and quite honestly had just sat down to eat a delicious pot of my Darling Wife (DW)’s chili when we lost power the first time.

Water – No issues with drinking water encountered. We have bottled and bulk water and the boil water notice was not terribly impactful.

Firewood – A family member had dropped off a large load of firewood a few days before things got cold, and that wood was split and stacked in the living room.

Gasoline – Main car tank had been topped off, and we have several 5-gallon cans that were recently filled. We always try to keep those topped off and rotated.

Power – Inverter that can be run from the car for short-term needs, and a larger almost whole house rated generator was on hand (more on that later!) for use in longer-term outages.

TV/Radio – Small battery-powered and hand-cranked radios and a small handheld TV were available to keep track of news and provide entertainment. We also have several Baofeng radios to monitor Police/Fire/EMS activity.

Other accessories (coffee, paper goods, etc) – We were well stocked on paper goods and coffee. (And a traditional metal kettle was available for DWs coffee if needed, you definitely don’t want her to miss her coffee!)

Vices – I’m not advocating any particular “vice”, but if you have those, make sure you are stocked up on those too.

Lighting – We had plenty of flashlights, headlamps, and area lighting available.

Security – This was thankfully not needed in this event, but we’re good on Security preps.

Meds/First aid – Also thankfully not needed, but I believe that we are well-prepared in that department.

Bad (What didn’t go well)

Firewood – Remember that “large” pile of firewood that was dropped off right before it got cold? That didn’t seem to be nearly enough (can you ever have “too much” firewood I guess?) and by the third day of using the fireplace basically any time we were awake we had to go back outside and bring more in, and then we started talking about rationing the wood if things stayed colder longer than was forecast.

Internet without power – When the power was out, the internet on our cell phones also went down too. I’m not sure if that was just network congestion from everyone jumping on their phones at the same time, or if there was tower interruption from the lack of power, but that was unexpected. We probably should have expected this.

Car Battery – You Northern readers might add this one to the “DUH” department, but when car batteries get cold they don’t work as well. Our car batteries down here are generally designed for hot weather and not so much for cold weather, and when I got into the car to check the thermometer there, everything (fans, fuel pump, etc) sounded really slower than normal.

Toilet flushing without water – When the water pressure was very low, or when I had turned off the water and drained the pipes to keep them from freezing my DW quickly discovered that we didn’t have a good or easy way to flush the toilets.

Organization of supplies – Remember the crank radio and the bulk water? I was unable to locate the radio for some time since I had been messing with it at some point and it wasn’t where I thought it was. The bulk water (5-gallon bottles which the wife had previously thought was “a bit much”!) has a nifty manual push pump that is attached to the top to get the water out of the bottle. Which works really well when you can actually locate said pump!

Heating in other rooms without power – The living room was pretty comfortable with the fireplace going, but the kitchen, bedrooms, and especially the bathrooms get cold in a hurry without central heating.

Electric chainsaw – Remember the firewood again? There were several large pieces that I didn’t bother cutting to size since we had “way too much, already”. When the power was out and we saw the firewood supply quickly dwindling, I was not able to cut those logs since I only have an electric chainsaw.

Radios programmed – Remember the fancy Baofeng radios to listen to Police/Fire/EMS traffic? Those have to be programmed to be useful, and when the power and internet are down, it is basically impossible to do that if you haven’t already done it before and have the frequencies documented on paper.

[JWR Adds: It is important to keep a hard copy of programming instructions with your radio. These are available at: Baofeng UV-5R — The (Chinese) Radio Documentation Project]

Lessons Learned (Takeaways/Action Items)

Car battery plan – We did not actually try to start the car with the cold/weakend battery, but if we needed the car for a trip to the emergency room, or just to warm up, would it start? Should we keep a spare car battery around just in case? If we hadn’t lost power I can charge/jump it from the house AC power, but without grid power?

Plumbing repair plan – We fortunately didn’t have any issues with broken/burst pipes, but we need to keep some of those parts around (once things calm down, you can’t find them anywhere locally right now) to be able to make repairs. Lengths of pipe that match what we have, fittings, tools, etc.

Firewood – We need to have more firewood and more readily-available firewood, or alternatives. We generally keep some of the pressed wood logs around. That was our emergency reserve, this time.

Comm and other equipment ready – This is a general statement about equipment, but you can’t just buy something, stick it in the garage or a “prep” cabinet, and expect to be able to use it when you really need it. Our radios weren’t ready for real use, I’ve never actually fired up that generator we were counting on and have stored gas for, and that handheld television hadn’t been taken out of the box since we first tried it when we got it, and just lucked out that it still had a charge.

Power adapter – We have plenty of cell phone battery bricks, but nothing that we could plug a standard plug into (without breaking out the inverter, which I’ve also never actually tried!). We had a portable DVD player, laptops, etc that we were unable to use for long that if we had a battery bank with a standard plug on would have provided a fun family night around the fire instead of me walking around wishing I had one of those.

Window covers – I need to come up with some way to cover the windows to keep the heat in/cold out.

Tub stoppers – Our toilet flushing plan was to fill the bathtubs and use buckets. All well and good, until you realize that you don’t have anything to use to hold the water in (we lucked out and found an old one from when the kids were little and used some plastic wrap shoved into the other tub drain, to make do).

Comfort food prep – We lucked out again on this one. We had some Smore’s supplies leftover from a recent camping trip, and the kids wanted to make brownies one night, but we were out of vegetable oil (we thought, but we found a jug — this goes back to organization!) That made our night into a fun “indoor camping” night instead of irritated kids that didn’t get brownies. I need to make sure that we are better prepared for “comfort” foods instead of just getting lucky.

Perimeter without cameras when power is out. Is there a good way, or an alternative, to keep eye on the outside when the power is out?

In closing, I hope this is useful to someone at some point. We tried to treat this as a learning experience and got a chance to try to survive “for real”. Even though we believed this to be a short-term event, it did go longer than we originally thought, but I took away some valuable information that I plan on addressing.