Lessons Learned from the Texas Deep Freeze, by B.B.

Texans had two weeks warning about the artic cold set to hit the state last month. Yet most Texans were not prepared. It is estimated that 80 people died from the cold and lack of power. Some froze to death from lack of heat while others died from carbon monoxide poisoning trying to stay warm in foolish ways. It started Sunday night with rolling blackouts in my area, but complete power outages in some areas. For my family, rolling blackouts continued through Wednesday night, ending in the early hours of Thursday morning. During this time, many lost water service, either due to freezing pipes in their homes or broken water mains in their communities.

Many areas were under boil water notices. By Monday, people were resorting to social media to get help to their families. People had no heat and calls for firewood and propane were common. Others had run out of food. Many of those needing help had small children. It was a truly SHTF situation. According to ERCOT representatives, Texas was literally minutes away from our grid crashing due to the high demand for power. Such a crash would have required months to repair, a truly apocalyptic scenario.

And the loss of power was not just because of Texas’s renewable energy sources. Approximately 20% of Texas’s power comes from solar and wind. Wind turbines froze and solar panels were covered with ice and snow. A few power plants were down for maintenance, others froze or could not operated at full capacity due to limited natural gas. Ironically, natural gas lines can freeze. But again, power companies had two weeks to prepare for single-digit temperatures and it appears they did little to prepare.

We have been prepping since 2008 and were prepared for what was to come, yet as with most of these events, we discovered weaknesses in our preps. This is an analysis of the state of our preps and those of our family and friends.

We Prepared, Others Didn’t

The week prior to the cold front hitting, we began preparing. We filled our gas tanks, planned menus and did our grocery shopping. The Saturday before the front hit, the stores were packed with shoppers. It was chaotic. And the shelves were pretty much empty by Saturday evening and no trucks would be coming on Sunday to resupply. The consequences of America’s Just-In-Time delivery system was on full display. We normally only need to put those Styrofoam covers over our faucets to protect them from our coldest temperatures. Expecting single digits, I wrapped our outside pipes with towels for extra insulation, and then put the Styrofoam covers on them. Having extra insulating materials on hand is important.

I brought our tropical plants into the garage and put a lamp on them. My garage door is insulated and even though the door faces north, temps never dropped below 40 degrees inside. Several cases of bottled water never froze in the garage.

We timed the rolling power outages and found that they were very consistent. Power off for about an hour and then on for 30-40 minutes. We planned our cooking, phone charging, and other activities around that schedule. Others did not have the consistency that we did. I don’t understand why the rolling outages were not more consistent across the state. We only opened the fridge or freezer when the power was on so that it had time to cool back down before the power went off again. Our fridge is an older model that cycled on as soon as the power came back on. One family member had an expensive smart fridge that took some time to cycle on when the power returned. Thirty minutes was not enough time for it to cycle on and cool things back to normal temps. Their freezer got above 32 degrees and their fridge rose into the lower 50s at times. I will not buy a smart fridge when it becomes time to replace our current model.

What We Did Right/Wrong

We did more right than wrong. We filled our gas tanks ahead of time and checked all vehicles to make sure that they were ready for the cold. We did our shopping ahead of the crowd and had the full selection available at the store. We made sure we had prescriptions filled. We had plenty of light sources and batteries. In addition to flashlights, I had several small pop-up LED lanterns that we used to navigate the house in the dark and they were adequate to use for reading. My family are readers and we had a supply of books on hand. My wife and I each read three books over the course of four days. Have ways to entertain yourself.

We have battery banks to charge our phones if needed. I heard from many people who had to run their cars to charge their phones. Since most people, especially college students, only have a cell phone (no land line), having a way to charge your phones is critical. Fortunately, cellular phone towers did not go down.

I also have battery-operated radios and hand-held ham radios. I do not have a ham license so I cannot transmit unless it’s an emergency. But I can listen to the ham bands and get some news. I can also monitor the local fire department communications for news.

We have gas appliances and heat so we were able to cook food and could have boiled water if necessary. I also have an outdoor gas grill with a side burner and three tanks of propane to cook with, if necessary.

My main failing is not having an alternate method for heating the house. I have a Little Buddy heater that runs on one pound propane bottles and about 20 bottles of propane. I also have the adapter to refill them from my 20 pound tanks. My research says these heaters are safe for indoors because they are catalytic heaters and do not produce carbon monoxide. But I found out that this small heater is not enough to adequately heat a 15×15 foot room. I need to get the Big Buddy heater should I need to seal off a small room to try to heat. I have a fireplace, but haven’t used it in 22 years. I need to get the chimney inspected and either cut a supply of firewood or convert it to a gas log.

Lessons Learned

• Buy more food than you think you need. The cold can last longer than you think and stores may not get resupplied for many days after warmer temperatures return. Because of our food storage, we had plenty of food. Think of your pets too and buy extra food for them.
• Make sure you have food that doesn’t require cooking. It’s easier to heat canned soup than cook a meal if you don’t have electricity.
• If you have small children, stock up on their needs: diapers, baby food, etc.
• Have ways to entertain yourself and children. Children get bored without television or other devices.
• Buy comfort items. Spiced cider and hot chocolate made being cold bearable. If you need your coffee like me, then buy a French press. You just add hot water and let the coffee steep, then press the coffee grounds to the bottom of the container and pour your coffee. I never needed my French press, but I’m glad I had one in my preps.
• Get alternate ways to heat the home. You cannot rely on having electricity when it gets below 20 degrees, especially if ice is expected to form on power lines. Had the ice been worse than it was, there would have been even more power lines down.
• If you have a fireplace, then store plenty of wood, even if you don’t use the fireplace very often. If you haven’t inspected and cleaned your chimney in a while, do so now. [JWR Adds: I advise installing a modern fireplace insert with doors. Those are far efficient than an open fireplace for house heating.]
• Store water for drinking and for flushing toilets. A family member had a pipe in his attic freeze and then they had no running water. Fortunately, he had stored water in case this happened.
• If you can’t boil water due to a lack of electricity, then a water filter will allow you to treat your water to safely drink it. I could have filtered water in my Berkey had I needed to. A Sawyer Mini filter takes up little space and beats not being able to treat your water.
• Fill your gas tanks before the storm. This prevents moisture from condensing in the tank. Stations either ran out of gas or didn’t have electricity to pump the gas. I store 25 gallons of gasoline treated with preservative.
• If you have a diesel vehicle, then treat your diesel fuel with anti-gelling additive. Diesel gels in extreme low temps and will clog your filters and fuel lines.
• Have cans of deicer handy. Vehicle locks and doors freeze and cannot be opened. The deicer can help unfreeze a lock or door to get into your vehicle.
• Have insulating materials handy to insulate pipes. I packed towels into my water meter box to insulate the pipe where it comes to the surface at the meter. I also wrapped my faucets with towels before covering them with the Styrofoam covers.
• Finally, have some cash on hand. Some stores were operating on generator power, but the Internet did not work, so they only accepted cash.

Most Texans suffered due to their expectations that the power and water would always flow or that someone would come to help them. Some very basic preparations in the weeks before the cold front hit would have reduced suffering greatly. This was a great lesson in self-reliance. Our governmental leaders failed to prepare and it was up to us to help ourselves and each other.