Well, who would have thought that I would be writing my blog in Houston with snow in the back yard and freezing rain falling again. Today is Wednesday February 17 2021.The good news is that our power came back on last night at 8pm. We had 38 hours of no power during the coldest days of this winter storm. The temperature got down to -11C outside with snow and ice all around. We count ourselves lucky as there are still millions of people without power and water across the country, in even colder temperatures than we have here. Many of our neighbors have no water due to pipes bursting as they froze and now, as the pipes thaw, their ceilings are leaking water and they have to shut the water off. Oh, to be a plumber in Houston this week.
We had a few things going for us…
*Even though we rely on electricity for cooking and air conditioning we do have a gas fireplace. We kept this on low at the beginning while we had power to make sure we could light it if the power did go out.
*Our grocery shopping was done on Thursday which was just as well because the shelves were bare in fresh food and essentials such as eggs by Friday evening at our local supermarket.
*AND we had a good supply of camping gear including a camping stove which burns butane. We went out on Saturday to find butane cannisters and passed by some large local supermarkets. The car parks were packed. We later heard that Saturday was the busiest shopping day HEB supermarket had ever had; and this is counting hurricane preparation days too. Anyway, we bought 6 cannisters of butane and thought that would be adequate.
*We also could use our sleeping bags in our beds if things got really rough. Our daughter, who is staying with us at the moment, did use her sleeping bag on Monday night when the temperatures were really low. Camping at home.
We were very nearly camping this past weekend. The Valentine’s day weekend was a long weekend for my school due to President’s Day and end of term. We tried to book a camping ground in the lovely state parks near Austin. We planned on riding bikes and visiting wineries. Fortunately, there was nothing available, so we opted for the previous weekend and found a spot at Muleshoe Bend Recreation Area on the Lower Colorado River. It was a beautiful site- (almost) made up for the lack of facilities- only portable toilets and no showers! Anyway, after visiting a few local wineries we set up our camp and snuggled in for the night; a clear, COLD night. It got down to 3C overnight and we were really pretty cold. We thought that winter camping is still not for us. However, now I am really grateful that we could not find a spot this past weekend and that we had all of our camping gear pretty ready to go. Little did we know we would be winter camping in our house the next weekend.
CAMPING AT MULESHOE BEND LCRA
We were recalling some other cold camping in our past as we sat around our indoor fire trying to stay warm last night just before the power was restored. We remember camping with the Robbos and Thorps at Wilpena Pound SA in July a few years back. It was freezing. We had a gas heater set up inside the tarp and all huddle around. Camping in Ballarat in winter also ranked up there with the very cold camping. Rob still thinks the night at Muleshoe Bend was one of the coldest.
We have been paying much more attention to the weather since we can access it so easily on our phones. It was interesting how the weather alerts became more serious as we got closer to the Valentine’s Day weekend. There was a certain amount of disbelief about it actually reaching the temperatures shown on the weather app (-13C with wind chill down to -18C). My Houston colleagues at work were saying that they had never seen weather temperatures like that. The news reports were saying that records would be broken and that rolling power outages were likely. In Houston we often get two different forecasts: the European and the USA forecasts. At the beginning of last week, the difference in the forecast was about 10C. The European forecast did not suggest we would get snow or even very cold temperatures. As the weather forecast became more concrete it was clear that we were going to get some extremely low temperatures and preparation became the key.
Our Harris County emergency alert came in loud and clear over our phones, TV, car radios and on the roadway public notice boards.
The preparation P’s were sent out as text alerts from ReadyHarris (our local county council) the various utilities and also from the weather channel. When public danger warnings are issued, they are a loud intrusive blare from your phone or television. You cannot miss them, we’ve had quite a few in the last 4 days. So, the preparation P’s are:
People: well, we dug out our thermals, down parkas, ugg boots and sleeping bags. We lit the gas fire and found camping lights and cooking equipment. Rob charged up his bike lights that are like turning on the sun and we charged our solar light (thanks Fishers). We also made sure that we had food and water enough for a few days.
Pets: Banjo is at home in Australia- so he’s OK
Plants: Rob thought I was mad, but I insisted that we cover our gardens. Then I decided, having heard that at -13C the ground will freeze, that we should dig up the important and ‘save-able’ plants and put them in pots inside. We did that, all bundled up arctic style. I’m glad we did bring some plants in as I am pretty sure after 3 days of living under plastic even if the others have not frozen, they are not doing so great.
Pipes: we were pleased that the owner of our rented house came and covered all of the outside tapes and fixtures with a special plastic cover and he also did something to protect the yard sprinklers. We were given some advice at church, from the Canadians and those from the northern states who know about cold weather, to trickle water through our taps through the coldest freeze times when we were out of power to heat the house. It must have worked, because our water pipes survived (so far) while all around us people are finding that they have broken pipes, mostly over their garages, which means that they are out of water until the plumber arrives. To make matters worse for many, the city of Houston water utilities have found that they also have burst pipes and many Houstonians are now either without water or have to boil it. We are lucky in our estate as we have a well supply. Apparently, when the City of Houston supply lost power our local water supplier switched to the well supply which is not contaminated and hopefully will last until the other is up and running again. It’s pretty wild all the things that can so easily go wrong when the power goes out.
Texas has a privatized energy system which is removed from the national grid. I guess when you sell oil and gas to the rest of the country you think you can go it alone. Interestingly, Texas also has coal, wind and nuclear in their arsenal of power stations. It almost defies understanding how, when you have such a diversified source, and you know the big storm is coming, that there can be such a catastrophic failure. At first the Governor blamed the renewable energy. He said the wind turbines froze off But as it turns out the natural gas that Texas prides itself on and provides most of our electricity froze in the delivery to the turbines so had to be shut down. the turbines were not winterized. There was also a problem in the nuclear reactor (I guess something to do with water freezing). Not sure why that is enough to bring a big state like Texas to its knees but there will be an inquiry. Heads will no doubt roll. Apparently, the situation was so critical on Monday night that ERCOT had to shut down power to the state because if they didn’t they would effectively blow a fuse that would take months of power outages to repair. The turbines would be irrevocably damaged. They were completely unprepared and so we were not suffering the short rolling blackouts they had promised, they just shut us down.
On the upside, I have not been trying to teach through this mayhem as school has been canceled for the week. It has been nice to stay home and do puzzles and nothing. Except for yesterday morning the weather has not been favorable for going out. We went for a very short walk at about 10am on Tuesday (yesterday) to get some sunshine. It was still very cold, about -6C, the ice on the road and footpaths was very thick in places and quite dangerous. There were a few cars out driving but most people were staying put. We discovered some tracks in the snow in front of our garage that showed that there had been a few small animals out in the snow, maybe a rabbit. There were also bird tracks at the backdoor. We have not seen a squirrel the whole time but lot of robins and smaller birds hopping around when the sun comes out.
So here we sit in front of our little fire, no power again but feeling a bit more like it will end soon. We are due to go back up to the wineries near Austin again this weekend but staying in a house with friends. I’m pretty sure that the roads are not yet passable up there. They have had a lot more snow and ice than us. We will sort it out tomorrow. Our little Audi is not 4 wheel drive so we are not keen to do too much ice driving. Temperature now at 2C getting below 0 again for the next couple of nights but no more rain. Things will be back in the 20’s next week no doubt…