Keep Austin Warm

There was no joy in playing outside when there was no bright, warm inside to return to

Photograph by Lars Plougmann.

I live in the fast-growing, classically weird neighborhood of Crestview in Austin, Texas. A northerner at heart, I was excited that a blizzard was coming to town. By midnight Sunday—Valentine’s Day—the first few inches had fallen, and I took my dog, Hudson, over to the Arlan’s grocery store parking lot to chase a ball in the freshly fallen snow. I’ve lived in Austin for seven and a half years, and before this year we haven’t had more than an inch of snow. In early January we got about two inches, and countless mini snowmen appeared on front lawns and sidewalks. We joked about how terribly unprepared the city was for snow: no salt, no plows, and thousands of drivers who have never driven in anything worse than rain. People here can distinguish hail from graupel, however, so the city always reminds you to drip your faucets so the pipes don’t freeze; we started dripping ours before bed.

I went to sleep at 1:15 AM that night only to wake around 3 AM to the uneasy quiet of a power outage—with no hum of central heating, the air was still. I had received a text at 2:11 AM: “Due to record electric demand, Texas electric grid operator is directing rotating outages to protect electric grid reliability. Outages typically 40 mins or less. Length and frequency depend on severity of event. Prepare for possible power interruptions due to mandated rotating outages.” I went back to bed.

When I woke up five hours later, the power hadn’t returned and the temperature in the house had dropped to 48 degrees. My house, like most Texas houses, has an electric furnace because, according to builders, it “never gets that cold.” Despite the cold, I couldn’t resist the temptation to make maiden tracks in the fresh snow. Hudson and I were the first ones out on our street—there had been no plows, no salt—and the first to the Arlan’s parking lot. He chased the ball until his whiskers were frozen; when we got home it was 46 degrees inside. We didn’t warm up, and I didn’t have a plan for coffee. The beans sat in my electric grinder next to my electric espresso machine next to my electric refrigerator. Every store in the city was closed, the roads were treacherous to impassable, and the wind chill kept the temperature outdoors below zero. There was nowhere warm to go.

When I checked my phone, I found that city and state governments and local news were still acknowledging rotating outages of forty minutes or less, but I eventually unearthed a 5:40 AM tweet from Austin Energy, the company that supplies my electricity, admitting, “The required outages are more extensive than anyone expected and do not allow us to bring affected customers back online at this time.” The tweet went on to say that, “to get power back on to customers as soon as the grid allows,” the company would continue working with an entity I had never heard of: something called ERCOT. Mindful of my precious phone battery power, I googled and soon learned that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas manages the flow of electric power in most of the state. Texas, as I and many residents discovered that day, eschews federal regulation by operating an independent electric grid, which is certainly a problem when a storm system sweeps across the entire power grid, because no other state can supply us with extra power. The Texas Tribune has written about this in detail.

I used the rest of my phone’s battery to check in with friends and see who still had power. When my roommate, Joe, woke up shivering, we got in his car to charge our phones and warm up. We scoured local news and social media for information, but there was still no prognosis for when we could expect the power to come back on. In the early afternoon, local NPR reporter Nadia Hamdan tweeted that Austin Energy “says it cannot rotate these outages among customers because it has already cut off power—or shed load—on all available circuits that don’t include some kind of critical needs like hospitals. We’re stuck here until we can get some reprieve from ERCOT.”

Hudson and I went back out into the snow, but there was no joy in playing outside when there was no bright, warm inside to return to. Back at home, we lit candles, combined a can of lentil soup with a can of tomato soup, and boiled pots of water on the gas range, which raised the temperature two degrees. We piled blankets on the dog, but every so often, he’d emerge and join us in the kitchen to hang out, shivering, until we returned him to his blanket nest. By nightfall it was 42 degrees in the house. Over the next day and a half, we would trudge between the warm car and the cold house enough times that Hudson would eventually refuse to leave the backseat.

There was still a dearth of information about the length of the outage in Austin, but the city of Houston had informed its residents that it could go on for days, and we were unlikely to get power back for the second night. Perhaps it goes without saying, but if you don’t have power, you can’t watch TV, and there was otherwise no direct communication from the city or state. A local reporter, Tony Plohetski, tweeted, “BREAKING: Austin Energy says there is no more energy that they can turn off at this time. That means that the conservation is having to come from people who do not have power, and those who do, must urgently conserve.” Leslie Pool, my city council representative, tried to explain the situation. “The speed with which this all went down early this morning was a factor. We don’t have enough power to turn the circuits back on (software). We don’t have power because we had to shed so much load. We shed the load because ERCOT required it as demand put us at that stage of emergency . . . The situation is so dire statewide that, so far, ERCOT has not permitted us to roll circuits back on. Waiting for ERCOT alert that demand has equalized so circuits can reengage.” The utility company had sent an email to all its customers: “URGENT: Conserve Power Now,” followed by, “Please use as little as possible to assist us in getting the electricity back on for others.” The message must not have gotten through: a friend shared pictures of the illuminated city skyline and cheerful Christmas lights on the trees downtown.

The next morning it was 38 degrees, and I woke with a pounding caffeine withdrawal headache. Tea did not help. Arlan’s still didn’t have power, but a neighbor reported that Dia’s Market on Justin Lane was open. My roommate drove us the mile on icy roads to discover the store was packed with pre-pandemic sized crowds of cold Austinites. I got coffee.

We returned to a cold house. It was more challenging, mentally, to be cold during the day—at night I could be huddled under blankets with my dog, but in the daytime there was nothing to do but be cold. I’m a Navy veteran, finishing my PhD in mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin. Over the pandemic year, I converted the back of my bedroom into an office where I do my research. I work on Whitney Problems, developing the theory of interpolation and extension in different function spaces. I finally conceded that this was a natural (and manmade) disaster and I wasn’t going to get any work done. I emailed a colleague to cancel a talk I was supposed to give the following day. Without power, heat, or water, it’s impossible to focus on solving any problem other than survival.

Eventually, Joe and I accepted an invitation from a friend with power to shower, charge phones, and warm up for a few hours (masked, distanced) at his house. He locked his cat in a bedroom so Hudson could come. Tired, we returned to a freezing house to cook dinner by candlelight again. It was 38 degrees in the living room, but 30 degrees in the bathroom, like an outhouse. At midnight, forty-six hours after our power first went out, it suddenly came back on again. The relief lasted for thirty minutes, and then it went back off. I ate a bag of chocolate-covered almonds, took two ibuprofen, and went to sleep angry.

By morning the power had returned. The house was warm by 10 AM. Gleeful, I conferred with my neighbors. Joe and Rosa had space heaters, but John, a retired teacher across the street, had also been without power and heat. John complained that there had been no warning from the city and state, and that he had been unable to find any useful information for two days. Rosa, an energetic grandmother who shared tamales when I moved in next door and who has lived in her house since 1967, expressed frustration with the governor for tilting at windmills and trying to blame the Green New Deal rather than accepting responsibility for ERCOT’s failures after decades of Republican rule in Texas. “We’ve got to vote ’em out!” she exclaimed. I agree: over the years, I have grown to appreciate Texans’ fierce independence, but I’m hopeful that after this, every Texan will trade in infrastructural independence for infrastructural stability.

We had all continued to drip our faucets and now began to notice a precipitous drop in pressure, but no one could find any leaks. We hypothesized that a city water main had burst. A few years ago, after a series of torrential rain storms, Austin had instituted a “boil water notice,” and so, fearing I would soon have to boil my tap water, I began to fill all of my pots and pans. I made hot espresso and blueberry pancakes and joined a Zoom research collaboration, eager to return to my work. The reprieve was short, for when I returned to the kitchen, our water pressure had dropped to a trickle. I walked the perimeter of the house and found water pouring off the slab foundation near the bathroom. I tried to isolate the leak, closing the valve to the sink and then the toilet, but it continued to pour off. I have a wrench-key for the cut-off valve at the water meter, but I’d never operated it. Trepidatiously, I removed the water meter’s manhole cover, revealing the meter but no valve handle, just earth. I put on mittens, got a spade and a shovel, kneeled down in the snow, and dug through the cold dirt around the meter until I found the handle and turned it with the wrench-key. The water stopped. Of course, now we no longer had water in the house at all. By that evening, neighbors across the street and next door had burst pipes or lost water pressure and closed their valves as well. I called a dozen plumbers but couldn’t get a hold of one, or even leave a voicemail.

But at least it was warm. Three friends who still didn’t have power came over to charge their phones and warm up. We sat masked in the living room—my first guests since the pandemic started—and chatted casually. When they went home, I sent dozens of emails and messages to plumbers, and Joe made chicken parmesan. It was fantastic, but also produced a lot of dishes, which are hard to clean when you don’t have running water. Meanwhile, we surveyed the pots and pans scattered around the house and realized we only had a day’s supply of water. Arlan’s had reopened earlier in the day, so I bundled up to buy some more. The store had closed early, and the parking lot was empty, but the pipes in their outdoor water dispenser had burst and water rushed out into the snow. I closed the valve, my second plumbing feat of the day.

With confidence and electric power and heat, life without water was an issue I could tackle. Late in the evening, I turned to Joe and said, “I’m going out back to get a bucket of snow for the toilet,” and we laughed helplessly. I have since learned that snow takes a long time to melt (there’s currently a slushy pile of it in one of my toilets); when your water goes out during a terribly mismanaged crisis in the dead of a freak winter, I recommend replenishing your toilet with the water that drips off of icicles instead.

In the meantime my friends and neighbors have been eager to share what they have, delivering potable water to my doorstep and around the neighborhood. Finally, on Thursday, two plumbers wrote me back, and I felt incredibly fortunate; I made an appointment with one for Monday. Shortly thereafter, I discovered that a frozen tree had fallen on the outbuilding behind my house, damaged the roof, and then refroze, stuck to the shingles. With power and water unrestored in many places, the University has canceled classes through next Wednesday. The entire city and much of the state are on an indefinite boil water notice. On Bumble, thirsty people are already advertising that they have working heat or water or both.

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