Tail of an Arctic Blast

A winter storm? In Texas?

"For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.

Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee? Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee?

And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me."

Matthew 25:35-40

I am a proud resident of Houston, Texas. You probably heard that the energy capitol of the world had a problem keeping the lights on this past week. "Unprecedented" freezing temperatures accompanied by widespread snow and ice engulfed the entire state. By Monday, February 15th, more than 4 million Texans had lost electricity, including 1.4 million Houstonians. That's half the population of the city proper! Many lost access to drinking water when pipes burst under stress from expanding ice. The Houston area was under a boil water notice until last night. At least two dozen people have died in incidents related to the adverse weather, and those are just the ones we know so far. We've had a rough time down here.

On Monday the low temperature dropped into low 10s (degrees Fahrenheit) while the high temperature was in the mid to upper 20s. The wind chill made it feel much worse. Downtown got an inch of snow! I will admit that the sight of it was stunning. The glare of freshly fallen slow blinded me on my meanderings around town. I've lived in Houston my whole life and don't remember it ever getting so cold, least of all for the week or so that the chill hung around. The snow blanketing the city melted in the sunlight, refroze at night, and caked the roads and sidewalks with ice. We don't know how to salt or plow roads and sidewalks around here, as we've never needed to. I almost busted my head on concrete at least 3 times walking around downtown on Monday. The ice hung around on the streets through Tuesday, February 16th, while on Wednesday, February 17th, freezing rain came in to add to the misery.

My building didn't lose power or water. My mom and brother lost power for about day on Wednesday before it came back on. Their running water went out at the same time and just came back on Friday, February 19th. Some people lost power on Sunday, February 14th, and got it back on Thursday, February 18th. That's 5 days without electricity. So many of my friends lost power and water during this fiasco that I won't attempt to name them all.

Houstonians don't have fireplaces or stoves. We rely on central air conditioning to keep our buildings at a reasonable temperature. We're prepared to deal with the absurd summer heat. Central air conditioning is good at keeping it away. Evidently, it is not so good at keeping out the cold. Most of us don't own heavy coats, have tons of blankets, or any of the other gear needed to weather a night where temperatures dip below freezing. Least of all when it happens in our own homes. We're better prepared for electricity and water outages as these happen during hurricanes, but winter storms are not at the top of most Texans' minds. We thrive in hurricanes but shrivel in the cold. My hometown and beloved state has been suffering.

I drove the streets with one of my friends on the street, John, to keep warm from Tuesday to Friday. I went to check on him the day after the major freeze because I was worried that he didn't get into the George R. Brown Convention Center, which opened as a homeless shelter for the storm, before the bitter temperatures set in on Sunday night. I found him in line outside of Loaves and Fishes, a soup kitchen across the street from his sleeping area under Highway 59, cold, but alive. I had told him to go to the center on Sunday to get away from the elements but he decided against it. The scene at the shelter was apparently one of chaos. Men fought one another over bowls of oatmeal.

His pile of blankets, situated about ten feet away from the edge of the underpass, had a snow pile about two inches thick wedged against it. After we finished our ride for the day I helped him get into his makeshift cocoon, a few blankets wrapped tightly around with a sleeping bag cast across by a good Samaritan. I expected the homeless to suffer as they always do, especially in times of crisis, but I didn't expect everyday Houstonians to get a taste of that grinding poverty — exposure to the worst of the elements, not knowing when you'll next be able to get a hot meal, missing showers. Hopefully this experience lights greater compassion in our hearts for the dispossessed and leads to more acts of charity in the future.

The streets were grim. On the worst day, Tuesday, we drove through Montrose, the Heights, Near Northside, and the East End. All of these neighborhoods had lost power except for some sections of the East End and the occasional intersection in the Heights. Streetlights were out everywhere. Restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations were closed for lack of power. What few were open had ridiculously long lines of cars around them looking to purchase whatever was available. The queue outside of a Church's Chicken in the East End was a block long. Cars snaked around the parking lot and streets near any gas stations that was open. The shelves were ransacked at the Heights HEB, a local Texas grocery store. Velvet Taco, an Austin-based taco chain, was crammed to the brim with cold, exhausted people looking for something to eat. Driving through intersections was an act of semi-organized chaos. Drivers were as cautious as I had ever seen them. We eventually found shelter in a small Mexican restaurant off Main Street called Abasolos #2, we ate quesadillas and drank coffee for a few hours surrounded by our chilled fellow citizens. Faces were haggard, people were outfitted in whatever layers they could find, and tensions were high.

The idea of a winter storm hitting Texas never entered my mind. I knew that temperatures were projected to drop precipitously. I didn't connect that fact with the potential for widespread electricity and water outages. I only associated those events with hurricanes. Outages caused by hurricanes local in nature. They occur when powerful winds knock individual distribution lines out of commission. They don't bring the whole grid down at once. In this case, the unexpected wintry weather caused both a supply shock and a demand shock leading to a system-wide collapse in the ability of the Texas energy grid to provide electricity. The supply shock was driven by the storm knocking out much of Texas' natural gas, wind, nuclear, and solar energy generation — they hadn't been properly maintained to operate in these conditions. The demand shock was driven by increased electricity use to power overloaded air conditioning units as people tried to stay warm. At least that's what I think happened, but really who knows the specifics. Chernobylesque. I got some fall of the Soviet Union vibes from the whole situation. Guess we were just a few decades behind them.

Earlier this year I went on a half-assed prepper kick when the food system looked to be in peril. I stockpiled canned goods, acquired water storage jugs, and loaded up on medicine. The water jugs served me well in this crisis. We were under a boil water notice and my dad and I were able to drink safely. Want to know what I didn't get? Propane. I have a two burner camp stove. I didn't think electricity outages could be so widespread. I was wrong. We got lucky this time as we never lost power, but next time we might not be so blessed. This storm reminded me that being aware of the concept of tail events does not help you to expect them when they come. It can only help you to prepare and react in an antifragile way.