Snow Days

Weathering Texas’s winter storm
A father entertains his family during the power outage in Texas, February 16, 2021 (CNS photo/Ricardo B. Brazziell, American-Statesman, USA Today Network via Reuters).

We woke up on a Monday in mid-February, pulled back the drapes, and saw our backyard covered in snow. Only an inch or two, but magical enough for us—this doesn’t happen in Houston—and falling still. Soon all five of our kids gathered in our bedroom, staring out the window. Snow! Let’s go play in it! They ran off to get dressed.

Houstonians aren’t used to snow, but we’re fairly used to snow days. Every few years, the entire city shuts down for a day or two because of a minor freeze, or even just the potential for a minor freeze. We laugh at ourselves for it, but snow days can be pretty glorious: no school, no work, no obligations, a chance to sit in your warm home, eating pancakes and watching movies all day. Looking out at my backyard, I was ready for a classic snow day, with the added bonus of actual snow.

“The water doesn’t work,” my wife called out from the bathroom.

“Huh?” I said.

“We have no water.”

We tried every faucet and both baths, but not a drop. We’d covered our outside pipes the night before, but we hadn’t followed any of the other instructions our elders had given us: didn’t shut down the water, didn’t drain all the pipes, didn’t leave a faucet dripping. And now we had no water or working toilets for seven people. But this wasn’t as troubling as the thought of those pipes bursting when the freeze ended.

I did what I usually do in family emergencies: Google stuff. How to thaw frozen pipes. I came across this sentence, which gave me hope before snatching it away in the final five words: “If you’re unable to get water to come out of some of your faucets, this is a good sign that your pipes are frozen.” Is there no better way to word that?

While our kids played in the backyard, my wife and I checked the external pipes. It was 19 degrees outside. Our neighbors Tom and Beth passed by, sticking to their morning walk even in the bitter cold. Tom is a retired engineer and one of the most handy neighbors anyone could ask for. His garage has so many tools that one of our other neighbors nicknamed him Tom Depot.

Hearing about our situation, he immediately enlisted himself to help, crouching down in our yard and opening the water-valve box, which was half filled with near-freezing water and frozen mud. He slid off his glove, stuck his hand into the water, and tried to turn the valve, while I stood there and watched. Later, my wife remembered that it was Tom’s birthday. If you let your retired neighbor freeze his fingers off on his birthday to turn off your water, this is a good sign that you’re an inconsiderate neighbor.

He couldn’t get the valve to turn, even with a special tool he retrieved from his house. It was frozen solid. But my wife managed to thaw out the spigot next to our garage with a hair dryer, per Tom’s advice. The water from the spigot worked, even though the water inside the house didn’t. This was an actual good sign. Tom was optimistic that a little more heat on the pipes would get everything working again. He offered to let us use his high-strength portable propane heater if necessary. Like I said: Tom Depot.

While his propane heater warmed the pipes in our garage, I crawled around the narrow parts of our attic, using the hair dryer on any uninsulated stretches of pipe I could reach. All the faucets in the house were turned on, with nothing to show for it. I blow-dried in the attic for five hours. Tom stopped by a couple of times to check on our progress.

Every so often, I’d go to the garage and move the propane heater a little closer to the pipes along the wall, defying the clear warnings on the heater. When I came back down from the attic, my wife said, “Is something burning? You smell that?”

We hurried to the garage. The insulation on the pipes was melting and the wooden joist next to the pipe was turning black. I could have set the garage on fire, or much worse. Around that time, my daughter’s friend down the street told her about a fire at an apartment a few blocks away from us. Later, I read that it affected eighty families and injured several firefighters. We heard the sirens and smelled the smoke all afternoon.

I moved the propane heater outside and tried it near the spigot again until the wind blew out the pilot light. I finally gave up. I went inside and told my wife I was taking the heater back to Tom. Just before I reached the door, all the faucets in our house started flowing at once.

We whooped and cheered, and I raised my arms in the air like I’d just won a championship. The water in all but one of the faucets became a trickle after a while—maybe they refroze or maybe it was because of the water pressure issues the whole city was experiencing—but still: we were a family of seven with working toilets again. We told Tom. He was happy for us, but he’d already moved on to helping other people on our street.

 

All of us slept in our winter clothes, loaded up with blankets, the little ones migrating to our bed around midnight.

The power went out while we were cooking dinner. We’d heard reports of friends and family who’d lost it already, but our street had been unaffected and we wrongly assumed it would stay that way. When the lights and heat went out, just before sunset, the outdoor temperature was hovering around 20 degrees. We got out a flashlight, a lamp, and some candles, hoping the power would come back soon.

It didn’t. The dark house scared our youngest kids at first, but then they became giddy, running circles around the candlelit table during dinner. In general, the kids seemed to think of it as an adventure. They all wanted to hold the lamp. (“It’s splinch black in here,” my youngest daughter said.) The house got colder fast. Getting the kids ready for bed in the dark felt vaguely apocalyptic. You had to hold a candle to walk down the hall. My wife said she felt like we were in A Quiet Place. We told the kids it was like camping, though it wasn’t at all. I worried about how cold it would get as the night went on. The projected low was 12 degrees.

Meanwhile, generators kicked on throughout the neighborhood, loudly supplying heat and light to people with the good fortune or foresight to own one. Most houses were covered in darkness—the stars were much brighter than normal—but our neighbor across the street had his lights blazing. A veteran who flew helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan, Thad was prepared. He texted us that they had plenty of room at their house for us to spend the night. He also invited other neighbors and some of their friends. For the next few nights, he and his family made their house into a free hotel.

We didn’t go, though. Having five kids under ten years old is like being the proprietor of a small zoo. Moving that zoo is a complicated task that invites chaos, and you can’t take advantage of someone’s generosity during an emergency by bringing the zoo to their house. But it was comforting to have an option if things got really desperate. We had no idea what to expect.

Unsurprisingly, it was a long and very cold night. All of us slept in our winter clothes, loaded up with blankets, the little ones migrating to our bed around midnight. The small hands of our youngest felt nearly frozen when he crawled in with us; we’d forgotten to put gloves on him. That morning was the coldest I’ve ever been inside a house. We didn’t have an accurate thermometer, but some of our neighbors reported that the temperatures inside of their homes were in the low 40’s. Sitting at the kitchen table in his jacket, our eight-year-old son said, “Look, I can see my breath!”

Our gas stove still worked, so my wife made pancakes and offered them to the neighbors. Later, she made a stew and offered that to our neighbors, too. Throughout that day, people up and down our street made similar gestures, helping one another, coming by to check on each other, sharing extra jackets and winter clothes, helping with busted pipes and flooded rooms, trading notes on available plumbers, exchanging rumors about when the power might come back, bringing over buckets of water for toilets, offering heat or electricity if they had a generator.

We all knew the second night without power would be worse, with no leftover heat in our houses. More of the neighbors without generators stayed with those who had them. (Tom, of course, was among the latter.) Mary, a friendly grandmother across the street, had tried to stick it out alone, but she told me she couldn’t handle another night like that; her family drove from Beaumont to pick her up. We received a text from our former neighbors, a French family that used to live in Thad’s house. They had power in their new place across town and wanted us to come stay with them. They were worried about our kids.

But we stayed home again. Pipes had burst at several houses on our street; we wanted to be there if our house flooded. We invited another family over for candlelit stew, and after they left we settled in for another cold, dark night. I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the older kids by lamplight. They wore gloves and winter caps in bed, which felt appropriate to the book. As expected, this night was even colder and longer.

We awoke on Ash Wednesday to sudden lights and the beeping of appliances. We celebrated. We lost power again that afternoon—one more cold, dark dinner and bedtime—but near midnight the power came back for good. 

In the aftermath, we wondered about the officials in charge of the Texas power grid, who apparently hadn’t been prepared for a deadly winter storm that meteorologists had warned about far ahead of time. We marveled at our junior senator, who decided to take his family to Cancún while more than a million of his fellow Houstonians lacked heat. And we began to hear more stories of the adults and children around the city who hadn’t survived the weather, tragic losses from fire, from carbon monoxide poisoning, from hypothermia in their own homes. 

At the moment, I didn’t comprehend just how fortunate we were. Even now, two weeks later, I’m still processing this. It’s one thing to think or talk about loving thy neighbor, as I’m prone to do. It’s another thing to do what Tom and so many other people did on our street and throughout the state: jump into action and do what you can to help.

Burke Nixon is a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University, where he teaches a course called Fiction and Empathy.

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