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.