Guest Blog from Jennifer Soos, Texas resident who weathered Winter Storm Uri with her family
Things are almost back to normal here in Texas following the unprecedented events of last week. While I feel incredibly grateful my family fared the crisis pretty well, we are now learning that we were literal moments away from a state-wide power grid failure that would have resulted in weeks of total blackouts, rather than just the four days we experienced. This news is quite unsettling. We were definitely not prepared for that.
(Day 1: Snow seen on the back of the house)
Imagine your house is dark and only 40 degrees. Your bathtubs are all full of water. There is no reliable information available about when services might return. You aren’t entirely sure how long the propane will last for the camping stove that is sitting on the snow-covered table outside. Even if you could traverse the icy roads for gas and supplies, the stores are all closed and without power, too. Your 11-year-old looks at you with eyes that clearly say he’s trying to decide whether to be scared or not and asks, “We’re going to be OK, right?”
I can promise you that in that moment you will want to feel much more confident about your answer than I did.
When I discovered myself in that exact circumstance last week, I said with as much semi-confidence as I could muster, “Yes, honey, we’re going to be OK.” But, the truth was that much of our preparedness for the crisis was accidental and I was certainly wishing it had been more intentional.
Our “accidental preparedness” clearly revealed that with just a little bit of preventative effort we could have felt considerably more prepared. A fairly small amount of planning would have made many things much less stressful and, possibly, even prepared us to navigate the worst-case-scenario that nearly happened.
What do I mean by “accidental preparedness?”
Examples probably explain this best.
We are campers, so we happened to have some supplies on-hand that proved very useful: a propane stove, weather-rated sleeping bags, battery-operated headlamps and lanterns. A little more intention on our end would have meant a better supply of propane canisters and a more robust store of batteries - both things we would have desperately needed, and no doubt been unable to procure, if the blackout had lasted several weeks.
In spite of getting a communication from the water company that water would NOT be shut off (a message we suspected was intended to quell panic,) I panicked anyway and insisted we fill the tubs and every container we could find. Less than 24 hours later, we were, in fact, without any running water and subsequently under a boil-water order for several days after the water finally returned. Many people who understandably trusted the utility company’s message did not store up any water and, therefore, all the neighbors with swimming pools became just as popular in the winter as they are in the summer. For once, my panic had proven useful.
We have a lot of buckets - plastic and metal. I’m not sure why we have so many, but we do. These were extremely handy to have. They were useful to clean out the fireplace and, turns out, coals in a metal bucket are a happy source of warmth for temporarily thawing things. The plastic buckets were filled with snow, useful for flushing toilets and nice to loan to people who were frequently visiting their neighbors with pools.
While I was grateful for some our fortuitous provisions, some of our shortfalls were glaring:
Seriously. This one was painful. Everyone without a fireplace was wishing for one. We had one and only had a few hours worth of wood. Most Texans prepare for heat, not cold. We were no different. Firewood was thought of as handy for camping and nice if you want to create a little ambiance on a chilly night, but we had never considered it the valuable resource that it actually is. When your kids start debating about which pieces of furniture are really not that necessary: lesson learned.
Nearly zero preparation for pets
(Vehicles being used as generators)
We were fortunate to have a week’s worth of pet food and to have enough water stored in time, but if the situation had gone on much longer, we would have been without the necessities for the dog and cats. The aquariums were an entirely different story - these were a huge oversight on our part. They absolutely require power and heat to survive. We were able to use our vehicles like generators, and lucky that we had full tanks of gas so they could idle for hours at a time for days on end. But, we couldn’t have done that for several weeks and gas was very hard to come by… so, clearly a better back-up system is needed for emergency pet care.
(Blankets being used to insulate the aquarium)
Not enough non-perishable food
We tend to eat a lot of fresh produce and meats and that meant we didn’t have adequate stores of foods on-hand that were ready-to-eat or easy to heat-and-eat. I felt grateful that my kids were old enough to understand the situation and just deal with what we could manage. But my days of infants and toddlers are not so far away that I couldn’t easily imagine how vastly different it would have been with much younger children. Pantry stock-up is definitely on the list of immediate things to do.
Unsure about medical supplies
We were about a day into the crisis when I realized that I didn’t know the status of our basic medical supplies. I was pretty sure we had first aid kits in the vehicles or with the camping gear, but I wasn’t sure. And how many days or weeks worth of medicine did we have on hand? I was also not sure. We were lucky to not need whatever we happened to have available, but those supplies are high on my list of things to inventory and restock.
Some other conversations we’ve had in our household that are informing our newly-revised emergency plan:
Infrastructures can and will fail
As a native Texan, I can’t recall ever going without power for more than a few hours at a time. It has been easy to ignore this potential disaster. We’re in central Texas: not far enough north for tornadoes, not far enough south to be greatly impacted by hurricanes, and no earthquakes or wildfires to speak of. It never seemed reasonable to be prepared for lengthy power outages. But now, generator research is occupying a fair amount of my husband’s time.
The “domino effect” is real
We were without water for nearly a week - not because there wasn’t water available, but because there wasn’t enough power to create the necessary pressure to get it into our homes. Real preparedness now feels like thinking through what might happen when multiple systems fail simultaneously.
What if it had been summer?
The whole script gets flipped if you think through your preparedness during a different season. We wouldn’t have been able to store frozen foods outside. We’d have needed alternatives for cooling things rather than heating things. The amount of water needed would have been much higher. The generator specifications for summer are drastically different than in the winter.
As I write this, it is approaching 80 degrees and looks like a typical, sunny, nearly-Spring day in the Lone Star State. The snow-covered yard of last week already feels so far away with this 70-plus-degree temperature swing. It would be so easy to slip right back into “normal” and write the whole experience off as a once-in-a-lifetime mishap. It would be easy to believe that “accidentally prepared” might be good enough.
But when I think about my son, it is not good enough. We know better. We intend to make sure we’re never “accidentally prepared” again.
Come join us in the Community of Preparedness! It's a safe place to ask practical preparedness questions and receive expert answers from preparedness professionals. You'll learn helpful tips to make emergency planning easy and inspire others by preparing out loud.
Our Moderators and Guides believe that by sharing and working together to create a Community of Preparedness, we ultimately create a more resilient and safer community for us all. We hope to see you there!