Hell Has Frozen Over in Texas

Tree branches coated with ice against a gray sky
Friday, two days after the ice first hit West Texas. All photos © Marty Schafer, 2021

Paradise has frozen over, too, along with Notrees, Sun City, Pasadena, Miami, Cactus and Egypt.

OK, in full disclosure, there is no Hell, Texas, but all those other names are legit. So, what gives?

Unless you’ve been off the grid for the last 5 days (I bet even Antarctica has heard the news), every county in Texas is in a State of Emergency due to sub-freezing temperatures accompanied by ice, sleet and snow. The national news has been full of the story, as have the local stations – when they can get on the air.

When the prelude arrived last week with the ice storm that caused spectacular crashes in Dallas, Austin and elsewhere on Thursday, we were told here in the Odessa/Midland area of West Texas that there would be a chance of a little more snow Saturday and Sunday, with things warming up on Monday. Reality didn’t work that way.

The next cold front moved in on Friday. And from Saturday on, the promised “warm up” kept moving out a day. As of today (Wednesday) we have yet to get above freezing, they are calling for more snow tomorrow, but it’s supposed to be in the 40s on Friday. And in true Texas fashion, next Wednesday — seven days from now — one site is predicting 79°F/26°C.

Meanwhile, people are freezing. Not only did the forecasters miss this mess, so did the electricity and natural gas producers and transmitters. Texas is unusual, in that it is an essentially closed grid system that doesn’t share with any other state. A nice explanation for this from the Texas Tribune can be found here. There is a lot of finger pointing right now, and this article from the Washington Post contains some interesting detail, but it mostly comes down to two things: money and Texas-sized hubris.

Because it costs money to winterize, many producers haven’t bothered. Yes, some windmills have frozen up, but many northern states don’t have that problem. And windmills are less than 10% of our total winter generation anyway. No, the majority of generation issues were from conventional power sources. Natural gas pipelines, compressor stations and generating plants have had problems with icing, caused by water in vulnerable lines, and related issues. It’s not that this hasn’t ever happened before. My first winter in Texas saw 2 full weeks with high temps below freezing. We had brown-outs and black-outs then, too. But companies in northern states, Alaska, Canada, and elsewhere deal with this kind of weather all the time. Simply, the inclination and incentive to spend the money to keep the electrical grid and natural gas distribution functioning on all levels during extreme weather don’t exist.

We people have become complacent, as well. So many of us weren’t prepared, relying on the weathermen instead of planning for the worst. I did stock up on some extra food items and such, planning to stay home until Monday. On Saturday, I asked my husband if we had enough gas for the generator if the power went out.

“I don’t know if it’ll even work. I haven’t cranked it up in a while.”

Sure enough, it wouldn’t start. “Let’s just hope the electric doesn’t go out. It’s supposed to start warming up by Tuesday, anyway.”

This house is all electric. We’re not used to that. We usually have plenty of propane tanks around for grill, RVs, etc. But it’s been cold, and my husband has been using that to heat his man cave. He didn’t tell me the local convenience stores had already been out of propane for about a week. I could have gone last week to get a couple filled. Anyway, it wasn’t supposed to stay cold. It snowed and blew all day Saturday and Sunday.

Snowy front yard with snowdrift and trees
Sunday morning, 7°F/-14°C and -9°/-22°C wind chill. Note flag and spinner blowing dead center and drift off to right. Was still snowing. Click on the picture to see it larger.

On Monday, it was 0°F/-18°C when I got up. And dead still. My husband was out of propane and had to bum from our friend’s RV trailer. Then he started working on the generator in earnest and grabbed an electric space heater for his man cave to save the borrowed propane “just in case.”

Yesterday (Tuesday), with another storm aiming our way, there was a slight respite. After a morning of freezing fog, it officially got to 30 degrees somewhere around 4 or 5 PM. You couldn’t prove it by me, although the sun almost made it through the clouds a few times. I had an appointment for a haircut at noon, and I figured I could make it if she could. She’s a single mother and needs the money.

It felt good to get out of the house. I purposefully chose the Loop to go around town. I’d rather deal with a little snow and ice than crazy people who haven’t the slightest idea how to handle roads in this kind of weather. My stylist had no electricity at home but was using a fireplace and her gas stove to keep warm. The girl at the counter had water with no electricity, but her boyfriend had electricity with no water. So they pooled resources.

Since I was in town, I stopped at my usual two grocery stores. The first was busier than usual, everyone doing what I was. The second had a busy parking lot, but the inside was surprisingly without big lines. I found out why when I went to get eggs. They were out. They were out of almost all dairy, except for a few oat milk cartons and most of the yogurts.

I called my husband and mentioned that I was going to hit a third store.

“Don’t bother, they don’t have any power and are closed. And you can’t get into Lowe’s, there’s so many cars,” (a regional chain grocer, not the hardware store). He had been looking for propane without success. The only place that seemed to be filling tanks had a waiting line stretching over a mile. He passed.

The battery on the generator was toast, so after putting groceries away, I headed to an auto parts store that had what we needed. On the way, the grocery that had been closed had lights on and a handful of cars in the lot. Yay! Battery secured, I stopped there on my way back for eggs.

About a dozen cars were in the lot. Employees were still rolling up the cold screens on the coolers and taking dry ice pack out of the freezers as I dashed in. They had eggs! I checked the dates and grabbed two cartons. No waiting line, I was inside for perhaps 8 minutes.  The parking lot numbers had quadrupled.

The battery worked. Another yay!

“The tank is only half full, and it’s old gas,” he asked. “Do you think we should get some?”

“Well, duh! Let’s go now before it gets any later.”

This time we both went in my husband’s pickup, so we could keep the gas can in the outside bed. While I learned to drive in snow in a little Datsun 2-wheel drive pickup at 17, I still prefer my Subaru AWD Outback. But his Ram 4X4 handled well on Auto 4 Wheel Drive. My husband, on the other hand, was a horrible back seat driver! We had to go into the city limits before finding a station that still had gas. If he wasn’t complaining about my speed, (plenty cautious for the conditions), he was criticizing the route, cursing at drivers pulling out in front of us (ok, that was warranted), and generally raising my blood pressure.

I finally said, “I really don’t feel like arguing now!” and he got the message. He apologized, cracked a joke we could both laugh at, and we make it home without any capital crimes being committed.

Now, on Wednesday afternoon, I feel both blessed and grateful that we still haven’t lost power. This isn’t over yet; there’s a 50% chance of more snow tomorrow, and it hasn’t been over 23 degrees since daylight, but we have heat. We have food, and our well hasn’t frozen up, so we have water. Many in our area don’t have any of that. Some have been without power since Saturday. Water mains are busted, or pumps are frozen in areas of city water systems throughout the region. Not to mention frozen pipes in homes without heat. The hotels and motels are full, except for the ones without power themselves.

People are out there, right now, trying to help one another during this crisis. You may have heard about Furniture Mack in Houston, who opened his stores for shelters after Hurricane Harvey and has done so again. Or the man in Chicago who has been buying up all the hot tamales from the ladies who sell them on the street, so they can go home and get warm. He then gives the tamales away to the homeless on the street, in camps, and in shelters. Locally, several churches and other large buildings have become warm-up centers. These stories are great, but shouldn’t there have been some preplanning for this? People are dying.

Early sunrise with magenta clouds over a snowy scene
Early sunrise on Monday morning. No wind, but cold! 0°F/-18C

The pundits will dissect and digest this event until the next disaster comes along, but I’m not convinced much will come out of it. Solving situations like this takes critical thinking, empathy and a long term perspective. Sadly, those qualities appear to be in short supply these days. Corporations have to answer to shareholders, and shareholders want their money. Governments, who are supposed to be there for the people, aren’t much better. And even the people on the bottom — the end users — would rather have cheap electricity and gas now, instead of paying more to guarantee better service during the next hurricane or ice storm. The ability is there; it’s the will that is lacking.

Texans are proud, quirky, and passionate about their state and their independence. But, to paraphrase the old adage, Texans’ own pride may be their downfall.

Grace, Peace, and Warm Hugs to You!


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