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What I’ve Learned from the Great Freeze of 2021

It’s been a Century since it was this cold in Texas.
 It’s really difficult in today’s disjunctive world to have something we all share in common;  more typically everyone is looking down, staring at their cell phones at something different from each other. . .

. . .  BUT if you’re from Texas and many other parts of the US, we do at this moment share something very much in common—and it’s that we’re all, every one of us, VERY, VERY COLD. 

I used to listen to the news to find out what bad things were happening to all those other people.  Now I’m amazed to hear my city and neighborhood on the national news, and not for being Austin, the “new New York City.”  Instead, we’re now seen as the symbol of the decades-long neglect of what keeps people warm and a part of modern civilization.

On Tuesday, February 16, I’m writing this article from our home in South Austin, Texas with a  temperature of 53 degrees in the house.  We have been without heat and lights and WiFi for two days, and we know many people who have been without power for much longer than that—it’s impossible to say when the heat will come back on.  Another snowstorm is scheduled to arrive on Wednesday.

And with our difficulties, we realize we are blessed.  We have a fireplace without much wood, a kitchen with all the stove gas burners turned on, triple layers of clothing and so many blankets for the night that the exertion from turning over in bed gives you the same amount of exercise as a workout at the gym. 

Of course the true heroes are people like the electrical line workers putting in 24 hour days.   There are the heroic non-profits like the Salvation Army out working to clothe and feed our most vulnerable population; the homeless; and those with homes but no food, water, heat or adequate insulation and no coats or warm clothing.

Learning from the “Big Freeze”—What Unexpected Disasters Teach Us

The Big Freeze taught me things in 5 minutes that I should have learned 10 years ago.  It was so sudden. 

I woke up at 3 in the morning, and it felt much chillier than where I had turned the thermostat.   I flipped on the light switch to see what was going on, and when nothing happened, I switched it again, thinking I’d missed the switch.  When nothing happened, it all clicked with me.  Several of our friends had told us they’d been without power and I gave them my condolences and was so glad it wasn’t me—now it was me!  At the present Carol and I are ending our second day without power, and I’m thinking this will come close to lasting a week.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  1. What You Think Is a Long-shot Risk Is Really Apt to Happen.  We think that a distant possibility that could strongly impact our lives is not something we should think about now.  We think that it’s not worth spending our time and emergy on.  We don’t want to be paranoid, seeing trouble all around us.

    Here’s an example of action not taken.  Our home fireplace is our primary source of heat if we lose power, and we’ve never lost power for long.  We were getting low on firewood, but I thought that since it was close to the end of the season, I didn’t want to have a big pile of wood rotting at the side of our house all through summer.  

    How foolish that reasoning seems to me now.  For a $300 investment we could be a great deal warmer now.  And oh yes, I’ve ordered more wood which will be here well after this cold spell is over—and it will be in my side yard all summer.  If I had taken care of the risk earlier, how much better the outcome would have been.
  2. Fragile Institutions Are Much More Apt to Fail to Take Care of You. Everyone in Texas is angry, from the governor to the mayors, to people who are freezing with their families in houses without power.  ERCOT, the Texas Power Grid that was set up to avoid federal regulations by being exclusively Texas based, stands alone without the support of the national grid, and the head of the agency says he has no idea of when citizens will get their power back.  Texas, which produces more power than any state in the US, has starved the grid of resources, weatherization and infrastructure in order to keep commercial energy prices low, low, low and avoid federal regulation. 

    It’s been a tough year to depend on leadership and infrastructure. Now at a time when businesses and people from all over the US are flooding into Texas, a failing power grid is their new welcome mat for our state.  I’ve been around for a while, but I have never seen such weak and partisan leaders.  From COVID vaccinations undelivered, to political parties incapable of working together, to an attempted government coup to stop the peaceful transfer of power, our leaders are big on slogans and small on their ability to solve the biggest problems the US has ever faced.
  3. Time to Take Care of Yourself and Those Around You—Avoid Future Disasters.  Carol and I have come to the conclusion that as much as possible, we have to create our own private infrastructure for ourselves and our businesses.  We must secure heat, light, water and food.  In the next year we will create our own water supply by storing rain water, create light and power for our houses, and store adequate food and cleaning supplies. 

    Everyone is suffering from the cold of this unprecedented winter.  But what about the sometimes 108-degree temperature this summer?  Now is the time to plan for what’s next.  We will work with family, colleagues, and friends to achieve this goal.  We will use it to continue to be able to serve others.  We can no longer depend on institutions and be at their mercy.
  4. We Will Work to Push Collaboration.  It is time to hear collaborative statements like, “Let’s form a bipartisan commission to look at the future of energy,” rather than harsh denunciations and finger pointing.  How far have we drifted from being a genuine community where we are truly working together to bring people together.  Downed power systems with people shivering by themselves is but the symptom of the larger problem of a society that truly does not believe we’re all in life together.   I refuse to be a part of any organization that attacks those around them who look and think differently.  We shout political slogans at each other, but our leaders fail to sit down with each other and with us and make the huge, hard choices we have to make to supply food, clothing, heat, and shelter to our citizens.  Until we do, we’ll shiver in the winter and swelter in the heat of the summer.  And next, we’ll fight over water.
  5. We Will Work to Build Community.  I have to say that I’m proud of our Austin neighborhood, Bouldin Creek, nestled right between downtown and South Congress Avenue.  In our thirty years in the neighborhood, the through-line is that Bouldinites take care of each other.  The Great Freeze of 2021 was no exception: 

    Neighbors checked on each other, gave advice on keeping pipes from freezing, offered to drive neighbors to friends or hotels, and volunteered to pick up food or bring a hot meal over.  And the neighborhood saw to it that a frail and elderly homeless neighbor named Joe was safely put up in a hotel with food delivered daily and will have all his bills paid until the crisis is over.   We need each other every day and especially in crises.  As the saying goes, “If we each do a little, no one needs to do a lot.”

What I learned in 5 minutes of the Great Freeze of 2021 is that sometimes when you think there is a Boogieman under the bed, there really is.  I suddenly got a master’s degree in risk management.  I suspect we’ll be over the Great Freeze of 2021 in about a week, but we can’t let ourselves forget. 

All of us affected will be very angry for a short time with the agencies involved in managing this energy crisis, and some of us may even write a letter or two.  Political leaders will get a few people fired, and issue statements for the public.  Yet when it comes to making the huge investment we need to make to solve the problem and to do the heaving lifting of planning how it will happen, they will assume we’ve all forgotten the cold in a few weeks, and they will hold the line on taxes. 
Then we’ll begin again with new crises that will make the next outages much more serious.  But what about our part?  What can we do?  We can make a plan and join with others to make changes.  That’s what I’ve learned from the Great Freeze of 2021. 

Austin, Texas

Santa Fe, New Mexico

(512) 498-9780

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