Well, now. That was a heck of a week …
If you hadn’t heard (and there’s no reason why you should have, what with all the other crisies vying for headlines) we recently experienced a “once in a generation” polar storm over here from Canada all the way down to Mexico. Depending on who you ask, this event was either called “Winter Storm Uri” or the “February 13–17, 2021 North American winter storm.” For the first time in recorded history, all 254 counties in Texas were put under a winter storm warning as a massive wave of Arctic air came swooping down from Rocky Mountains on the 13th.
We just called in “cussed cold” … temperatures dropped to -19 C here in Dallas where our utilities are optimized for extreme heat, not extreme cold. That was the excuse we were given by the state, anyway. It runed out that the massive power failures we experienced here in Texas weren’t really caused by “unimaginable” freak circumstances; our outages were the direct and predictable result of deliberate, cynical, and cold-blooded (pun intended) decisions made by Texas’s politicians. As Will Englund wrote in the Washington Post:
“What has sent Texas reeling is not an engineering problem, nor is it the frozen wind turbines blamed by prominent Republicans. It is a financial structure for power generation that offers no incentives to power plant operators to prepare for winter. In the name of deregulation and free markets, critics say, Texas has created an electric grid that puts an emphasis on cheap prices over reliable service.”
This decades-long decision to skimp on winter preparation in favour of maximizing profits led to power plants dropping offline just when demand was spiking well past normal maximums:
“… As the cold hit, demand for electricity soared past the mark that ERCOT  had figured would be the maximum needed. But at a moment when the world is awash in surplus natural gas, much of it from Texas wells, the state’s power-generating operators were unable to turn that gas into electricity to meet that demand.
“In the single-digit temperatures, pipelines froze up because there was some moisture in the gas. Pumps slowed. Diesel engines to power the pumps refused to start. One power plant after another went offline. Even a reactor at one of the state’s two nuclear plants went dark, hobbled by frozen equipment.”
On the ground, this meant entire cities lost power (and, sometimes, water) while our first major snowfall in years made our roads impassable. My family lucked out; our power and water never dropped. Unfortunately, my sister-in-law’s family lost both power and water. They threw all their un-spoiled groceries and some personal effects into their Jeep and fought their way south to us.
My spouse and sister-in-law attempted a short grocery run as soon as my nieces were safely set up in a cosy blanket fort. Turned out that our nearest grocer had lost power and was forced to throw out all of their perishables. Desperate neighbours picked over what little non-perishable food and supplies were left. It took over three hours for the two of them – in a 4X4, mind you – to make a round trip to a supermarket a mile and half down the street.
Then, to really add insult to injury, the “half hour rolling blackouts” that the power generators had announced turned into complete power failures for – at one point – nearly four million Texans. Most of the state – like us – isn’t plumbed for natural gas, so when you lose electricity, you lose everything. All through the storm, friends reported that they’d lost power and were scrambling to find a fix. Some people stayed put and burned whatever they had on hand to keep warm. Some tried to move in with friends in unaffected areas. Some searched for hotels that still had power and empty rooms. Some used their cars as “warming stations” every few hours. It was a complete free-for-all.
This is Texas, though. Things had to get worse. It’s tradition!
Towards the end of the Big Freeze, water treatment plants throughout the state began to fail from a combination of insufficient power, low water pressure, and supply shortages. Some communities announced “boil orders,” telling residents their water was no longer safe to drink. Other cities (including ours) begged residents to minimize their water consumption until the following week. Small wonder: city water mains throughout the Metroplex were breaking left and right. Fort Worth along struggled to recover from 100 water main breaks in a single day. Meanwhile, thousands of homes throughout the area experienced broken pipes and flooding. So did schools: most kids won’t return to in-person classes after the freeze ends because so many schools are currently uninhabitable from water damage.
So: no power, no water, very little food, and no help from the government. In fact, we received negative help when one of our two US senators gave up without a fight and fled to Mexico. If only they’d built a wall to stop desperate refugees from seeking asylum in their country …
Anyway. It’s going to take months to rebuild and recover from this one storm, and winter’s nowhere near over. Like I said, it’s been a heck of a week. We’re really not keen on repeating it anytime soon, especially since the Texas power grid ain’t gonna be fixed … well … ever. “Profits over people” is the unofficial Texas government motto.
All politics aside, there definitely are some good lessons to be learned from this week’s adventures:
- Make sure you have enough winter clothing, especially hats, gloves and boots suitable for working outside when it’s thirty below. If you most evacuate your home, you’ll spend a lot of time moving people and gear in and out of cars. If you can’t evacuate, you’ll be stuck in a cold home. Either way, you need to be dressed to prevent hypothermia and frostbite.
- Fill up containers with potable water before freezing temperatures arrive. Stock up on food that doesn’t need water to cook. Foods that can be heated over a camp stove or other improvised heater are good; foods that don’t require refrigeration are optimal.
- If you have a fireplace, stock up on safe combustibles like wood, cardboard, and paper. If your home is wired for an emergency generator, test it and stock up on fuel. Make sure everyone knows how to use it safely.
- Have a “bug out” plan ready. Know where you’re going to evacuate to in the event your home becomes unliveable and plan at least two routes to reach it. Also have a plan for how to serve as the “bug out” point for friends and family.
These aren’t earth-shattering revelations. I’m not saying anything here that most folks haven’t heard before. I don’t expect anyone to marvel at the suggestion that “having a backup source of heat is good when a winter storm takes out your electric heater.” Rather, I want these examples to remind people that of the all the emergency preparation ideas I listed require preparation:
- Do you have the right kind of winter clothing? Are you sure it still fits? Go check. It’s easy to assume that you have both gloves in a pair only to discover one’s missing right before you have to go outside and scrape off your windshield or refuel your generator.
- Do you have large enough containers to hold enough potable water? Have you cleaned them recently? Will they hold enough to supply additional boarders if another family moves in with you? How about food? Heck, do you have a can opener for all those tins of beans?
- Have you stored your firewood where it won’t get waterlogged? Do you have matches or lighters? Have you made sure your chimney is clear? Do you have a covered pad at least ten meters away from your generator? Where are you going to store your fuel so it won’t freeze? Or, worse, off-gas into the house?
- Can you navigate your “bug out” routes if the roads are slick with ice? Or deep in snow? Can you predict where routes will be choked off by traffic accidents? Do you know how to recognize your turns when everything is buried in snow?
You could work this out on the fly, sure. That’s always an option … just not a smart option. Mistakes discovered during preparation can be corrected. Mistakes discovered after the snow had cut you off from help are mistakes you have to live with … or die from, as the case may be. Untested plans and unvalidated assumptions can put you in a world of hurt. You’d think that folks wouldn’t tolerate so much preventable risk, but … they do. Mostly, because that approach is what they learn at work.
Businesses make this mistake all the time when it comes to project and contingency planning. They make unfounded assumptions like our critical suppliers will still be able to serve us. Our backup systems will work as planned. There will always be enough trained people to keep the work going. We’ll find a way! Any Business Continuity pro worth their road salt will laugh their co-workers out of town for such arrogance. Contingency plans must be carefully thought out, tested, and practiced if an organisation is to endure the worst that life can throw at it. Wishful thinking is accepting defeat.
The same rules apply to home life. Sure, you probably don’t have a BC pro on-call, but you can definitely emulate a BC pro’s best-practices. Imagine the worst possible outcome for every given scenario. Consider how you would mitigate each threat. Prepare early to endure and recover. Test and double-check your contingency plans. Communicate your plans, supplies, and processes to everyone who will be affected. Then, when hell freezes over work your plan.
You can’t control your state’s inept power management decision and you can’t influence the weather. You can, however, prepare your home and your loved ones to grapple with the worst the winter has to offer if and when things go hell. You can do the same thing at work: consider the worst of what might happen, figure out how to minimize the risk, and prepare aggressively.
It’s supposed to warm up to 20 C this week. I’m planning to restock all my critical supplies and get ready for the next big … whatever. Snow? Ice? Tornado? Rain of flaming toads? This is Texas; might as well gear up for everything now … while we still can. Especially since we can’t count on our state’s electricity providers to hold up their end.
 ERCOT = the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Also known as the private business that runs Texas’s isolated power grid. Because of course crucial infrastructure in America has to be a for-profit monopoly.
Pop Culture Allusion: Winter Storm Uri, 2021.