The February 2021 Houston (and Texas) cold snap event

Not just yet! (Image credit: Neal Meyer)

As the entire world knows, Houston (and Texas) were hit with a massive Artic cold wave blast which lasted from February 11th  to February 19th. The first three days of the event resulted with what amounts to cold weather for Houston: Temperatures for February 11-13 were around 40-41 degrees for highs, and 34-35 degrees for lows. However, God (or Mother Nature) kicked things up several notches starting on Sunday evening, February 14th (Valentine’s Day!). The highs for that Sunday only reached into the mid-30s, and that night the winter storm began in earnest. The official temperature readings dropped to 16 degrees Sunday night and did not get above 22-23 degrees until Tuesday February 16th. Monday night, the thermometers went down to the 12-14 degree range, which this nearly lifelong Houstonian thinks is the coldest day/night I’ve ever lived through in Our Fair City. Temperatures did warm back up close to the freezing point) by Tuesday afternoon, and more or less stayed there until Saturday, February 20th. The daytime temps for Thursday and Friday did get into the 40s, while the night time temps once again dropped below freezing. By Saturday, the ordeal was over and life more or less returned to normal.

This post is not intended to be my own analysis of the event. Rather, it is meant to be a written record of what I (and my neighbors, friends, and a colleague of mine) personally went through during the event while this cold snap event is still fresh in my memory. I’m still doing my own personal investigation of this cold snap event, and though I am confident of certain issues, there are other issues at stake I’m not fully confident that I know enough of to pass judgment about with regards to why Houston (and Texas) went through the turmoil we did. And, with that, I begin my diary.

February 10-13

I don’t always pay super careful attention to local news, but given as things had turned a little cool, after a fairly mild winter so far, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad thing to go out and buy another space heater. I have several space heaters for when the weather turns cold, but I thought it wouldn’t be bad thing to have another as a backup in case one stopped working. Ergo, I went out and bought one.

I have electrically powered heat, and as it turned out, I never thought thought that the Texas grid itself would be in trouble from the upcoming cold snap to the point to where there would be widespread outages. My assumptions were wrong, and I ended up paying the price for not having adequately prepared ahead for a cold snap disaster. As for the wider community I live in, most have chilled (or boiler heated) circulated water, but both depend upon the electricity running. Ergo, they were basically in the same boat I was when this cold snap struck.

Sunday, February 14

The day is cold, but things are holding up okay. As the evening comes, the cold air from the north definitely starts to make itself felt. Winds become much more biting, and the temperatures start to drop. I stayed at home, but I still thought that things were going to be okay. I went to bed around 11:00 pm, with my place still warm and cozy. I go to bed with three layers of blankets and things are okay.

Monday, February 15

I awoke around 3:45 am Monday morning, to find that everything is pitch black. My 1980s vintage bedroom alarm clock/radio, something I saved from my parents after they passed away, was black and not showing any LED lights. I can’t see any light coming out of my study, indicating my IT computer equipment – modem, wifi, and both my Linux and Windows workstations are all down. My first thought was, “The power is out. Now, when did the power go out and how long will it be before it comes back?” I’ve long thought that most people do not like uncertainty in this world, and much of what we do as people is strive to mitigate (or eliminate) uncertainty. I now find myself in an uncertain environment.

I get up and head to my kitchen pantry, where I have a pair of flashlights. One flashlight has much newer batteries than the other, so I go with using that one. I was to discover that having a flashlight is a very useful resource in an emergency. Get at least one, and keep those batteries up to date.

I look at my home thermostat, and find that the room temperature has fallen to 62 degrees. It had been 70 degrees when I went to bed. I suspect that the power had likely gone out perhaps 2 hours before I woke up. My body is still warm, but my feet and toes start to get a bit numb, even with wearing multiple layers of socks. No doubt that age is catching up to me and having had too much fun for too many years of my life, but there is no doubt that the weather is getting to me.

I try to go back to bed. I also check my cell phone, and find that my battery on my phone is at about 60 percent. It didn’t occur to me to charge it before I went to bed, and I was to worry about this until the following night when I figured out an answer to my cell phone problem. I resolve that when I get up in the morning I need to call my team manager at Big Giant World Famous Manufacturing Corporation of America to tell her that I won’t be able to get online to work.

I get up in earnest about 7:30am. The temperature in my hacienda is now down to 54 degrees. I have one team colleague who works in the NASA/Clear Lake area. I try calling him first, but the phone call does not go through. I then text him and ask him how he is doing? He says he’s up, online, working hard, and everything is just wonderful. I then tell him the bad news, and tell him I’m about to call our team manager. He writes back that he’ll write an email to the rest of the team about what’s going on. I then call my team manager, and the call goes through. She asks me what’s going on, and I tell her that the power is out. I’m starting to go out and about around town to look for a hotel I can check into that has power, and I tell her I’ll update her in a few hours.

I head on over to the Galleria to try to book a room at the Westin Oaks. I park in the underground parking, and end up nearly slipping on ice several times as I head up the rap to the surface. The snow is perhaps one foot thick, indeed thicker than I’ve ever seen snow in Houston in my lifetime. The wind is absolutely biting, as I head towards the hotel. I enter, wait in a line behind a few others, and then ask one of the personnel at the front desk if they have a room? He politely informs me that, no, they’re all booked up. I then make the long walk back to the car, nearly slipping again, and head out. I ended up trying to book at seven different hotels in the Galleria, before giving up and calling a lady friend of mine to see if she still had power. She said yes, and that I could spend part of the day at her place.

I head on over, and she allows me to use her wifi connection. That allows me to get online to at least check in with my work team in time for our weekly team meeting. Fortunately, I didn’t miss too much. There were no crises to deal with. I then check to see if there are any hotels around town that are not booked up. In particular, my longtime compadre Don Hooper had mentioned that power companies keep electrical power up in downtown Houston, ergo I booked a hotel room in downtown to assure I would have power for the week. And yes, it was noticed that downtown Houston was all lit up while this electrical power crisis event was going on.

Well, my problems were almost solved. It turned out the hotel I booked a stay at, like all the others, did not have a room available for Monday night. They did have rooms for Tuesday and beyond. Fine, I said. I’ll take that. I then booked a room through Saturday morning as insurance.

That left me with what I was to do to get through the night? I resolved that I would tough it out in my own vehicle. The heater was working and it was warm. I found a gas station that was still open, filled the gas tank up, and drove back home. On the way, I see a Dominos Pizza in the Montrose area that was still open, along with a line of some 100 people waiting outside. I also pass by a Burger King on Richmond Avenue that had a drive through that was still open, and a massive line of people in their cars waiting patiently to get some food.

Once I got home, I went inside to find that the temperature in my hacienda had dropped to 40 degrees. Most of my food and drinks appeared to be holding up due to the cold, but of course I could never be quite certain of that. I grabbed some meat, cheese, and bread and made a sandwich. I then grabbed some bottled water, soft drinks, and some booze and fixed myself a drink. Then I grabbed some blankets and headed back out for a long night in the car. The time was 9:45pm. I figured I had about a 9-10 hour sleepless night ahead of me.

My downstairs neighbor, a university student, asked if she could join me for a while, so I said yes. Several of my neighbors also decided to tough the night out in their vehicles as well. I cranked up my car engine, turned on the radio, rolled down the window a bit in order to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning (fortunately the wind was not blowing much at that point), and my neighbor and I started chatting. We talked for about 2 hours before she headed back in. I pushed my seat back as far as it could, tried to get comfortable, and closed my eyes for as much as I could. It was a good thing I had a cigarette lighter that still worked, as I was able to charge my cell phone, and I was able to operate a portable tire reflator, as I had discovered that my passenger side front tire had a slow puncture, probably from driving around and hitting some ice that day.

The hours slowly crawled by. I kept the radio on, occasionally looking at my phone for news and updates. I had no rest that night. It was a sleepless night for many in Texas.

Tuesday, February 16

Cold and dark Westheimer (Image credit: Neal Meyer)

Dawn finally arrived. I got out of my vehicle and went back inside my hacienda to go to the bathroom. I shine the flashlight at the thermostat, and find that the temperature in my place is now down to 35 degrees. I start to brush my teeth and shave, but find that I don’t have running water. I use the bathroom and found I had enough water to flush once, but that was it. Another personal failure: I had neglected to run a bathtub and fill it up with water before this event. Lesson learned. I take a brief drive around the Galleria area to see how things are, and find that the world is still almost entirely dark. Nothing is open.

I start to gather some clothes, my work laptop, toiletries, and what not and put them into one of my travel luggage bags for the stay at the hotel. I then text my colleague and call my team manager to tell them I should be back online by late this afternoon. I then get a phone call from my lady friend whom I stayed with yesterday. She has also lost power, but has gotten another lady friend of ours who lives in one of the Greenway Plaza residential towers (which have generators) to agree that we can stay at her place until power is restored. In the meantime, she says to meet them at Colinas Italian Restaurant on Richmond, which she found was open. I stop on the way at a CVS Pharmacy which I found was open, and pick up some non-perishables to eat for the next few days. I then head on down to Colinas.

I found, once again, a packed restaurant. Most patrons seemed to be a good mood, considering what was going on. I met my lady friends, who were sitting with a very attractive woman from France, who happened to speak perfect English. I was halfway tempted to ask her for a date, but quickly found out she’s here in America with her husband and had plans to fly out to Florida the next day. We split a pizza for lunch and I ordered something to go. From there, we went to our elderly lady friend’s townhouse in Greenway Plaza, but I had a hell of a time in the parking lot, nearly slipping two more times on thin ice before getting into the building. We chatted for a while, and I found myself thankful for not being in the cold.

While the three of us conversed, I got a text message from my downstairs neighbor: the power had been restored at my complex! What a joy! I had been planning on heading to the hotel, but now I change my plans to go back to my complex to check on how things are going. I head on home circa 4:00pm and find that my space heaters were back in action. The temperature in my hacienda had warmed back up to 45 degrees. At this rate, I estimated it would take a total of about 7-8 hours for my place to warm back up to 65.

Several weeks before, I had been invited to a private fundraiser for U.S. Senator Rand Paul, which was being held here in town on the 17th. The event was originally set to be held at a private home, but we got a message that the event had been moved to the River Oaks Country Club. I had about one hour to make myself presentable, as I had not had a shower since the previous Saturday. I found that we once again had some running water, but that the water was still a bit chilly. I run the water for a while and the temperature does go up, but I then decide I’m running out of time. I take the plunge, and taking that shower just might have been the bravest thing I did all week. I get into a set of dress clothes and an evening sports jacket, and head on over to the River Oaks Country Club.

I arrive at the club, only to find that the place is empty and that the entryway in blocked off. I chat with a security officer, who says they have black ice and no running water. I thank him for his time, and check my emails for the first time in several days. There, I found that another email had gone out around noon time that day that the Rand Paul fundraiser had been moved to a hotel in the Galleria area. So, I turn back around and finally make it to the hotel. I get out and walk into the hotel, only to remember that I didn’t have a face mask on. So, I turn back around and get the face mask. The fundraiser was nice. I met some people, and Senator Paul spoke about former President Trump’s second impeachment trial. He also spoke about the issue of how free societies and how we the people were to make our own decisions, rather than have government mandates – a pertinent point, given that Governor Abbott announced yesterday that the statewide mask mandate was being lifted.

I went home, only to find that electrical power once again would go out – about 15 minutes after I got home. I decide at that point to get my bags and head downtown to the hotel, as it’s clear to me that the power situation is still not stable. I put my head down about 11:30pm and get some rest.

Wednesday, February 17

Much of the city is dark, but downtown has power (Image credit: Neal Meyer)

I get up around 5:30am in my hotel room. The lights are on throughout the entire hotel/office complex, and I can see several parking garages that have lights on everywhere. Like many Houstonians, I ask myself why are lights on in the (mostly empty) parking garages and largely empty office towers? I end up deciding to use my cell phone as a hot spot to get Internet access so that I can get working, and I end up having a productive day at work. However, the hotel does not have a working restaurant, and my hotel room does not have any amenities like a coffee maker, a microwave, or a toaster. Hence, I end up eating dry food for most of the day. Still, I’m thankful that I’ve gotten myself into a stable situation, and I start to watch the news and start checking on some of my older friends around town to see how they are doing? I find out that all of them either have power, or are able to get to family or friends who have power. That was a big relief to me. I decided to watch the last Star Wars movie before I got to bed, and I wonder how many people are going to end up perishing because of this event?

Thursday, February 18

Former Houstonian Carl Parker shows power returning to the Houston area (Image credit: Neal Meyer)

The day turns out to be much like yesterday. I got up early to go to the parking garage to check on my vehicle and front side passenger tire. My tire is flat again, so I use my portable tire inflator to put air back into the tire. As I’m walking back to the hotel entrance, I see a group of people with some television cameras. It turns out to be a group of reporters from the Weather Channel. As I walk back into the hotel, the hotel has a coffee and break area that is open. I find they have a few breakfast sandwiches for sale – at $12.75 apiece, so it was quite a bargain. I take it anyway, and head back to my hotel room. One might say I wasn’t worried about Texas price-gouging laws.

I headed back to my hacienda after my work day was over to check on things. I discover from my neighbors that the power had gone out four more times in the 18 hours after power was originally restored. However, things seem to be stabilizing and the ice has melted. At this point, I’m thinking we have to get through Friday night before the weather finally starts warming starting Saturday morning, and news reports are indicating that the number of Texans without power is declining steadily. I decide to stay only one more night at the hotel.

Friday, February 19

My stay at the hotel is booked through Saturday, as I wasn’t sure when I booked the hotel room if the weather would make a turn for the worse. As it is, I decide to work through the day at the hotel and go home Friday evening. I’m about to wrap up work Friday afternoon, when I get a panicky text from my downstairs neighbor. “Neal, there is water dripping from the ceiling!” I ask her, where specifically is it coming from? She says, “it coming down hard! The water is coming down everywhere, and it’s coming from your unit!” I tell her to get ahold of some of the neighbors who can get someone to turn off water to the complex, as it was clear that water had come back on and there were issues with that.

In a panic, I get in my vehicle and high tail it back to my complex. As I’m approaching, I can see several of my neighbors, including my downstairs neighbor, gathered around the front of the complex near where the water main is. I drive into the complex, park, and rush out of my vehicle. I can see water dripping from the sheet rock above, but it doesn’t appear to be coming from my unit. I race into my place, only to find that everything is okay. To say the least, I’m more than a bit bent out of shape at my downstairs neighbor, but my attention is soon captured by others who are trying to solve where the water is coming from. I get a ladder I have and go up into the attic of the building, only to find that everything seems to be okay. The water leak is not coming from on high.

Eventually, we conclude that the water leak is coming from a neighbor’s unit, but the occupant is not home. The water is turned off, and we get some handymen to cut some of the sheet rock away to trace the problem. In the meantime, the owner of the unit shows up, and finds that the water had remained on in the bathroom tub and that the water had overflowed. There were also busted water pipes in the unit, and it would be some days before the unit was inhabitable again. Crisis averted, I go get some Indian food to go from India’s and call it an evening.

Saturday, February 20

I finally check out of my hotel room. The bill was $900 for my four night stay, plus about $175 in state and local taxes. I go home, unpack everything, and decide to head on over to an auto shop to get my slow leak tire puncture taken care of. While I’m waiting for the work to get completed, I start to think of what I could do to deal with future emergency problems like what happened during the week. I already had absorbed the lessons of needing water available. Fortunately, the food did not seem to be spoiled. My clothing was generally adequate, and I did have a flashlight which turned out to be useful. My gasoline-powered car, along with my cigarette lighter acting as a charger, turned out to be my real lifesavers though.

I start to think of ideas to get my complex through future emergencies, not only freeze events, but also occasional outages and hurricanes. I came up with the idea of a special assessment to buy 300 or so kilowatts of generators, along with install and fuel costs. I calculate it would cost roughly $2,000 per unit in my complex to buy, move, and install the equipment. I then ask five of my neighbors if they would be interested in such a scheme? One of them is a board member, who tells me that a previous board president had changed the by-laws so that generators could not be installed nor run on our property, and hence the legal work would have to be undone first. I got a bit bent out of shape about that, but she assures me that could be undone.

As for the site generator scheme, two of my neighbors tell me yes they’re interested, but three others say they aren’t. Unfortunately, it takes a 75 percent vote to get a special assessment approved, and I start to ponder the issue of how long I’m going to continue to stay at my current residence. It’s been fun, but I’m approaching old age, and I’m starting to get tired of people telling me what I’m allowed and not allowed to do. I’ve started making plans to eventually buy a single family home, preferably in either a place a little out of the way, or perhaps in an unincorporated area where there are no homeowner associations. That way, I can tailor my place the way I want it, including prepping it up to deal with natural disasters.

As for the future of electrical power in Texas, I have my own thoughts, but that’s another epistle for next time. However, I will say to the Houston Chronicle that y’all had better pray that fossil fuels remain available for a long time to come. Stay warm everyone. Spring time is just around the corner!