Wednesday, February 24, 2021

In A Bleaker Midwinter

For the better part of three months now I've been pondering various topics for posts. But every idea was soon overcome by new concerns, or interrupted by politics, or otherwise confused by events that changed my perspective or that made whatever notion I was pursuing seem trivial.

This last week has been so eventful, however, that much of what I have been thinking about has coalesced into a meditation on the fragility of normality and the perils of modernity. So this may ramble a bit more (even) than usual, but it has to start somewhere.

Two Thursdays ago we thought we were being terribly foresightful by hitting Costco to load up on wine and dog treats and a few staples in advance of predicted nasty weather. Snow was promised, and we usually don't mind that, but since Texans are notoriously bad at driving in snow and ice, we wanted to avoid them by hunkering down and waiting it out. We bought an extra case of San Pellegrino, stocked up on stew-fixings, and snagged a bag of Lindor truffles.

Then we snuggled in, watched the weather reports--which became more and more dire as the weekend approached--all the while thinking that (as usual) this was all overblown and at best we'd "suffer" an inch or two and then Spring would come blowing in from the south.

Well, anyone who's been paying any attention at all to national news now knows that we were flat out wrong. At this point I have to wander off a little, to let you know why it was that we didn't just end up heading south to Dallas to stay with my daughter. We had told her that we were good; after all we had a Bluetti portable power station to keep our devices charged, and should be able to handle the sort of brief power outages we'd experienced in the past. We also have two gas wall heaters in our bathrooms, remnants of the days when this hundred year-old house was heated by space heaters. We also have a dual fuel range in the kitchen, and could therefore manually light the stove for cooking purposes. 

Ever since we bought our retro travel trailer, Porco Rosso, we've been collecting kit to help us boondock on public lands, which is why we have the solar-chargeable Bluetti. We also have a couple of large coolers, but their eventual uses were unexpected. 

By Sunday night it was looking like maybe the forecast was more accurate than we had thought. I took a couple of snapshots of the early accumulation, and woke up Monday morning to a lovely blanket of snow, and watched it accumulate further over the next few hours.  And then the lights went out.

The next couple of days were something of a blur, because after we lost power, our pipes froze. The power came on again briefly once, and then stayed off for quite a few hours before it came back on for less than an hour and we lost it yet again. By then the news was talking about "rolling blackouts" that would last for a few minutes to an hour before the power resumed. But that only happened across the street, behind us on the next street, and north of us.

Full power didn't return until Thursday, but when the water in our pipes thawed, we discovered that there was a noisy leak under the kitchen, so had the city come and turn off the water.

Pioneer smarts allowed us to figure out how to use all that snow (over five inches by the time it ended) to our advantage, by filling up canning vats, soup pots, and the coolers (finally getting some use) with water and melting it for flushing loos and washing dishes. After the second storm ended, The Beloved Spouse went out for a few gallons of drinking water for making coffee (we had plenty of San Pellegrino to drink) and filling pet bowls.

In the end, we managed to stay warm enough using the Bluetti to power a little fan that blew the warm air from the bathroom into the bedroom, loading up with eiderdowns, and using upstairs as Command Central until the power came on (usually for no more than an hour or two, at totally unpredictable intervals). We used the living room fireplace a couple of times, but its inefficiency made it useless except for ambience and as a way of providing the pets with some semblance of their regular routine. On the first day with almost no power at all--but sunny--we charged the power station with the solar panels.

As things begin to warm up, the water in the rain barrels under downspouts (we have five, but only three are in use) began to thaw, providing us with a source of water after the snow started melting away. By Friday of Storm Week it was almost gone. Calls to our plumber gave us a Monday slot, but the initial check showed that we'd need a team, and that couldn't happen until Thursday. But today (Wednesday) the guys came early, crawled under the house, and replaced a section of copper pipe that had a 3 cm break in it. Now things are back to normal--although we've got two coolers and two vats full of water in the downstairs bathtub, so we'll keep flushing that toilet by hand until we use--rather than waste--all that water.

Meanwhile, the myth of Texas Exceptionalism has not only been shattered, but blown to bits and exposed to the world. Greed and the interests of the oil and gas industry have shown themselves to be the governing principles of Texas energy politics. Secessionists' utopian ideas of a regulation-free Texas-only grid have resulted in catastrophic dysfunction and a resulting dystopian experience that rivals post-apocalyptic YA novels. During the worst of it, the perfect metaphor for Texas politics arose, in Senator Ted Cruz's astonishingly inappropriate bug-out to Cancun.

In the end, we were extraordinarily fortunate. The little bit of prepping we had done for camping purposes turned out to serve us well. We got by with nothing worse than a hefty plumbing bill (but less than we had expected) and a damaged garden. Thanks to a Sunday afternoon jaunt down to Dallas to visit my daughter and her partner (who--probably due to their proximity to a local fire station--lost neither power nor water), we enjoyed a lovely lunch, took showers, and washed a load of laundry before heading back up to a cold, dry house.

As I type, millions of Texans are still without power or water. If there were ever reason to reexamine not only the impracticality of the Texas grid, but the absurdity of huge public power grids in the first place, this is it. The ludicrous (and probably immoral) ambition of Texas to draw more and more people into the state without providing the infrastructure to support the growing population may now be reconsidered, but it will take a monumental political shift to accomplish any meaningful conversation about the future.

If that weren't enough, the specter of the Plague continues to loom over all of this. 

One final note: as TBS and the plumbers (all masked) congregated at the curb to turn our water back on, a woman and her teen-aged son (unmasked) walked by, and she gave my husband a dirty look. While walking away she said, "That's pretty frightening to a woman who has been assaulted before."

This is the Texas I live in.

Image note: I'm having trouble with airdrop from my iPad, so included this shot taken on my iPhone 7 of what seems to be a bird-version of a "snow angel."


Tigger said...

Light note: love the snow angel.
Serous note: not sure I understand what you mean by grid (we have something we call grid for electricity distribution in NZ and UK, and it is perfectly capable of going down in storms too), but observe that in places where such storms are rare grids and homes are rarely built to withstand the extremes that might be commonplaces at higher latitudes. Homes in UK were rarely insulated when I moved there. You could tell from the melted snow on roofs (in the rare winters when it did settle) which had no insulation at all. Pipes were not always lagged either, and would burst after a good freeze. Yet even in Norway (where you might expect very cold winter, we spent a week without water in the old part of Bergen when the temperatures dropped below what even they were prepared for. It seems the whole water and sewer system froze beneath the streets!
Not unlike you, but perhaps for different reasons, I have always believed our home should not be reliant on a single energy source. We put in a solid fuel fireplace capable of being used as a 'stove' should the reticulated electricity and gas supplies be cut. We had wind-up lamps for emergency lighting, 12V solar chargers for small hand-held devices (phones for example), and yes, water butts.
It is amazing isn't it how quickly things become 'third world' when the social systems and infrastructure we have come to rely on are not available to us for even a short period of time.

Owlfarmer said...

Ah, Tigger. You are one truly wise cat. Your understanding of a grid is spot-on. But the Texas grid is not tied into anything but itself (to keep the greater US from imposing regulations that might have prevented at least some of the problems from this particular storm) and was established by some folk who thought they one day might want to secede from the US entirely. This isolation also prevented the Power Powers from relying on other states for help. Texas politics is also populated by a large number of climate deniers who will continue to remain unprepared for the likelihood of future storms.  Even if things occasionally failed in Norway, by the time they developed wind power as a source of energy, they certainly knew how to keep them going in icy weather!

Your family are also wise in their preparations for grid-related problems, such as loss of heat. Like you, we will be installing a wood burner in our fireplace (we have an abundance of trees on our property, which periodically require trimming). We'll also repair the two of our five water butts so that they can hold water. The portable power station will be augmented with more solar panels (we had full-out sunlight long before we had electricity), and will add to our collection of solar and wind-up lighting devices. The power station was bought to use in our caravan, for its 12V appliances (including the fridge), but it certainly came in handy. We had anticipated using it for outages after summer windstorms and/or tornados, but it certainly earned its purchase price in psychological relief over the last week!
I grew up in Asia in the '50s and '60s, where my remembered experiences included an outdoor toilet and marginal electricity in rural Japan, and frequent make-do efforts after typhoons in Taiwan. I also come from a pioneer family in California, under the tutelage of a grandmother who had lived before electrification and the establishment of mod cons in houses she lived in during the first twenty years of her century-long life. I do think she would have been proud of our resourcefulness (particularly our collection of snow, which we melted for multiple uses, and which stood us well before the water butts started thawing). But I also agree that establishing even more self-reliant measures is the right way to proceed.

I saw pictures of snow on the Parthenon, so I hope you and your people aren't getting too cold. But at least Greeks have a history of soldiering on under adverse conditions.