Allow me to tell you a story about how I took on the 2021 Texas Grid Wizard during the blizzard of 2021. It’s gonna be a long one, but so was the journey. First let’s lay out the pre-battle setup, when weather predictors were claiming a doom-and-gloom “storm of the century” was headed our way starting Wednesday, February 10. They weren’t kidding. Why, even before the pre- and main shows’ arrival the following week, there had been a crash in Fort Worth on Thursday, February 11, involving 133 vehicles and resulting in six deaths.
Just to play it safe, I trekked to the grocery store for some basics like milk and eggs on Saturday. It was chilly, but not that big a deal. Still, the place was as packed as Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I heard one man with a cart filled to the max with groceries say he was stocking up for ten days. I quietly chuckled at his overzealous attitude. That feeling would soon die like the heat in our house. There would be nothing virtual about the days ahead.
Sunday, February 14
I’m feeling pretty smug about the predictions of a wintry blast. As the snow starts to fall and the dogs scamper out to play in the white stuff and the holiday reindeer look right at home, Husband Unit makes the rounds of the house to double-check that our outdoor spigots are wrapped and topped off with insulated covers. He is doing this to humor me. If the temperatures stay below the freezing mark, he will assume the role of Drip Master to make sure the indoor faucets drip.
The evening newscasts claim that this pretty snow landscape is just the beginning of the coming blizzard swooping down from the Arctic. Power providers are suggesting that we might have to have “rolling blackouts,” but they shouldn’t last more than 45 minutes each. I recall Californians complaining about such blackouts when the state was consumed by fire. But this is Texas, and we are a hardy lot. A few minutes without power will be inconvenient, but we can live with a brief shutdown. Perhaps they’ll even give us a warning when it will happen.
Only they didn’t … neither the warning, nor the 45-minute inconvenience. As the temperatures start nose-diving to the single digits, the first rolling blackout comes, as we went to bed at 9 p.m. This flatline lasts three hours turning our home into darkness and silence except for the dripping of the faucets. Throughout the night as we try to sleep, the power comes on and goes dead. When it does come on, it’s like musical chairs without a tune. The dark bedroom lights up; the TV blasts alive; the little backup batteries screech a high-pitch squeal throughout the house; the animals hide under the bed. The only heat is from the flaring tempers. We turn off the lights, the TV and batteries and attempt to quell the animals’ anxieties, as we try to get back to sleep in a bed that is like an ice cream sandwich.
Monday, February 15
At 7 a.m. the power comes back on and the weather predictors are claiming that the day’s high might reach 15 degrees. Ah, but we have power, heat and dripping faucets! I make breakfast for the household, finish a couple of posts and send out three email responses just five minutes before everything goes dark again.
Thank heaven, I’m a flashlight geek and head to my stash of lanterns. The only problem is that I haven’t replaced the batteries from the last blowout when the tornado hit in October 2019. I pray as I scour my recently purchased collection of batteries. Success! The battery mother lode of D cells.
I text a friend who replies that she is powered up and just waiting for the electricity to go down. I write back that I am now limited to a juiced-up cellphone and iPad, adding, “Am hopeful it’s a roller and not a total outage in our area.” At this point I’m silently cursing the person who didn’t trim their trees, causing a limb to snap a power line. Little did I know the cause was not a broken limb nor a down line.
During the day we have on-again, off-again power plays. Every time it goes off, the backup batteries for our computers squeal like a litter of piglets that send the dogs into panic mode and us into shutdown.
By afternoon Husband Unit in his long johns and I are under our duvet surrounded by our dogs.
At 3:44 p.m. the power comes on again. I now know that it won’t last long, but still there is celebration in our igloo. But it only lasts until 5:36 p.m.
My friend still has power and is very sympathetic to our problem, writing, “I would gladly have mine go out for a while for other people to have. But it seems to be hitting the same people over and over.”
As Monday evening’s blackout continues, I head to the car that looks frost bit and rummage through a survival kit of hand and foot warmer shake-and-bake packets. Eureka! I find a handful and carry them back to the house as if they were the British crown jewels.
Husband Unit examines the gas fireplace that hasn’t been used in five years. He holds up a piece of iron, and asks where it’s to be put to light up the fireplace. I explain that the iron is a branding iron and has nothing to do with the fireplace. It’s just for looks. He needs to twist the key in the floor to the right of the fireplace. His comment: “Oh.” But with a twist and flicker of a lighter, the fireplace is glowing. It’s not very hot, but it’s the thought that counts.
Our elderly cat is not taking this situation well. She’s nearly 18 years old and has adapted to a comfortable retirement of picking at two meals a day and a state-of-the-art heating pad in the guestroom. As old and as wise as she is, she doesn’t understand why the pad is not meeting her standards. For fear of her turning her nose up or our being reported to PETA, I find a hand warmer, wrap it in a soft towel and present it to her for consideration. She sniffs it halfheartedly.
She is not the only one in the household that is unhappy. The dogs are giving me the skanky eye, as if to ask, “You did pay the electricity bill, didn’t you?” I can tell Alexa and Siri are also getting irritated with their inability to eavesdrop on our household exchanges.
Just as I open a container of spaghetti from our neighbor Mark Prude and pour it into a sauce pot, everything goes dark again. That means no spaghetti. I hear a voice screeching, “They can’t do this to me.” I realize that it’s my inner voice coming out. It’s as if “Network”‘s Howard Beale had taken over my body. We’ve only had a two-hour reprise and now we’re back to deep freeze?!
At this point I must admit that I’m starting to get a bit paranoid. Had the power wizard behind the grid curtain arranged for this blackout to take place just after the evening broadcast threatened that the next 24 hours are going to be even worse?
I text my friend to report that we’re down again. She’s shocked. They haven’t had a flicker all day. It only adds to my paranoia. Did we offend someone in the last election?
To try to salvage the situation, Husband Unit volunteers for additional duties and receives a field promotion to Outdoor Chef. Geared up in his Sgt. Preston of the Yukon outfit, he prepares the snow-covered chimenea in our courtyard to heat up two cans of soup for dinner. I ask if he wants to use a couple of pots for cooking. He gives me that, “Now don’t you going worrying about it, little lady” look. Minutes later he returns to ask for the pots. Seems the cans were blackened and the clam chowder and gumbo soups are now colder than before.
While he’s cooking in the courtyard, I haul out a pre-freeze salad from the frig and dole it out into a couple of bowls.
To make the best of a miserable situation, I dust off a couple of old TV tables and dress them up with place mats, silverware, glassware, bowls and bottles of dressing in front of the glowing fireplace. Just before we settle back for dinner, one of the cats decides to check out the tables. Her jump results in a bottle crashing to the floor, spreading champagne dressing over the tiles. Cat scatters; dogs head to their crates; humans start laughing. After all, it couldn’t get worse… or, could it?
Husband Unit receives still another commission to the rank of Captain Clean as he wipes up the champagne flood, fearing that it will freeze overnight.
From news reports, we aren’t alone in this diabolical condition. Somewhere in the state of Texas is ERCOT’s Grid Wizard, who has had the power but not the wisdom to manage to support the needs of the 2021 blizzard. A vast majority of people throughout the state are going through the same fate. Some are glowing with power; some are sporadically powered up; others are completely down and out.
No one is talking about rolling blackouts anymore. It’s more like black holes of power.
When the power goes down, I try to think of warmer environments, like “Lawrence of Arabia.” But each time, I end up feeling more like “Dr. Zhivago.”
During one of our breaks, I go on Facebook and read that a friend in a high-rise is shivering with her pooch. She has no electricity or fireplace. Another friend suggests that she just settle back with a hot toddy. The hot toddy comment makes me think that the responder is one of the lucky ones who hasn’t had the unique experience of outage.
Our household is starting to feel like a family of rats in some kind of deranged experiment. When the lights come on, we scurry around in blissful glee charging phones, celebrating the furnace’s return to life. Then, without warning, our state of relief is dashed minutes later when everything goes dark with cries of anguish filling the air. There is no warning — just darkness, a return of the cold and that endless dripping of the faucets, like Edgar Allan Poe‘s raven “rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
Tuesday, February 16
Awake at 6 a.m. and am cold… very cold. It seems that the power came on at midnight and lasted just a couple of hours. Then the lights, furnace and everything else went dead except for the dropping of the temperature and the endless drippings from the faucets. Even our pillowcases have turned into cold packs. The windows have become little works of chilly art.
To keep my fingers active, I text my friend and learn that she still has all lights on and is feeling guilty. Another friend reports that they’ve had to rip out cabinets due to a frozen pipe that broke. Still another texts that, thanks to a generator, two of their bedrooms are warm.
Have decided that this is war. I’m not going to let the Grid Wizard control my life. I start planning what I will do when Wiz doles out another power blast. I am turning in my victim membership card and taking charge.
Channeling “The Martian”’s Mark Watney, I start strategizing on how to take on what the weather guessers describe as “the main event,” which is scheduled to start later today and last through Wednesday.
First I start thumbing through my memory bank of how my great-grandparents mustered through such conditions on a southeastern Colorado ranch in the 1800s. We’re in better shape, even without electricity. We’ve got water. What’s better, I know we’ve got a rubber hot-water bottle and some Mueller cold/hot bags somewhere. I put finding them on my mental “must-find” list.
As soon as the power comes on, I will make cups of soup and store them in insulated mugs that I have received over the years in charity swag bags.
My memory is starting to churn. I recall that years ago I went on a flannel sheet kick. Not only did I sew two king-size flannel flat sheets together to make a duvet cover, I think I bought some additional sheets for the bed. Finding them would be a priority on my list.
In my younger days, when I was part of the Goodyear blimp operation, the patient and understanding wives of the crew taught me how to crochet. Since the pandemic, I had started crocheting blankets again just to keep myself busy. I’ll add a couple of them on top of the duvet. The goal is to insulate.
Husband Unit will receive a new assignment. He is to find a sleeping bag that had been purchased a decade ago. He isn’t happy with this new job since it’s in a hard-to-get-to shelf in his closet, but I warn him that the reward will be a much warmer bed when it’s added to layers of bedding.
In rummaging around for the hot-water bottle, I discover microwavable heat wraps and heating pads. Great! As soon as the power comes on, I’ll charge up the heating pads and slide them between the bed and the duvet like bed warming pans. The wraps will be nuked and shared with the cats.
This surge of planning is gratifying. The change from defense to offense is amazing.
When the power comes on at 7:30 a.m., I spring from the bed and get my resources pulled. Husband Unit starts up the fireplace. Dogs sense a change. I am a woman with a mission and know Wiz might pull the switch at any moment.
For breakfast, I whip up some poached eggs and Canadian bacon on the stove and microwave the two remaining blueberry muffins from the weekend. This might be our only hot meal for the day if Wiz has his way.
While the eggs and bacon are cooking and Husband Unit is playing barista at the coffeemaker, I close the doors to the rooms that have vents to help them retain heat after the power goes down.
The animals are delighted with my nuking their canned food instead of dry food. That’s usually only reserved for holidays.
We finish breakfast and watch TV. I laugh when the newscasters ask people to set their thermostats to only 68 degree. Shoot! At this point, I’d be downright giddy to have the indoor temperature hit 50 degrees.
I watch County Judge Clay Jenkins on TV say that anyone who has had a constant power outage should leave their homes and seek another shelter. I laugh to myself over the three questions I wish the reporter had asked Clay:
- If a person has no power, how are they to learn his advice?
- If a person were in such a situation, how would they be able to get out of their house with the roads being so treacherous?
- Where would they go, since hotels and motels were reportedly already filled?
As the wall clock ticks closer to 9:30 a.m., I am ready for the power shutdown. An hour goes by and we still have power. I know Wiz is playing with me. But at 11:30 my suspicions prove true when everything shuts down again. Husband Unit says that if Wiz proves true to form, we’ll get the power back on in seven hours. I have my doubts. Wiz is crafty and is probably coming up with his own strategy to match mine. After all, he has just lulled us into a two-hour period of relief.
At this point, I sincerely believe that Wiz was the mastermind of the driver license renewal program debacle.
Just as I suspected — Wiz has indeed changed his game plan and powers on at 4:30 p.m., an hour earlier than we had expected. Like racehorses at the gate, we charge to our assigned duties, pouring the spaghetti into a pot, making coffee and going online to learn the latest developments. To add to the feast, I commandeer cans of artichoke hearts, corn and mixed vegetables to add to the pasta. As the chorus of battery-powered can openers sings throughout the kitchen, I feel like a conductor on the Meyerson stage.
While the spaghetti simmers on the stove, I scamper off for a quick one-two shower emerging like a conquering heroine in 1980s DKNY sweats, turtleneck, socks and stylish Crocs. Passing the bed that has grown in height during the day thanks to the flannel sheets, duvet, crocheted blankets and opened-up sleeping bag, I remember to turn on the heating pads placed under the duvet.
Returning to the kitchen, I even have time to toast some bread to go with our meal, knowing that at any moment Wiz could pull the plug.
I briefly look outdoors and everything is coated in snow. No cars have budged for the past couple of days due to the fear of icy slip-and-slides.
In the meantime, the elderly cat is not accepting the hot/cold relationship with the pad, and I know the night’s deep freeze could be deadly. I put her in a Sherpa carrier with mesh windows, faux lambskin pad and a rubber hot-water bag. For once, she doesn’t resist. We place it on one of the TV dinner tables in front of the fireplace, turned down low. She settles in for a good night’s sleep.
As we crawl into bed at 8:30 p.m., I can’t believe it, but the power is still on, plus the bed of flannel sheets, coverings and heated pads has become a slumber party with humans and animals snuggling in the warm layers. For the first time since Sunday, we actually sleep peacefully through the night.
Wednesday, February 17
I wake up at 6 a.m. and am in disbelief. I’m sweating. Did I have a COVID-19 fever? Was it a blanket overload? No, despite outdoor temperatures in the 20s, our power is still on. My moment of joy transitions to guilt. Others aren’t as lucky. I start receiving videos of sprinkler systems and pipes bursting in everything from private residences to the Dallas Country Club. My friend who never lost power is now feeling like she needs a paddle. Two bathrooms and their garage are flooded. Outdoor fountains are now stationary icebergs. Many who were out of town are helplessly learning that their houses are gushing with water. The phrase of the day is “cut-off valve.” The go-to professional is a plumber.
One couple’s generator blew up the day before. Another had the ceiling collapse into the master bedroom. Streets like Inwood at Northwest Highway and Skillman and Abrams are in jeopardy of becoming ice rinks due to underground water-main breaks.
The Family Place had to evacuate more than 100 clients from their shelters. Word is making the rounds that because the roads are so treacherous, 18-wheelers can’t make it to grocery stores and gas stations. Newscast videos show massive trucks trapped like mastodons of the Ice Age.
Water is becoming a real issue due to lack of power. Some are without water at all, and others are being told to boil it before drinking or even brushing their teeth. We luck out and still have the “all-clear” sign for our supply.
While temperatures look warmer, I wonder what lies ahead. How many more water problems will bubble to the surface? When will groceries and gas stations fill up? And most importantly, will those who have suffered physical and emotional dilemmas recover? After all the hell North Texas has suffered from the 2019 tornado, the 2020 pandemic and now an epic blizzard, it’s time for recovery and rest.
To quote Friedrich Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Why do I think Fred never suffered through an Arctic blast and a friend like Wiz?
Thursday, February 18
It’s amazing how quickly excuses are piling up as the outage counts decline and the temperatures inch their way up to 31. At this point we are too busy celebrating the warmer temperatures in the most basic ways. Why, I’m actually thrilled to load up our washing machine and see it swish the water and clothes together. Thanks to Husband Unit’s resuscitating a long forgotten Crosley turntable , the sound of a Frank Sinatra tune (“Summer Wind”) fills the air. In the guestroom the elderly cat is purring happily to be back on her warm pad.
At any moment I expect the dogs to doff their fur coats and slather on sunscreen.
Sitting on our couch, I have a mixture of grief and relief. I am grateful that the snow is melting, the sun is coming out and power is returning. But people died; property was destroyed; and more damage lies ahead. As bad as the city folks have had it, the rural areas are suffering terrific losses in crops being destroyed and livestock dying.
At midday, the game of finger-pointing gets underway in earnest. The ERCOT folks claim that the power grid had been within “seconds or minutes” of being destroyed for months, and we should be thankful that they gave us the cold shoulder. The Oncor group is mounting their defense, saying that ERCOT wouldn’t provide them with the ability to provide energy.
Still the texts and emails keep coming in about new issues arising from the burst pipes. I feel guilty. Despite the non-stop dripping of the past days and the temperatures sinking to shivering lows, our pipes that are more than 60 years old are holding. But as the snow melts and the thaw begins, who knows whether the pressure might push the pipes to a breaking point?
Feeling a little more confident, I start returning the house to normal. The flannel sheets, sleeping bags, heating pads and the rest of our winter gear are being stowed in a large container for the next big blast of frigid air. As I turn off the final faucet, I enjoy a moment of pride that we overcame the Wiz’s shabby treatment. My great-grandparents would have been proud.
Meredith P. Embry says
Thank you for sharing your story, with humor and hope. Like your friend, I did not lose power, but felt guilty about it. We tried to conserve as much energy as possible, all wearing layers of clothing with noses chilled. My brother and his family in Austin lost power and water for 4 days. Never before had the desire for teleporting been greater. “Beam me up, Scotty!” Alas, it did not work.
Great essay….Thanks !!!