Emergency Preparedness Lessons from Power Grid Failure During Texas Winter Storm

September is National Emergency Preparedness Month. But guess what? Emergencies happen year-round. And once an emergency event hits, it’s hard to get what you need. This is why emergency preparedness during all seasons is important.

My husband and I consider ourselves nerdy planners. We’ve always felt like we’re prepared for whatever will come our way. When we heard that snow was in the forecast for Monday, February 15, we were excited at the thought of a three-day weekend. When my husband’s school district announced its closure on Monday several days prior instead of the typical morning of, we were ecstatic about being able to sleep in.

Little did we know that Texas would devolve into a third world country from Sunday night into Monday morning, with 25% of households waking up to no power. By Tuesday, that number grew to one-third and kept growing. With the loss of electricity came the loss of power to water company pumps, which shut down water services. Millions of people across the state experienced intermittent to zero power and water from Sunday night through Thursday. A hard freeze each night, no heat and no running water meant frozen and busted pipes for many. By Friday, more water was flowing, but it had to be boiled before being consumed.

In today’s blog as well as next week’s, I’ll share with you the lessons we learned about emergency preparedness.

Water

In February of 2020, I started building up our stash of water jugs as some crazy thing called Coronavirus began sweeping through China and Europe. By the time we were ordered to shelter in place in March, we had about one week’s worth of bottled water. But then the COVID Armageddon never happened. We got lax and started pulling from our water and food stash without replenishing. By the time our Texas Snowpocalypse hit, we only had about three days’ worth of water left for ourselves and our dogs.

We collected snow and ice in ice chests for extra drinking water. The tub and empty containers were filled to use for toilet water. The buckets collecting water from faucets left dripping to prevent frozen pipes could also be used for toilets and cleaning up any messes. The second day into the winter storm, we lost water. (Thankfully, there was still a trickle so we could drip faucets.) When it came back on a few days later, there was a boil water notice. All water for drinking, brushing teeth and any other consumption needed to be boiled. We used Sharpies to mark empty containers with bad tap water needing boiling vs already-boiled water that was safe for drinking. It’s been one week since the snow hit, and we’re still required to boil.

Lessons learned: Keep at least a week’s worth of drinking water and food in the emergency stash. (Note to self: It’s called “emergency” because you don’t know when you’ll need it. So just leave it alone.)

Food

We keep roughly a month’s worth of food on hand between our freezer, pantry and emergency stash. What we didn’t plan for is not having access to first world utilities for multiple days. We couldn’t open the refrigerator or freezer when the power was out otherwise everything would spoil unless we transferred all of it to ice chests that could be replenished daily with ice. (We don’t have a Yeti, which can hold ice for several days, or a solar refrigerator, which can run if we’ve got sun.) When the power did come on for a few hours, we quickly opened the fridge and grabbed leftovers, almond milk and a few other items to leave in an ice chest with snow on the back porch. Nearly all of the meal-in-a-box options in our pantry and emergency stash required boiling water, which we didn’t have because our power was out. Fortunately, we had enough cans of baked beans, Chef Boyardee, tuna, chili and hearty soups for dinners. Beef jerky, peanut butter and banana, walnuts, macadamia nuts and tangerines served as the breakfast of champions.

Lessons learned: All items in our emergency stash should require only warming and not cooking. Most non-fresh food isn’t exactly the healthiest because of sodium and preservatives, so we’ll be looking into healthy freeze-dried food and MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) as a spring project. If they don’t exist or are expensive, we’ll stick to canned meals with lower sodium and fewer preservatives.

Power for Heat and Cooking

We’re all electric, so once the electricity goes out, we’ve got nothing. If we didn’t have our wood stove, we would’ve been very miserable. Our friends who didn’t have heat reported that their indoor temps dropped into the 40’s. They lived bundled up in blankets, many of which were pulled out of mothballs, so on top of fighting off hypothermia, they battled allergies from breathing in all of that dust and must.

We live in the country, so we’ve got plenty of cut dead wood for our barbecue pit – enough for a year of grilling. We also have a large propane stand for cooking outside with gas. But if the windchill is -6, you don’t want to cook outside. Our wood stove allowed us to heat up food and water for semi-hot tea.

Lessons learned: We need to continue to keep at least one week’s worth of firewood small enough to fit in the wood stove, making sure that two to three days of that is kept dry in the garage or porch if precipitation is expected. I’ve set a reminder to wash all of our blankets each October. As for cooking, we were thinking of purchasing a single burner butane or propane camping stove, but based on what I’ve read so far about ventilation, we might just stick to warming up canned food on the wood stove.

Fuel

Whenever my brother-in-law in Virginia talked about topping off his car with gas before an expected snow storm hit, we didn’t fully grasp why that was a priority. Once we experienced fuel-hoarding when the outer bands of Hurricane Harvey were predicted to reach us, we began to understand his reasoning. We have no intention of driving during bad weather, but if you do need to evacuate, you need fuel. And after the natural disaster is over, there might be a fuel shortage. We understand this when torrential rains are expected, but we didn’t make this connection to the forecast of one snow day. Three days into our winter storm, gas stations were still closed because of either no power or a problem in the supply chain. If a gas station was actually open, there was a line several blocks long to get fuel.

Lesson learned: Either keep our tanks at least half-full at all times or plan to top off if there’s a hint of bad weather coming our way.

I’ll share more lessons learned next week. While you’re waiting, here’s a Google Sheet with checklists and notes to help you plan your own emergency preparedness:

Update – For additional tips, here’s the future post I mentioned above:

About Helene Segura, M.A. Ed., CPO®

As The Inefficiency Assassin™, Time Management Fixer Helene Segura empowers professionals on the go with the tools to slay lost time. Personal inefficiency at work leads to increased stress levels, lower morale, higher absenteeism, more turnover – and rising spending on employee health care and hiring. Why not improve productivity, decrease stress levels, and increase profits instead? The author of four books – two of which were Amazon best-sellers – Helene Segura has been the featured organization expert in more than 200 media interviews. She has coached hundreds of clients to productivity success and performance improvement by applying neuroscience and behavioral modification techniques to wipe out destructive, time-wasting habits. Helene turns time management on its head by sharing both client case studies and pop culture examples to teach her mind-bending framework for decreasing interruptions, distractions and procrastination so that companies can spend more time generating revenue.

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