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When Hell Freezes Over

Having grown up in South Texas, my experiences of catastrophic weather consist mostly of floods and hurricanes. In fact, the first major weather event I can recall from my childhood was Hurricane Carla, a category 5 storm with sustained winds of 110 mph and gusts up to 150. It made landfall on September 11, 1961, in Port Lavaca, just 20 miles down on the Gulf from where we lived in Victoria, and it raged on, with torrential rains and winds and devastating flood waters for what seemed like days. When it was all over, 500,000 people had been evacuated from Coastal areas, 34 people had died, and $300 million in damage had been tallied.

     Images of Carla have stayed with me, and often been relived, both in actuality and in my dreams. I remember going to the grocery store with my Mother to stock up on canned goods and non-perishables, matches and batteries, and being intrigued by the “storm tracker maps” they gave away (stores in Texas still do this during hurricane season). I recall how the grey clouds gradually grew heavy and began to threaten as the winds started to pick up.  And I can still see the odd lines of the faithful outside one of the old Catholic churches in town. To me, the atmosphere was exciting even if somewhat ominous.

     We lived with my Grandmother in the house where my Mother had grown up. Built in the 1920s, it was constructed on a pier-and-beam foundation with a sizable crawl space underneath (convenient for water flowing under, not into, the house). It had wide front steps leading up to a huge wrap-around front porch and a screened-in back porch off the kitchen. Supposedly, it was one of the first houses in Victoria to have electric switches on the walls and an indoor bathroom (yes, with an original claw-footed tub). There was a separate, free-standing, but leaning, single-car garage to the side. By the time Carla and I had come along, this place had already weathered many a major storm  — a fact that my Mother repeatedly emphasized over the years every time a new one erupted.

     To prepare for Carla, we put out the candles, got out the kerosene lamps, moved all the porch furniture and anything else untethered into the rickety garage, got towels and tarps together, filled bottles, buckets and the bathtub with water, and then just waited. The house was one of those back-to-front designs (seeing straight through when you entered) and, having been built before air-conditioning was even thought of, had multiple windows in every room. We always left them open because of the heat and so, of course, we didn’t board them when a storm was coming in warm weather; instead, we opened everything up to let it all blow through. That was the conventional wisdom at the time, and it did work. We moved the furniture toward the center of rooms as best we could, covered things with tarps, and settled in for the duration listening to the radio (battery powered) and tracking the storm on the hurricane map. My grandmother prayed and paced the floor, and my Mother and I ate potato chips and peanut butter sandwiches while we sat out on the back porch watching doors and auto parts and various other neighborhood debris fly by and then float in the rising waters.

     Some things never change, at least not where hurricanes in South Texas are concerned.  I have written here before about the 1998 Central Texas floods which resulted in $1.19 billion in damage and 31 people killed, a convergence of the flooding of the Colorado, Lavaca, Guadalupe, San Antonio, and San Jacinto Rivers in October of 1998. We didn’t have much of an alert, and no storm map, but the flood became a major weather event nonetheless. The rains began slowly, caused by hurricanes far away near Baja and exacerbated by a prologued drought. Then the rivers rapidly started to rise and overflow their banks. The Guadalupe River in Victoria crested at 33.8 feet above flood stage putting the entire downtown under water. I had just flown down to Texas because my Mother had had her first major stroke, and we both ended up dealing with  dual catastrophes without much preparation or understanding of either one.  

     Then, in August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey (category 4) hit. Once again, I was down in Victoria with my Mother who had had another major stroke. It was déja vu all over again. Everyone was in hurricane mode, but I was the caretaker in crisis, more concerned about her than the impending weather. Similar story: long lines at the supermarkets, people stocking up on water and beer, Victoria ending up with no electricity, no potable water and me virtually living in my car. It was a nightmare, which I still keep having. (See September 4, 2017, blog post, “Come Hell or High Water.”)

     Over the years, I have experienced multiple extreme “weather events,” as the forecasters on TV like to call them. I have been through blizzards in Connecticut, crippling snowstorms in New York and on Cape Cod, and extreme ice storms, tornadoes and even a 5.0 magnitude earthquake in Memphis (on the New Madrid fault). But Uri, as they named last week’s historic snow/ice/winter storm in San Antonio, was truly — here comes that word again — “unprecedented.” Not even hurricane-seasoned veterans like me, not to mention the Texas power grid, were prepared for this; after all, none of us were even around over a hundred years ago, the last time a winter storm of this magnitude and duration was recorded in Texas.

     There were indications in advance that we had a weather system moving in and steadily dropping daily temperatures heralded a “cold spell” not all that unusual in February, but there wasn’t anything like a major, huge storm warning. After all, snow is such an anomaly in South Texas and thermometers rarely dip below freezing for more than a day or two. Besides, this was right before Valentine’s Day weekend and everything would be closed that Monday for Presidents’ Day anyway, so nobody got too excited. Here at home, we did what we usually do when a deep frost is predicted: we covered some of our less-weather resistant plants, put a small (electric) heater into the greenhouse, and insulated outdoor faucets. So far, so good — except that it wasn’t.

     Valentine’s Day was exceptionally cold (27°) and sleet and ice advisories started to appear; predictions were that we were headed for several days of temperatures below 20. Already some of the overpasses on major roads and highways were frozen and people were advised to stay home. About 2 a.m. Monday morning the rolling power outages began. It was 11° with a steady snowfall that accumulated to about 4 inches by the end of the day. Our electricity went out altogether in mid-afternoon. We dug out some of my quilts, gathered candles and flashlights, and settled ourselves around our gas fireplace and the gas cooktop in the great room. The rest of the house had gotten down to 50° by the time the power resumed on Thursday afternoon, but then we were notified by the local water company that we had a water problem. And I promptly had a meltdown. 

     To say that last week was hell is to put it mildly, even as I admit that we were a great deal better off than many others in San Antonio. For me, things like reading by candlelight or sitting in my idling car for warmth and wi-fi brought me back to the terribly sad and traumatic moments of Hurricane Harvey and all that came with it. On top of  the unrelenting stress that we have all been living under for so long — the ugly politics, the insurrection, the shaky economy, the coronavirus — you start to feel like Job. And then you get a freaky snow and ice storm in what usually feels like living in the middle of a desert and, well … you see what happens when hell freezes over. 

     Today, ten days after all this began, most of us are back to normal. Temperatures are in the 70s, things have thawed out, our own water problem has been solved, and we have been able to restock the pantry.  The damage to our yard and trees and my husband’s beautiful garden is significant, but he’s determined to renew and replant. All the Texas politicians and the leaders of ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas — great name, but not so reliable) are busy blaming each other for the failure of the grid though, in truth, scientists in every field admit to the challenge of balancing between low probability and high consequences when attempting to plan for the future. If Texans can learn anything from this horror story, it may be that we can’t have it all, both low-cost energy and a fail-safe grid. 

     Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the San Francisco poet associated with the “beat generation,” died yesterday at the age of 101. Some words from one of his poems seem apropos: “The world is a beautiful place to be born into…if you don’t mind a touch of hell now and then…”

2 Comments

  1. Diane Thiel

    I have first hand witnessed much of what you write about but watching from afar the deep freeze in Texas, the suffering and death because of a stand alone system that created it, was heartbreaking. I’m so grateful you came out of it intact, as did many in my family eventually, and yes, it was a horror story and you get what you pay for. May things change for the better in Texas.

    Like

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