Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Unheated Darkness

 As things are no longer going backwards here, but slowly, albeit very slowly, returning to normality, I thought I'd say a few things about the recent Texas crisis.

There are a few things that are important to grasp. First, unlike most states, Texas has an independent electrical grid. This grid is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, a non-profit organization overseen by the Public Utility Commission of Texas (the general regulatory agency for utilities). Second, February and March are in normal years the least problematic months for the electrical grid in Texas; most of Texas has mild winters most of the time, and heating is largely done by propane and natural gas, so it's standard for significant energy maintenance to be done in February -- local utilities ask ERCOT for permission to power down plants for maintenance and upgrades, and ERCOT assesses the impact on reliability (for instance, you don't want to have all the plants in one place shutting down at the same time) and gives its permission. As you might expect, this is something that has to be done considerably in advance for maintenance and upgrades actually to be done. During the storm, they suddenly started getting peak demand from all over, and had to ask local utilities to start up powered-down plants again; sometimes this was possible, sometimes it was not because of the cold weather. Third, starting February 13, a winter storm, commonly called Winter Storm Uri, developed in the Pacific Northwest and swept across the entire United States. This storm was an unusual event. For the first time, the National Weather Service put all 254 counties of Texas under Winter Storm Warnings. The entire area experienced very low temperatures; when I had a chance to check on Monday morning, we were at 9 degrees Fahrenheit (-12 degrees Celsius). To put that in perspective, our average low for this time of year is 44 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius). Here in Austin we didn't quite beat the record low for Februry (8.8 degrees in 1996), but keep in mind that getting close to or even beating the lowest temperatures on record is going on all over the state, not just in one part.

I mention all of these things because most people get their news from political sources, and it's good to have a baseline so one can assess; if you thought you understood the situation and did not know most of the previous paragraph, then I'm sorry to say that, regardless of what sources of information you have been using, you are in reality as ignorant as you were before you began.

From this point on, what I experienced at ground level. I went to bed on Sunday knowing that temperatures were expected to drop even further than they had and that some people had had outages as the storm swept across the state. Because there was a likelihood of blackouts, my college had canceled all classes by that point for both Monday and Tuesday. At 1:40 am on Monday, my power went out, and I received a text at 2:16 am from Austin Energy saying:

Due to record electric demand, Texas electric grid operator is directing rotating outages to protect electric grid reliability. Outages typically 40 mins or less. Length and frequency depend on severity of event. Prepare for possible power interruptions due to mandated rotating outages.

(That was the last direct text received until Wednesday.) I went back to sleep. Just before 7 am, when I woke again, the power was out, it was getting quite cool in my bedroom, and I used my phone to look online to see how things were going. The only thing that the Austin Energy twitter account had tweeted other than 'conserve energy' tweets was a 3:30 tweet that rotating power outages were lasting longer than expected and a 5:40 tweet that rotating power outages were lasting longer than expected; then there was a 7:15 series of tweets that gave a bit more information by identifying the problem as ERCOT requiring that all non-critical circuits shed load. I had meanwhile, to reduce the chances of things going bad, thrown my essential refrigerator stuff in bags in the snow outside, and would a few hours later throw my essential freezer stuff out there as well. But so far, everything still clearly stated that the outages were rotating, and a common theme was that places still with power should shut down non-essential uses so that they delay in rotation could be shortened. This, I think, was a very grave mistake, since it was essentially a message to people that the reason they were sitting in the dark in increasingly cold rooms was that other people were hogging the electricity. This does not seem to have been true -- there is really no amount that the critical circuit people could have conserved that would have changed anything, given the shed-load requirements. But it is one of the things that I think intensified people's anger. At 10:45 am, the message changed: "To serve critical loads and protect the overall reliability of the grid, customers experiencing an ERCOT-directed outage will remain out until conditions improve." So for nine hours, Austin Energy was telling people that they were going to do rolling blackouts, but the rolling never came. And they did not explain what was meant by "until conditions improve". When they had a press conference at 12:30 pm, they still said "until conditions improve" and did not explain what that meant. It was remarkable reading the Twitter threads, as it began to dawn on everyone that the most probable meaning was "until the storm ends", which by that point we all knew would by sometime on Wednesday. You can imagine the fury, particularly since "critical loads", while including areas with hospitals, also included a lot of downtown Austin and some very wealthy people in nice high-rise apartments that remained very noticeably bright and shining and infinitely out of reach.

In retrospect, I spent far, far too much of my phone battery trying to get updates from organizations that managed not to communicate anything of importance in a timely and useful fashion. But at that point, I realized that there was nothing to do but batten down and try to outlast it.

My condominium-style apartment is sandwiched between two others and the insulation is mostly not bad. The weather was subfreezing and windy on Monday; my thermostat had an independent battery, so I could at least tell the temperature inside, and it got down to 44 degrees Fahrenheit (about 7 degrees Celsius). My water heater is natural gas, so I still had hot water, which was much more than most people had at that point. I layered up and put my good sleeping bag on the bed along with the covers, and slept that night wearing a ski mask. In the morning the temperature was 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius), which would end up being the low point -- the drop in wind helped a great deal, and the sun occasionally would peak through the window. But it remained very cold. And then on Tuesday evening, the pipes in my garage broke with a CRACK! I rushed out to the garage and it was literally like a rainstorm had broken in the garage, with water pouring down on my car through every join and cut in the sheetrock and trickling down the walls from the corners of the ceiling. After a lot of scrambling, I found the internal cut-off, and now had no water. I shut down the water heater and, exhausted, went to bed much less convinced that I could in fact outlast anything.

I woke up in a less dark mood, and began to assess what I could do with no power and no water, indefinitely. I had six gallons of emergency drinking water laid up for hurricanes and the like. A work order had been put in for a plumber to make an emergency fix, but it was entirely uncertain how long it would take -- with no power, plumbers were limited in what they could do, and already by that point the cases of burst pipes were mounting up on an impressive scale. (And in fact the plumber came in the middle of my writing this post on Saturday.) I considered a hotel, but (1) finding a hotel is very difficult when neither you nor the hotel have any electrical power and (2) the hotels were already packed. Fortunately, the Darwins helped me link up with a family in the area that had power intermittently and still had water, so I stayed there for the night. In the morning I went home to do some clean-up, then back to sleep and shower. Because of the condition of the roads and the lack of traffic lights (either nonexistent or flashing red), and the fact that we were still having subfreezing nights, I went back while it was still daylight. The same thing on Thursday; I got home at about 10:30 am, and when I got there the power had been on for about thirty minutes. I checked the basics -- light, heat, refrigeration, internet (the internet was not a luxury, because it was another line of communication and extends the battery on my phone, which uses the wifi when I'm at home) -- and then, since I still had no water and did not know yet if the power was going to be consistent, went and stayed with my hosts one more night. Friday it was clear that the power was steady, so I stayed in my apartment last night.

Water was still a worry, so I scraped up all the snow in my little backyard for the toilet -- snow, of course, takes up much more volume than liquid water, so all of that snow melted to water for about three emergency flushes. As I noted, I had a good amount of drinking water, although that needed to be rationed if it was going to cover drinking and cooking both for the indefinite future. I wasn't too worried about showers -- wet wipes for the body and corn meal for the hair are actually more than adequate. (The former is a camping trick and the latter is what people used on the frontier and in the Great Depression, and can sometimes be found as a beauty spa hair treatment to this day.) Brushing teeth would require water, but it doesn't require much -- currently, in fact, the standard advice from dentists is not to wet your brush and use only enough water to rinse out the toothpaste and clean your brush, and frankly, while toothpaste helps hygiene in the long run, it's not a necessity for brushing. Because of COVID, I don't have to go many places, so washing clothes was not really an issue. The big, big problem, the one that I spent a lot of time thinking about, was cleaning dishes. There are camping tricks to minimize water when cleaning dishes, but I had very little of what would I'd need to implement those. Unless you can sand-blast your dishes, it's almost impossible to clean dishes without water, and the less water you use, the more important it is to sanitize, which (beyond a small bottle of alcohol and the last of a small bottle of bleach) I did not really have. Without distilled water for cleaning, there would really be no recourse but to set some of the drinking water aside for cleaning, as well, but I really needed a better solution.

I took thought about what I could do with respect to this. My nearest grocery store, while generally very good, was obviously under a lot of strain, and I probably would not be able to get much from it before a few days were out. In Texas, practically every major corner has either a gas station or pharmacy, so if you live in the city, there's almost always one in walking distance. I actually live within easy walking distance of at least three corner pharmacies and  at least five gas stations. So on Friday I walked down to Walgreens, the closest pharmacy, to see whether any options would open up to stretch my water out; my thought was that I could then visit all the pharmacies and gas stations and, scrounging up something from each, put together a plan that would work until more options opened up. The Walgreens was operating under limited capacity -- their pipes had burst too -- but they were open; and today I walked to the second closest pharmacy, CVS, and picked up some more things. Finding anything that would help directly wasn't possible -- water, for instance, was sold out, as were the more obvious things like bleach -- but indirectly I picked up a few things to stretch the water out, like a greater variety of food that didn't require cooking or could be cooked without water, and non-water things to drink. And so was the state of my plan; I was going to keep trying over the next several days to find an available hotel room, even if only for a single night, which would help. I figured that as power and water came back across the city, at least some people would filter back out of hotels and go home (which indeed seems to be the case). But, as I said, I got a call from the plumber in middle of writing this post, at about 5:00 pm. They did an emergency fix of the problem in the garage -- it was four distinct breaks that had occurred roughly around the same time, three in the ceiling, one in the wall. No wonder it had been raining in the garage. They finished up about 7 pm. The first thing I did was start the dishwasher. 

Things are not quite back to normal. We have been under a Boil Water Notice since Wednesday -- since I had no water at all, I had not had to worry about that -- although it's mostly at this point a precaution. I do have another minor leak in a bathroom, but it doesn't require shutting off all water; I can just use the other bathroom until things calm down and I can get a plumber in to look at that much more minor, although somewhat more complicated, problem. I'm still keep the snow-water for a few days, because at this point who knows whether anything else will break. And the devastation has been extraordinary. The plumbers were talking about how they'd been working all day and had least nine other homes in the area with similar problems, and needed to try to get as many done that day as they could. I work at a college that has twelves campuses; nine of them have serious plumbing issues and the other three are still being assessed. The sanctuary at my church was flooded this week, calf-high, and most of the other churches in the dioceses have had similar problems. Churches, of course, are big open buildings that tend to get cold if not heated in winter, and they are required to have sprinkler systems for fires; and the fire system cannot be completely insulated and still meet city code. Businesses all over the region were flooded when their pipes burst in the unheated darkness. While most of the serious problems have been solved, there are still people without electricity because of downed powerlines, and there are still people without water, because water mains broke. Plumbers and other tradesmen will be busy for the entire next week just solving the most essential emergency problems.

When I started looking around yesterday and this morning, I found that a lot of the discussion was not devoted to anything of any practical use, but was chatter about Senator Cruz having early on in this mess taken his family to Cancun. And I confess I felt something a bit like rage that, of all the things people could have focused on in this tragedy, this was the thing they latched onto. What moral and mental disease, I thought, leads people to treat all of this as a point for partisan propaganda, and not recognize that in doing so they are very bad people? Have people, if I may use a bit of Texan vulgarity, put their self-absorbed heads so far up their cavernously windy asses that this is what they think is important? Senator Cruz is not a Texas state official; he has no authority over ERCOT or local utilities. He has no personal influence over any decisions concerning the Texas electrical grid. He certainly is not able to stop the weather. There was nothing he could have done in Texas itself that would have been of practical use at the time. Speaking as someone who went through it, if it had been put to a vote, I would have voted for any family who could getting out the region, without exception, and been glad that that was one more family spared the whole thing. No doubt there are people who like misery to be spread around, especially in the direction of their political opponents. No doubt, too, there are things he could have done that would be more useful for political campaigning, although Cruz has the secure political position he does not because he is likable but because he is famously difficult to like, so people know that he will drive Democrats crazy; perhaps he could have done fundraising somewhere; perhaps he could have stayed as a purely symbolic thing. But it made me quite angry that in the face of all this, so many people still play their catty partisan games rather than focus on anything of any practical value whatsoever. Much of this, however, was from putting it side by side with having had to sleep under a pile of blankets and sleeping bag in a house cold enough that not doing so would have been a hypothermia risk, not knowing how long my emergency water would last. That was perhaps not a fair juxtaposition. Having come out the other side only slightly worse for wear, I am inclined to interpret it all a little more charitably. No doubt things look very different when viewing it all from elsewhere, and I have no problem with the jokes and memes (a few of which are even funny) or even the political swipes (some of which are even fair game) on their own; and it is true, too, I have a different temperament from most people, and thus cannot assess them entirely by my own sense of things. And perhaps more importantly, for some people it's a way of lightening things, which is not a bad thing at all. I still won't take people seriously who take the matter to be some gravely serious one, though.

And it's important to keep a sense of proportion over all. I would have gotten through regardless. The last I looked at the death toll, it was about 70 people, mostly from hypothermia, mostly from going outside for unknown reasons. Having family in Montana (and thus a decent set of winter gear), having done my share of camping over long years, having a stoic temperament, having a good (if not, in retrospect, completely adequate) set of emergency supplies laid in, I was well off and well prepared, more than many who got through it as well. I was not really worried or distraught at any point, except for a short period Tuesday night, and that was mostly due to exhaustion. I even enjoyed some (although not all) of the problem-solving and improvising. And I had friends who could make connections for me that made it go much more easily. Everybody I have met yesterday and today has been cheerful at getting, finally, to the point of clean-up and repair. This world is a world of challenges, and this challenge has been met. On to the next.

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