Lessons from Winter Storm Uri and the Texas blackout

Winter Storm Uri has hammered the United States this week, leading to severe winter weather in 25 states affecting more than 150 million Americans. Much of the country — from Maine to Oregon — has been blanketed in snow, ice, and frigid temperatures.

But Texas has been hit the hardest. The state’s independent power grid has all but failed. Millions are, or have been, without power, left in the frozen dark. Many have died, either from the cold or carbon monoxide poisoning, and we expect many more deaths to be discovered in the days and weeks ahead. Water treatment plants are failing, leading to boil warnings across the state to millions of residents who may not have the means to do so.

This is merely the latest reminder of the fragility of our grid. The Nashville bombing on Christmas Day disrupted telecommunications around the country, and a recent cyber attack nearly poisoned a town’s water supply. If you have the resources, you need to prepare to deal with these kinds of situations before they’re situations.

If you’re in Texas, take note of the state’s warming centers, which might save your life if you can’t heat your home.

Be sure to check out our two guides to surviving winter:

Key lessons

  • You cannot depend on the government or the grid during a crisis. Assume you will be on your own.
  • By the time disaster hits, it’s too late to prepare. Many didn’t try to buy propane, gasoline, or firewood until it was too late and supplies had been bought up.

  • Many times, a disaster can lead to cascading failures. Higher demand and frozen facilities lead to power outages, which lead to water treatment failures and people freezing in their homes, which caused carbon monoxide poisonings. You need a well-rounded plan for disasters to cover all fronts.
  • Be smart about how you stay warm. Carbon monoxide poisonings are a bigger threat than you might think, and fire hazards are real. Insulating yourself is often your safest option.
  • It’s too late to prepare for this storm — but be smart enough to get ready before the next one.
  • If you don’t already know how you would’ve handled the water portion of this emergency, check out the web’s best water prep/survival course.

Leading up to the storm

  • Since the beginning of electrification, Texas has had a power grid separate from the rest of the country in order to avoid federal regulation.
  • The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) was formed in 1970 to partially unify the Texas grid. However, there are small regions like El Paso that have their own independent grids.
  • Because Texas is not connected to the two main American power grids: the Eastern Interconnection and the Western Interconnection, other states cannot provide Texas supplemental electricity when the state grid is under duress.
  • However, the Texas grid is not completely independent. It has connections to the Mexican grid and has imported power from Mexico in the past.
  • In November, ERCOT announced that they had sufficient power generation for the winter.
  • The week before Winter Storm Uri hit, Governor Greg Abbott declared a statewide state of emergency. Overwhelming strain on the electrical grid was expected. Additional generators were deployed across the state.

The storm itself

Abandoned cars in Austin, Texas
Abandoned cars in Austin, Texas

The aftermath

  • Our own Jon Stokes had a leak develop in his roof, directly over his bed. He placed a tarp over the bed to protect it.
  • The federal government is now looking into deploying large backup batteries across the country to prepare for long-term outages.
  • ERCOT still does not have a clear timeline on when full power will be restored.

Loss of heat and carbon monoxide poisoning

  • The Houston area has had more than 300 carbon monoxide poisonings, including at least two deaths. Many of the poisonings have been caused by people using generators and charcoal grills indoors. The two deaths were caused by a family running a car in a garage to warm the house.
  • In one home, icicles formed on a ceiling fan, likely due to a broken water pipe above.

Dealing with power outages

  • Flip most of your breakers off until the grid is stable, which protects your electrical system and electronics from power fluctuations.
  • Be sure to have manual can openers on hand. There have been reports of people with canned food who only have electric can openers. If all else fails, you can open a can with a knife.

Here’s a safer way if you have a large kitchen knife.

  • Invest in a generator and fuel to power it. But also have a plan to safely operate the generator outside, and have the appropriate cables and connections to power things inside your house.
  • If you have a power inverter, you can use your vehicle as a makeshift generator. Some newer Ford trucks have built-in generators.
  • Be sure to read our tips for avoiding carbon monoxide poisoning below.

  • It’s also good to have a battery power bank or a power station like a Jackery to safely power small devices and recharge electronics inside.
  • Bonus points if you have a portable solar charger to recharge your power bank, though you may not get enough sun during a winter storm.
  • Keep refrigerators and freezers closed to prevent food from spoiling. If it’s cold enough outside, your best bet may be to put your food outside, though that could attract unwelcome wildlife. You could also put your food in a plastic bag, put the bags in a cooler, and then fill the cooler with ice and snow.
  • If you use diesel fuel or anything, be aware that it can gel in the cold.

How to stay warm

  • If you don’t have a non-electric heat source, your best options are insulating your home against heat losses and trapping body heat.
  • Windows are a major source of heat loss. Cover them with blankets or other insulative coverings to keep heat in your house.
  • Do what you can to insulate drafty exterior doors. Assuming you don’t have weather stripping handy, you can shove towels in gaps.
  • The human body generates 330 BTU per hour, which is enough to heat a three-foot by three-foot room in Southern Texas. Your goal is to shrink your living area to be small enough to trap that heat.
  • If you have a tent, set it up in the warmest interior area of your house. Put the rainfly on, and throw whatever you can over top to insulate it: blankets, sheets, etc.

  • Wrap yourself in whatever you’ve got: warm clothes, blankets, sleeping bags, or bivies.
  • Makeshift heaters can pose a major fire hazard. Lighting candles can provide a small amount of heat, but the wax can ignite if the candles are burning too close together and overheat.
  • If you have a source of heat only usable outdoors, like a grill, you can use it to heat water to put in bottles to keep you warm. You can also warm up rocks and wrap them up to warm you. Be extremely careful doing this! You could burn yourself, and if the rocks are porous, they could explode when heated.

How to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning

  • Don’t use charcoal or propane grills indoors!
  • Only use propane or kerosene heaters rated for indoor use.
  • If running a generator or a vehicle, keep it at least 20 feet away from your home, with the exhaust facing away from doors and windows.
  • Make sure that the exhaust is far and facing away from any intake vents.
  • Use a battery-powered carbon monoxide detector to monitor levels. If you have a plug-in CO detector, plug it into a Jackery or other available power source. It should be a top priority to power.
  • Be aware of the potential for broken gas lines near your home, which could cause CO poisoning or an explosion.
  • If you think you’ve been poisoned with carbon monoxide, get fresh air immediately.

Water failures

  • Galveston had to shut off its water supply entirely.
  • Power surges in Huntsville caused pump failures. That, combined with the demand from dripping faucets, caused extremely low system pressure.

  • Even stored water failed for many people. Brandon Friedman in Dallas filled his bathtub, and the water froze due to a lack of heat.

  • Here’s a video of a water pipe that burst and then the water froze, leaving a car under it encased in ice.

Dealing with water problems in cold weather

  • Keep sufficient supplies of water stored: at least 15 gallons per person to cover two weeks of bare-minimum need.
  • Just as important as storing the water is keeping it above freezing temperatures. Insulate your water stores as best as you can, and keep them in whatever room you’re able to heat.
  • If the inside temperature is approaching freezing, drain your water heater to keep it from bursting.
  • If you have large water containers that can’t be moved or warmed up, remember that water expands as it freezes, so drain some water from your containers so the water has room to expand.
  • Have the means to boil water, whether that’s a propane stove, butane stove, camp stove, or an outdoor fire pit.
  • Invest in a gravity-fed water filter that can filter viruses, bacteria, and other nasties without electricity or fuel and provide additional water storage. Just as with your water preps, be sure to keep it warm!
  • Have a plan to shut off your water in case a pipe freezes or bursts. If you can only turn off water at the water meter, know where it is, how to access it, and have a key to shut off the water.
  • Have a propane torch handy to thaw things like manhole covers.
  • Keeping a faucet dripping can prevent frozen and burst pipes, but can also endanger the entire system when everyone is doing it, because it causes pressure to drop. Watch out for warnings from your water provider (if you have one).

Get ready for next year

It’s too late to prepare for this storm, but you can be ready for the next one. The best time to get ready for winter is the summer. Products and fuel are readily available and often cheap. Here are some ways you can prepare:

The great thing is that most of these preps are useful for all kinds of emergencies, year-round.

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