There are a lot of things I left behind when I moved away from northern Virginia to greener (or at least warmer) pastures. I left snow shovels and rock salt for the new owners of my home. I donated my heaviest snow boots and jackets. I ditched four-wheel drive.
I wouldn’t need any of it in California, where winter isn’t really winter. And when I moved to Austin, Texas, I wasn’t about to stock up on cold weather supplies again. Why bother, I thought. It doesn’t snow in Austin.
Then this week happened.
As a polar vortex swept through the United States, Texas’ mild February temperatures plummeted to below freezing. Last Saturday, an ice storm left every tree branch, leaf, and blade of grass coated in a thick layer of glasslike ice. Trees were weighed down so heavily that they bowed all the way to the ground, blocking off roads and sidewalks.
Another snowstorm blew in on Sunday night. And at approximately 2 a.m. on Monday, my power cut out.
I’d almost never experienced a blackout that lasted longer than a few hours, so I wasn’t overly concerned. I moved all the food in my fridge and freezer to the convenient cold outdoors, just in case. I played in the rare snowfall with my puppy, PJ. The only family members who seemed out of sorts were my cats, who spent all day curled up under the couch. I didn’t think anything of it.
But when the sun began to set, electricity had still not returned. My home had lost most of its heat. Temperatures were predicted to dip into the single digits in the night, compounded by another wave of snow and freezing rain. I couldn’t feel my toes.
A chill of another kind began to set in. I realized the situation was much, much worse than I’d thought.
Millions of Texas residents were experiencing the same fear. At the height of outages, more than 4 million Texas households were without power. 40 percent of Austin lost electricity, leaving swaths of the city and suburbs literally in the dark.
And it lasted not for hours, but days. Dozens of people were confirmed to have died from the cold or other related complications, including carbon monoxide poisoning from warming up in their cars inside closed garages. Animals have also perished, though those numbers are more difficult to estimate. Tens of thousands of people have still not regained power, some after more than 100 hours without.
In comparison to so many, I was incredibly fortunate. In the end, my power was out for 48 hours, during which my indoor temperature dropped to far lower than it ever should be. But I had gas to preserve some warmth and to cook. My gas fireplace, though clearly built for aesthetic and not function, was my family’s lifeline. I was able to keep my short-haired puppy warm under two layers of doggy sweaters and a nest of blankets.
My two cats, operating on the powerful instincts cats always do, had made the right call on their choice of hideout. At one point I reached my hand into the narrow space under the couch where they huddled together. It was the warmest place in the house.
Many people had no such recourse.
It must be said that Texas is NOT equipped for a true cold front. People don’t tend to own winter gear. Houses are built to dissipate heat to stay cool. A lot of us have cars that are useless on ice and snow-covered roads, and there are no fleets of snowplows or salt trucks to dig us out.
When I tried to see how far I could get with my dinky two-wheel drive, I rolled only a few feet before my wheels spun out on an ice patch. Two neighbors emerged to help push me out of the middle of the street.
Consequently, getting to warming centers (a COVID-19 risk), hotels (many of which were price-gouging), or to friends and family lucky enough to have power was exceedingly difficult for many Texans. Word was no emergency support would come if one skidded off an icy road and became stranded in their car. Hundreds of thousands of us in Austin alone were left power-less and immobile.
So we charged our phones with our cars or computers and did the only thing we could to get any news on the situation: Log onto social media.
I spent the few minutes at a time I dared eat into my phone battery religiously checking Twitter updates from Austin Energy and The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). It was under those tweets that I got a raw look into the situations of fellow Texas residents.
Most posted real-time accounts of their hours without power—a soul-crushing series of numbers ranging from 25 to 48 to 60 and more. Others demanded answers and accountability. Some were looking to commiserate, including over reaching the alarming milestone of seeing their breath indoors.
I noticed a pattern in the flurry of tweets to which I’m particularly attuned as a part of the Alley Cat Allies team. Alongside expressing concern for grandparents or infants, people often brought their animal family members into the conversation.
“Can I have please just an hour of power my apartment is freezing and my dogs and I have been under the blankets for two days,” read one tweet.
“30+ hours of no power here, building is getting really cold. Had to take the cat in the car as he was shaking,” read another.
A tweet responding to a post about local warming centers cut to the heart of the matter: “Capacity is limited and there’s a pandemic and there’s no way in hell I’m leaving my dog home.”
Stories about animals during this disaster are particularly impactful, maybe because they’re so emblematic of the severe toll this week has taken on so many lives.
In San Antonio, at least 12 primates and birds died after power cut out in a wildlife sanctuary. Though staff moved fast to shepherd animals into warm rooms, the cold was faster.
Zoo animals trapped in a bitter cold they weren’t built to survive had to be rushed indoors to spaces they are even less suited to. According to staff tweets, alligators at one point roamed free in areas built for human visitors.
As I scrolled under Austin Energy tweets, I came across comment after comment of people mourning their fish, who froze to death in their tanks in frigid homes and apartments.
It was devastating, terrifying, and in the moment, seemed endless. Yet even amid all the horror stories, compassion, community, and pure Texas tough shone through like a beacon in the dark.
Volunteers braved the elements to rescue more than 4,000 sea turtles from freezing South Padre Island beaches and waters, ferrying them in the backs of Subarus and pickup trucks to warming pools (many of which were simply kiddie pools) set up in a convention center by a local sea turtle rehabilitation organization.
In my city, Austin Pets Alive! put out a Twitter call for help after power flickered out in one of its shelters. Six incredible locals drove on the thick sheets of ice that were our streets to deliver generators to warm the animals. I’m thrilled to say Alley Cat Allies is now stepping in with an emergency grant fund to Austin Pets Alive! to help ensure animals continue to receive the care and supplies they need.
And closer to home, a neighbor who posted on my community Facebook group, worried about running low on cat food, received multiple offers of assistance before I could even finish typing my own.
Those are just scratching the surface. As Texas thaws, I have no doubt more tales of heroism and resilience under pressure will emerge.
And we’re going to need them. Though power has been restored to most households and temperatures are on the rise, Texas has new battles to fight.
Millions of Texans are now struggling to access clean water in a crisis resulting from burst pipes, frozen wells, and water treatment plant failures in the aftermath of the storm. Boil-water advisories have been issued in many areas. Homes and belongings have been destroyed by water damage from frozen pipe failures. People and animals alike are in need of food and other critical supplies, and lines at grocery stores span blocks. Community cats, though some of the most resilient animals around, may need treatment and targeted care in the aftermath of the freeze.
And in the long term, the people of Texas must contend with the infrastructure failures and political mire that got us into this mess. In short, Texas’ power grid should have been prepared, it wasn’t, and loss of life resulted.
Alley Cat Allies is connecting with our friends across Texas and gearing up to provide further support, financial or otherwise, to save the lives of cats and kittens. I’m eager to share those stories of healing and hope with you.
For now, I’m extraordinarily relieved to be in a home that is warm once again with my family, including my animals, safe and sound. I’m grateful to be back online and able to do my job. And I know that many, many Texans are not in such a privileged position. I am looking into ways to do my part to help and, if you have the means, I hope you will, too.
Stay safe out there,
Alley Cat Allies