Dear Omar

The Texas Storms Taught Me to Love My Powerbank

But I’m still awaiting my utility bill 😬

Welcome to Dear Omar, a weekly Debugger column from tech expert Omar L. Gallaga answering all the gadget and technology questions you were afraid to ask.

We knew a blackout was coming, had known for a while, but when it finally hit, my daughters and I still stood silent for a moment, shocked and in the dark.

It was about 7:30 p.m. on Monday, the second day for many of what became an unexpectedly severe “Epic Winter Storm” in much of Texas. We lost electricity after many other families did. We knew rolling blackouts were part of the plan, in addition to many unplanned outages. We were just next.

But wandering there in the dark, edging carefully toward the table we’d prepared with so many candles to light, we entered into a new reality. The quiet of no TV on, no heat running, just our breathing and my kids saying, “Dad! Dad! The candles! Light them!” felt like we were suddenly isolated, disconnected, literally, from everything outside and past the eight-inch-high drifts of snow.

Texas was unprepared for a snowstorm that knocked out electrical service, water supplies, and other utilities for more than a week. Photo courtesy of the author

Over the weekend we’d had cold temperatures and some ice, but that Sunday overnight, the full brunt of the storm arrived, eliciting morning glee from kids home with school canceled and little snow experience. And then the headaches arrived. Since my life as a tech writer revolves around gadgets and a connected lifestyle, the sudden loss of electricity, heat, water, and consistent internet access became a bigger challenge than the weather itself. As we’re continuing to recover in Texas, people have been asking what it was like to weather such an unprecedented storm without access to our usual technology.

First there was the storm itself, and “Unprecedented” is perhaps not the right word. We’ve had huge winter storms before, including a 1929 storm that covered parts of the state in 26 inches of snow.

What made this one different was our reliance on the technologies and creature comforts that now help us survive — electricity for our heat, connectivity, and food storage, and clean water from the tap — were for millions in the state, suddenly a huge problem. While I was lucky to have rolling power outages that kept power down and then brought it back for a blessed hour in which we could catch up on heat and device charging, many weren’t so fortunate.

Friends, former coworkers, family members ended up losing power, not just for a day or two, which would be inconvenient given that we Texans aren’t used to temperatures in the single digits and our homes aren’t built for that. But the situation became dangerous when temperatures inside homes reached freezing and a catastrophic failure of the Texas power grid gave no timeline on when, or if, power would be restored.

As in times of modern trouble, we turned to our cellphones, praying they have enough charge to get us through the week. We searched drawers for old LED flashlights to get us through and when the power came back on, we tried to conserve energy by keeping lights off, unplugging power-hogging devices like HDTVs and game consoles, and keeping the heat down to 68 degrees, as we were being advised.

When Texas froze so hard that plumbing pipes began to freeze, and in many cases burst, we had to turn our attention from a lack of electricity and the danger of freezing temperatures, to a new challenge: lack of running water.

In our home, again we were lucky to be away from major cities where the crisis was accelerated. We kept all inside and outside faucets at a trickle, hoping to avoid a full freeze, but by Wednesday, two and a half days after the snow came, the water started losing pressure. By Thursday morning, all our faucets could manage was a small dribble, and by Thursday night, the water service was gone completely.

Again, we were lucky. Just recently, I wrote about the disaster-preparedness app Harbor that recommends having three gallons of water per person per day at the ready. When the storm was coming, I filled up buckets, water jugs, and any other containers I had on hand with clean, filtered water.

Within a day of losing tap water, service was restored for me, but under a boil notice: All tap water had to be boiled before use for cooking, drinking, or brushing teeth. For the entire weekend that followed and longer, many Texans were still struggling with burst water pipes and boil notices at home, in schools, or at businesses. Grocery stores and food banks, for a while at least, couldn’t keep up with the availability of water.

Amid all these crises, technology took a back seat. School and work were canceled for many, social media in Texas shifted from cute snow pictures to alerts about dangerous roads and updates on the state of the electrical grid and natural gas services (and plenty of griping about institutions like ERCOT’s handling of the dire situation).

But technology also proved to be a lifeline during the Deep Freeze Week. With electricity gone for many and Wi-Fi but a memory, we used our spotty cellphone data connections to post about dangerous house temperatures, concern about children, neighbors, and pets.

Some ingenious people, like my friend Dale Roe, used their electric vehicles as makeshift hotel rooms, battling the cold with warm heat in their own garages. (Warning: don’t try this in a garage with a non-electric vehicle).

But the real hero, for almost anyone I know who needed a cellphone to last more than a day or two in the absence of power, was a good battery pack. As phone batteries drained and the severity of the situation sunk in, having a good and versatile power bank proved essential. I imagine lots of Texans will be stocking up on these before the next major weather event, but it would be even smarter to buy those items now and keep them charged up.

In my home, the fleeting hour-at-a-time when the lights and the internet came back on was a mad dash to cook food, reply to work-related emails, get updates on our power and water situation, and to reach out to friends more easily than during the outages when the data network was so much slower, if it was working at all.

We still don’t know all the horror stories that are going to eventually come out of the Deep Freeze. But we know that technology, particularly that from the utility companies we rely on, failed us in a big way and we will never trust them to be there in a crisis again. With so much news during and after the crisis about a lack of preparedness, it’s possible there’ll be some accountability and repercussions for those who didn’t put the right systems in place to weather this weather.

But change to that infrastructure in Texas may be a long time coming, and now the warning flag has gone up to the rest of the country that we are not prepared for emergencies involving our increasingly crazy weather patterns. And, as usually happens in these situations, it revealed again how the most vulnerable populations are the ones hurt most by that lack of readiness.

Like many of them, I’m waiting to see whether I’ll be hit with a large bill for water and electric usage, even for a week when those services weren’t always available. My electric provider is variable-rate, meaning that I do get big bill increases in the summer heat. Based on what I’ve seen so far on the website’s usage meter, my electricity did take a big usage spike, even during rolling blackouts, and my water usage, as the pipes were thawing out and service came back, spiked to about double what it was the week before the Deep Freeze. Will I get hit with a huge bill like some Texans? I’m still waiting to find out.

For those of us who live our lives with gadgets and early-adopted tech in our homes, it was sobering to be surrounded by silent, inoperable smart lights, Alexas, and set-top boxes with nothing to stream. It was a rude awakening to discover how little these seeming essentials can really help when a life-and-death situation hits your front door and won’t go away for much longer than you were expecting.

Tech culture writer and podcaster, now freelancing in Texas. Bylines: Washington Post, WSJ, CNN, NPR, Texas Monthly. Here for all your wordy needs.

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