Monday, February 06, 2023

Ice Like a Hurricane

We just had a few days of weather here in Austin, Texas.  It's left the city a wreck.  Again.

To understand what happened, my memory of the days as they unfolded went a bit like this:  

Around Saturday January 28th, we knew we were getting a cold front and that the oddly warm weeks of January we'd been experiencing would soon end  (the 28th had a high around 60, but we'd seen the 70's several times during the month).  On Sunday the 29th, suddenly the "it'll be cold and just over freezing, and it will rain" forecast we'd been hearing changed.  Suddenly we were to expect freezing temps, rain and ice.  

I work from home these days, and I didn't think much of it.  It sounded like a pain, but this wasn't the same as the multi-day freeze in the teens and 20's we experienced in February 2021 that took out the city and led to PTSD for almost all of us who sat in the dark, trapped in our houses for days, wondering if we'd die in our own homes.  This would be 24-48 hours of nasty cold and some wet and then we'd be back to normal temps.  We do this every other year or so.

But then on Monday the schools started closing early and planning closings on Tuesday and Wednesday.  

What happened, starting Monday evening and through Wednesday, was that Austin received a tremendous amount of rain, ice, grapple and other precipitation and the temps fell below freezing.  My own measurements tell me we got something like 2.5 inches of moisture.

Of all times to come to town, JimD was here.  Monday night we were scheduled to get together for a bit before his conference began that week, and the location I'd booked us a table canceled on us due to the weather.  I said "forget it, just come to the house", and Jim and I had some beers and I tried to downplay the weather a bit, but I kinda knew his trip to town was borked.  I believe he wound up changing hotels by Thursday as his lost power.

When the ice first came down, it caused havoc on high speed roads like MoPac and other flyovers... essentially anywhere with bridges.  Elevation and wind beneath the road mean bridges are always the first roadways to freeze in Austin.  Pile ups occurred and people got killed.  It was horrendous.  We were begged to stay home as its not just you that's in danger, it's everyone else, including emergency personnel, but you can't always do that, and not everyone gets the message.

But then, as the rain continued to fall, the trees began collecting ice on their branches.  And that ice began to weigh the branches down.  I worked through Tuesday, and sent the pic of the branches above at the top of this post to my colleagues, complaining it was cold and gloomy, but I thought that would be the worst of it.

I wake at 6:00 in the morning each weekday, and on Wednesday, I woke to my alarm.  But as I made it from my bed to the bathroom, the lights were strange.  A green light was flashing on and off outside the bathroom window.  I realized it was my neighbor's porchlight, which is always on (and green) coming on and off.  And that was how I knew:  the power was struggling.  

When the power cycles, our elliptical machine emits a loud beep when it comes on/ is plugged in.  If we hear it in the night, it's what tells us we lost power and its now been restored.  As I realized what was occurring, the elliptical whined.  Jamie stirred and I said "the power is going on and off" and ran downstairs to fire up the coffee.  

The pot on, I checked ERCOT, as all Texans now do, and we had plenty of power.  Whatever was happening now was local, and in some ways, that was a bigger problem.  That meant transformers blowing, downed lines and actual physical, widespread damage.  Not something that could be corrected with a fix somewhere upstream.

By 6:30 or so, I'd messaged my office with the idea that we might lose power for at least a while.  I then got dressed in layers and prepared for the inevitable, but figured I'd check in for our 7:15 stand-up.  And just as I was settling down to log in, we lost power.  

I was able to Slack the team on my phone and tell them "Power just went out, not calling in on my phone.  Need to reserve battery." and that was it for me for a while.  

I took Andre (our Great Pyr mix) out for a walk in the ice and spoke with two neighbors I'd never met, and they assured me "Austin Energy knows about the outage and is working on it".  I figured maybe we got in so early, maybe this would be fixed quickly, but knew it wouldn't.

Back in the house I shrugged at Jamie and curled up with the dog and crashed out on the sofa.  Since high school I've known that my go-to move in stressful times when I can take no action and, for the moment, everyone is ok, is to fall dead asleep. 

During the freeze of 2021, we had some food, we had some water - but our biggest concern was that due to ice on the roads, Jamie's dialysis clinic was closed for days.  She went for nearly a week without, and that's deeply unhealthy.   This time I woke up around 9:00 AM to Jamie running out the door, declaring she had been called in for treatment hours early.  And, honestly, because surface roads, those not on bridge, were just wet and no one was driving, I was delighted.  Jamie is also 3x the driver I am, so concerns were minimal.

But I was also now alone in the house with no power and a giant dog.  Anyway, I sat and read a stack of Superman comics I wanted to catch up on by the light from a window.  Andre was delighted that I wasn't moving and leaned into me as I stacked blankets over us both.  

I can't say exactly when I heard the first tree crack, but it was while Jamie was gone. And then another and another.  The accumulated ice that had bent branches on Tuesday had kept gaining weight and was now so heavy that it pulled limbs straight down, snapping them clean off trunks or from other weakened, stressed points.  The branches of old growth trees simply gave away, falling with great crashes to yards, roofs, cars...  Newer trees saw their reaching limbs twist and snap.  You'd hear a great pop, and then the rustle of ice clattering on shaking branches and leaves as they tumbled through other branches, the whole thing rattling as it hit the ground below.  

Through out the day, I stood on my front porch and watched more than one neighbor lose a branch or limb.  

With no power and no one on the roads, it was the only sound, and it was coming from near and far, with greater frequency as time went by.  

At noon I checked my phone, and around ten after, realized I'd lost service.  The cellular networks were now a casualty, and any emergency would now be dealt with by the people on your street and in your house.  I had no idea how my parents faired.  Just three miles from us, my brother's family felt remote, but I figured they'd appear at our door if anything in particular occurred - if they hadn't traversed the dangerous roadways to my parents' house.

I pondered the trees in my backyard, and watched a Mexican White Oak bend low.  The other oak (a post oak, I think) would likely harm nothing if they broke or fell.  The Live Oak in the front might lean into the house if the whole thing went, but it would most likely harm nothing if a branch fell.  Instead, I thought about the pecan in the neighbor's yard, a mighty three-story affair with sprawling, huge branches - one of which has reached above our house.  

And then those branches began to fall.  Huge reaches of the tree tumbled out of the sky, four in all, all within two hours of the first.  The branches were bare, no leaves to rattle as the limbs came down, but the mass of those branches hit with a gravity that shook the house.  But that one branch over the house?  It never came down.

Jamie returned sometime mid-day and followed her routine of catching up on sleep after dialysis and Andre and I kept on reading.  Every two hours I'd mutter "any time now, Austin Energy" and then let it go again.

I ate peanut butter and some chips.  Drank water and coffee.  We didn't lose water and didn't expect to - the temps remained just at freezing, and pipes wouldn't burst.  For dinner, I ate a can of beans I heated on the stove, but I don't know what Jamie ate.  Maybe peanut butter.  We lit candles and got out the two Coleman lanterns.  The sun was down around 6:45, and so we sat in the dark and just talked.  Played 20 Questions.  Killed time until bedtime.  

At 9:00 I took Andre out, carrying one of the lanterns.  Mist continued to come down and the clouds blocked any light from the moon or stars.  The only light I could see from a window on our street came from a candle in a single window.  A blue halo surrounded our patch of darkness - someone out there had electricity.  I recalled the shocking darkness of 2021, and this was not that.  

Moreover, we knew that even the next day, temperatures would rise above freezing by the afternoon.  We made a plan - if we had no power in the morning we would load ourselves into the car and head to my folks' house, which had kept power all through 2021.  

Eventually we settled in.  I'd sleep on the couch, boots still on, layered in clothes ready to go in case of an emergency.  Jamie went to bed. 

Unlike the freeze of 2021, the cold held even through the night at just below freezing, not down into the teens.  The insulation held enough that with a t-shirt and two layers, I felt the chill, but never worried.

From the morning through when I finally fell asleep, the sound of branches giving way never really stopped.  Pop.  Crack.  With perfect regularity.  I was aware - this was just our street.  This had to be the same on every street in Austin.  The scale of what was happening was unfathomable.  

Our neighborhood was built twenty years ago, and the power lines are buried.  I've lived all over this town, and in most of the older neighborhoods, lines run through yards, often near trees.  People cut back, but it's intended to keep branches swaying in the wind or rain from knocking the wires.  It doesn't account for trees snapping at the root, leaning over like drunks, and taking wires and poles and lights with them.  But they came down on street after street.

Just after midnight I woke to the sound of the power cycling on through the house.  The lamp in the living room was on.  The heat would kick on again soon.  I rolled over and slept again.  Sometime later, I woke to another power loss and darkness, but then after 2:00 AM, the power cycled back on.  And it has stayed on.  At our house.

In the morning I rose around 6:00.  I made coffee.  I took a shower.  I went to work by 7:00.  The texts and emails and social media came fast and furious. To be honest, it was hard to work.  I'd looked out the window to see the damage done, and almost every house had some wreckage in their yard, and I'd argue half of them saw something significant, with a few having something massive - but somehow, I think we'd all escaped harm to our houses.  It was wild to see.  But that came maybe from the trees falling straight down rather than blowing sideways as I was used to.

It became quickly apparent that we were one of the lucky few who'd had power restored.  I have some guesses as to why, but mostly that we likely experienced a single point of failure at the transformer, not dozens of downed lines in our area.  And, of course, our neighborhood is only twenty years old with fewer trees, not 70 or 90 years old like some areas that are still, six days later, sitting dark.  

As a note, I made the mistake of sleeping near a candle all night and woke up with my lungs feeling like I'd been inhaling from a smoker for seven hours.  I felt awful for two days after.  Do not recommend.

Thursday afternoon I heard motors rumbling on the street, and it turned out to be an unrelated event as my neighbor's car was taken in to the shop by a wrecker, but I noticed my other neighbors out and about and cutting up trees.  I was late to the party, but joined in and helped clear three houses of tree limbs and branches.   

In many ways, it made me feel better.  

As we've seen the past few years, not everyone handles stress in the most productive way, and several neighbors had taken to the neighborhood social media to complain bitterly about the lack of cell service.  It was truly bizarre that during the height of storm, when public officials were begging people to stay off the roads and not become a problem, these people were driving around to find cell service so they could complain that they couldn't get cell service from their living rooms.  

Others bemoaned the lack of power, which we'd had restored miraculously quickly and by people working in horrible conditions.  But, yeah, my first hours back online were a wild ride of people acting out like angry kids who don't know why they're having feelings or what to do with them and that the universe was not catering to their needs in this moment.

But the folks who weren't on the internets, gunching, were out and about with their yard tools and hands clearing debris from yards.  And they moved fast.  We did, I guess.  And once you realize how fast this goes with a bunch of people, the more you wanted to do.  But a lot of it wasn't safe to move or touch, not without the tools of the pros.  

Of course the food in the fridge spoiled.  We'd not opened the door and it had been only 18 hours or so, but things went bad.  And once you realize one thing went bad, you start tossing everything.  I don't want to think about the dollar value that went in the trash.  And getting groceries was a slight challenge as everyone realized at the same time they had no food.

It's worth mentioning - because of the late breaking info on this storm, we weren't really prepared, food-wise.  With the 2021 freeze, we knew we'd have issues and I bought things we could cook on our stove with gas and water.  And lots of pre-packaged things.  But this time, we weren't prepared in quite that way, but would have been fine.  Helped along by running to my folks' house and making a grocery run.

In an odd bit of "of course this happened", Thursday evening my parents were on the 10:00 news from KVUE as "Seniors Surviving the Storm".  

My parents were actually pretty fine, but the reporter managed to make something out of the fact a tree fell, blocking their driveway.  Did they call me and tell me that?  No.  First I heard of it was watching the 10:00 o'clock news.  Could I have moved the tree?  Maybe!  We'll never know.  A neighbor with a chaninsaw cut it up the following day.

My brother's family (he is married!  He has two kids!  Who knew?) retreated to my folks' as they were without power from Wednesday to Saturday sometime.

Friday night we lost power for some reason for about 45 seconds?  I have no idea.  But we were happily watching Apple+ and then it was just... dark.  Like, inside your eyelids dark.  It came back on, but... boy howdy, was I twitchy.

Yesterday we drove out of the neighborhood and I saw a lot more.  And, yes.  It's... that bad.  This is what I remember from when I was a kid and hurricanes hit Houston.  No, it's not Katrina-level, but it does remind me of Alicia and when tornadoes ripped through.  

As mentioned, the efforts to restore power have been slow.  A lot of folks are throwing blame at Austin Energy, and I understand the anger and frustration.  When you don't know when your power will come back, it's a nightmare.  Especially days on.  But the scope of the disaster is like that of a natural disaster.  It's awful out there.  I'm used to some trees coming down in windstorms and what we get for wild Texas weather.  What I am not used to is that *everyone* experienced damage.  I can't begin to wrap my head around how many people will be impacted, just trying to clear away debris.  It's all well and good we cut up trees, cleared yards and sidewalks, but now there are heaps of branches and logs lining the streets.  And there are gigantic limbs still just lying there, everywhere.  They'll be reached eventually, but this could go on for months.  

So, yeah, the power companies have only so much staff, and have to work around the conditions they've been given.  You can't expect people to work without sleep or food.  But it's also a nightmare for the people waiting, days and days on.  Soon it will be a full week.  And while I get that communication hasn't been great - I'm also aware that for the first few days, they really had no idea, and the communication tools they had were inadequate.  Let alone - people don't go to local news to find out what's happening anymore, and how much understanding can you have when you're in night 6 of sleeping by candlelight.  At the same time, recognize that the people working to restore power may be going home to dark houses and stressed families, too.

Heck, schools were closed the past several days.  It's a mess out there.

I hear my cousin is still without power and staying in her house with her pets.  She's had a rough year, and this is not helping.  In the middle of this, her cat passed.

Anyway, it's going to be a long haul.  We need to give each other some grace, especially those who may have been impacted far longer than others, but also look at the folks trying to do right and adjusting in real time.

some of the branches from my neighbor's tree stacked up.  green box for scale.

each of those piles is about 15-20' long


Maxo said...

I'm glad you guys made it through OK. I think people discount how stressful this kind of situation is, even if a person manages to avoid major damage or danger through preparation of sheer luck. Austin tends to collectively think of itself as a sunny, warm place where everyone is drinking margaritas on a restaurant patio. And nine times out of 10 that's what it is. But these freezes are no joke, and affect everyone. If there's ever a time for community, times like this are it.

The League said...

It's kind of amazing how well it works out when the neighbors who usually pause once a week or so for a five minute sidewalk convo spot each other and team up to take something on. And, really, there were some real heroes out there who finally got to use that chainsaw they bought a decade ago. But, yeah, very grateful for the folks around my place.