This morning, right around 8 a.m., I was treated to a sound that was both unnerving and reassuring: the loud clattering of my neighbor’s generator kicking in, followed by ours. “Must be a surge,” I said to my husband. But by the time the words were out of my mouth, I’d realized it wasn’t. The temperature on my weather app said it was 16 degrees here in Houston, and it seemed that power was out in the neighborhood. “Rolling blackouts,” my neighbor Allison texted a group of us. That, of course, turned out to be highly optimistic: the promised fifteen to thirty minutes passed, and no power was restored.
I checked my phone again to find a tweet from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo: “The hour of this historic storm is upon us, the time to hunker down is here. We may not be used to this weather, but with annual hurricane season[s] no one knows how to shelter in place like we do. We’ve been through a lot together. We’ll get through this.”
Excelling at sheltering in place has never been a cause for celebration. Still, 2017’s Hurricane Harvey left me with enough PTSD to master the basics. Back then, my husband and I were among the lucky ones—we lost power for only 24 hours. But the knowledge that neighbors a block or two over, and around the city, were without electricity for weeks motivated me to take some bolder steps.
When my twelve-year-old Honda Accord died a few years ago, for instance, we bought a small SUV. My husband wanted a car that was higher off the ground, in case we got stuck in a flood. At the time, we weren’t thinking about the glories of its all-wheel drive, but today it means that we can get onto icy roads if we must, in the case of some unforeseen emergency.
We also invested in a generator, at a price for which we probably could have taken a very nice trip to someplace far away for a very long time. We paid for it in installments—like a house, or a car, or a college education—and I immediately had a terrible case of buyer’s remorse. We had lived in Houston for almost thirty years without one, after all. At a dinner party, a friend in the energy business made fun of us for wasting our money. Didn’t we know Texas had its own power grid?
I thought of that friend this morning, sometime after the microwave briefly shut down the generator and my husband restarted it (the generator, not the microwave) with the help of a harried customer service representative he reached by phone. My terror subsided. Since then, we have been safe and warm, if not exactly secure.
We took other hurricane-inspired precautions. In the last few days, as predictions of falling temperatures became ever more dire, I hit the grocery store, along with hundreds of other experienced, enervated Houstonians. Once again, I felt like a contestant in the Supermarket Sweepstakes of old. This time, the whole wall of precut, prepackaged vegetables had been picked clean, except for, inexplicably, snap peas. Ditto the moderately priced eggs, as opposed to the more expensive organic, free-range variety. (Toilet paper and bottled water were plentiful. I guess store stockers have learned not just from hurricanes, but from the pandemic.)
My trip to the hardware store, a mile from my house, was less fruitful: Instead of masking tape for the windows, I was carrying a list worthy of a serial killer—one that included duct tape and plastic sheets to cover my (probably doomed) plants. The shelves were empty. Then I remembered the Sherwin-Williams paint store nearby, which was devoid of shoppers but full of drop cloths and multihued, multipurpose tape. At least we will have cheerful-looking pipes, I thought to myself, but when I got home I saw that I had been bested. A neighbor on Nextdoor posted photos of his pipes covered in cut-up yoga mats.
There were some beacons of efficiency: As we have come to expect, the George R. Brown Convention Center opened to the homeless with impressive speed. (Other shelters had to close because they lacked power.) And the medical community quickly recalibrated in the face of outages: When a Harris County freezer lost power, Houston Chronicle reported, the county had to distribute 8,400 COVID-19 vaccines. Houston Methodist Hospital vaccinated 1,000 residents in under three hours.
As the day wore on and power remained elusive, the usual bartering and bargaining began. We let our next-door neighbor to the west, who doesn’t have a generator, run a cord from our house to hers, so that she could power a portable heater and some lights. (Of course she already had a power cord as long as the Rio Grande.) Our friends across the street promised homemade gumbo in exchange for, possibly, sleeping in our son’s room.
The inequities were obvious. Our friends in River Oaks who were without power and water said they would be fine with their wood-burning fireplace and plenty of good bourbon, while the eighty-year-old woman who lovingly cared for my father said she would be fine too—warming herself, dangerously, by her oven. (On the Citizen app, reports of house fires spiked during the day.)
Mayor Turner urged the usual calm, but he could barely contain his anger in a televised appearance mid-afternoon. “These are not rolling blackouts,” he said in response to a reporter’s question about when power would be restored here. “The rolling blackouts became so frequent that they became power outages. When this is over we will have to have a serious conversation [about ERCOT, the so-called Electric Reliability Council of Texas].” In fact, two million Texans were in the same situation as I was, as the predicted 45 minutes or so stretched to most of the day. My friend Ed Hirs, who teaches energy economics at the University of Houston, was downright testy about the decisions (or nondecisions) that led to our current state of affairs: “That was always the trade-off—cheap versus reliable,” Hirs said, with choice words for previous laissez-faire governors spanning from George W. Bush to Greg Abbott. “Keeping the average wholesale price [of power] less than the cost of building/maintaining generation assets contributed to the disaster.”
Until we have those kinds of discussions, we can’t do much more than hunker down with friends and neighbors and wait, as always, for the bad weather to pass. My power came on at around 5 p.m., just as the sun was going down—then went off again two hours later. I spied another tweet from Judge Hidalgo. “If you have running water right now, you could lose it tonight from frozen infrastructure or burst pipes,” she wrote. “Store enough water while you can as an insurance policy. We’re still not through the worst of this weather.”
Oh yeah. Even after all those hurricanes, I’d almost forgotten to fill the tub.