Jared and Leanne are both from New Jersey; they are not strangers to extreme weather. Jared, who is in his early thirties, survived Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and he knew how apocalyptic life could get in the aftermath of a devastating storm. The couple even had a generator at the ready when their Northwest Austin apartment complex, Colonial Village at Quarry Oaks, lost power early Monday morning, and extra water when that stopped flowing later that day.
And on Tuesday afternoon, when alarms started going off in their building, the couple sprang into action, fearing there was a gas leak or a similar danger. Leanne, a voice-over artist in her late twenties, called their management company, which said there wasn’t much they could do quickly. Another resident called the fire department, and was told they couldn’t send trucks right away.
The complex is large—twenty or so three-story apartment buildings scattered around the property—and the alarms were blaring in three of them. The dozens of residents who lived in those buildings started gathering outside. They huddled under blankets and sat in their cars, trying to figure out what was going on and what they could do about it.
Sabino Garza, 35, who lived on the second floor, ran out and asked if anybody else’s apartment was starting to flood, like his was. Jared and Leanne, who were also outside, could see water pouring down from the balcony of the man who lived above Garza, Rick. Rick was in his late sixties and lived alone, so Leanne started knocking on his door to see if he needed help, while Jared stood by and Garza went back downstairs to quickly grab whatever mementos he couldn’t replace from the apartment he shared with his wife and seven-year-old son. (His wife had fled with their son to her sister’s house in Round Rock after more than a day without power.) As Leanne knocked, she heard Rick say, “on my way,” but he never came to the door.
“I kept banging and banging, and then eventually I heard him sigh—ahhhhh—and then he didn’t answer after that,” Leanne recalls. Jared kicked the door down. They found Rick unconscious on the floor in his front hallway, lying in inches of water, with gallons more falling down around him from a burst pipe. His ceiling looked like it was about to cave in. Jared and Garza grabbed him by the armpits and rushed him into the outdoor hall. (“He was heavier than he would have normally been,” recalled Garza, “because he was so soaked.”) Leanne tried unsuccessfully to contact the management company. She rang 911 four times before she finally got through. After that, it took ten more minutes to connect her with the fire department and another fifteen minutes for them to get there.
By the time the fire department arrived, Jared had already grabbed a wrench from his car, run around to all the complex’s gas meters and shut them off himself, just in case.
Then he’d sped through the hallways knocking on doors, joined by three other residents: 27-year-old Austin Haley; his fiancé, 21-year-old Ty Ortiz; and 30-year-old musician Ben Blevins, who had come outside when the alarms started and was trying to stay warm in his car. He saw Jared running wildly around one of the buildings, yelling and pounding on doors. He approached him to ask what the fuss was about. “I was like, ‘Hey, man, I live here, what’s going on?’ and he said, ‘There could be people unconscious in these apartments, can you help me bang on doors?’ So I did.”
They helped five families and many more individuals who had no idea that their homes may have become dangerous. (A Texas Gas Service representative couldn’t be sure that the building had been impacted by a gas leak, and stated in an email: “We can’t speak to this specific incident as we were not notified nor do we know the circumstances around the Austin Fire Department’s response due to the weather conditions. We don’t normally advise the public to turn off any meter. We do ask that if you smell gas, please leave the area immediately, then call 911 and Texas Gas Service.” Never attempt to turn on gas that has been turned off. Texas Gas Service also strongly recommends keeping a working carbon monoxide detector in your home or business.)
Under these circumstances, Jared is glad he turned off the buildings’ gas. “If we didn’t do that,” said Jared, “there probably would have been thirty people who would have died. You would have seen us on the news.”
“All of the outlets you look to in an emergency—all of them failed us yesterday,” Leanne said on Wednesday afternoon. “What are people supposed to do in emergency situations if they can’t rely on emergency services or their apartment complex to keep them safe?”
Rick doesn’t remember much between waking up with water dripping on his head and being rescued by Leanne, Jared, and Garza. “If they hadn’t managed to pull me out of my apartment, I’d be dead,” he told me, his voice strained in the frigid temperature of a still-powerless apartment in the same complex that management had moved him to.
As Rick and I spoke, Leanne was searching for candles for him in her apartment. At night, he was sleeping on an air mattress provided by neighbors, keeping warm with blankets provided by Laché Movement Co., a local gym where Leanne is a member that responded quickly when she posted about the incident on Facebook. The fire department had provided one more blanket.
Power came back on Thursday afternoon, but the complex is still without water and heat, and there’s no indication when they will return. The management company has not been able to help much: The only staffer on-site during the freeze was a maintenance worker, who slept—when he could—in the office. He was there for days, doing his best to address urgent complaints.
Blevins left the complex days ago to stay with a friend who has heat. Garza has been at his sister-in-law’s with the rest of his family. Haley and Ortiz have been camped in the closet they designated their “warm room.”
“It’s really isolating,” Haley said. “Even if you wanted to get to a warming center, if you have pets—or if you can’t physically get out of the apartment complex—you’re just stuck. And there’s no end in sight until the snow melts.” They had a brief reprieve on Wednesday when a kind stranger delivered a warm meal after Haley posted on the app Nextdoor, asking if anyone nearby could help.
Leanne and Jared continue to watch over Rick, trying to make rations for two feed three. Until the power came on, they’d kept their generator going around the clock to stay warm, with an extension cord leading out the front door so neighbors could charge their phones. They took a walk around the complex on Wednesday night, and came across a neighbor who was burning a discarded piece of furniture and some logs from a tree he’d cut down in front of his apartment.
“The reality of it is, we’re on our own,” Jared said. “All people can do is stick together, and if you don’t, it’s worse for everyone. God forbid you don’t! Because people can die. It just gets real, real quick.”