Nearly a year ago, the Deep South and Texas experienced a historic winter storm that caused millions of homes and businesses to lose electricity for days to weeks (one report revealed two out of three Texans lost power). Nearly 250 people died in Texas, including people ranging from under one year old to 102 years old, some from hypothermia, house fires, and carbon monoxide poisonings. The storm cost Texas up to $130 billion, and it revealed how fragile our power systems, disaster aid systems, and communication systems are. Still, not much has been done to address these problems on a larger scale.
Southern states have seen one big winter storm in 2022 already, and the week of Jan. 16, another brought below freezing temperatures and snow to many places. Typically, there are a few days notice before a winter storm hits. But it’s still easy to be caught off guard. If you are able, we encourage you to bookmark these resources, take steps to prepare, and help others in your community to do so as well.
Winter storm preparation
Monitor local resources and information systems
- Your local newspaper
- Emergency management departments: Your county or state has an emergency management agency that can offer guidance in these situations. Find your local department here.
- Mutual aid groups + local nonprofits: These are just some options; we recommend you search in your area. (TX, MS, KY, VA, NC, SC, FL, TN, AR, LA)
- Red Cross
- Facebook groups (here’s a popular one for the Southeast region, but check your area for ones that pop up during/after a storm)
Weatherize your home
Your local paper will likely have tips or resources for how to weatherize. The Department of Energy has some information here.
- Insulate any water lines that run along exterior walls so your water supply will be less likely to freeze
- Caulk and weather-strip doors and windows
- Insulate walls and attic
- Install storm or thermal-pane windows or cover windows with plastic from the inside
- Repair roof leaks and cut away tree branches that could fall on your home or other structure during a storm
Pack a car kit
You never know where you may be when a storm worsens. If you have a vehicle, pack a kit with these essential items.
- Cell phone, portable charger, and extra batteries
- Items to stay warm such as extra hats, coats, mittens, and blankets
- Windshield scraper
- Battery-powered radio with extra batteries
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- Water and snack food
- First aid kit with any necessary medications and a pocket knife
- Tow chains or rope
- Tire chains
- Canned compressed air with sealant for emergency tire repair
- Cat litter or sand to help tires get traction, or road salt to melt ice
- Booster cables with fully charged battery or jumper cables
- Hazard or other reflectors
- Bright colored flag or help signs, emergency distress flag, and/or emergency flares
- Road maps
- Waterproof matches and a can to melt snow for water
Other actions you can take:
- Bring your pets indoors
- Have emergency food and water and other supplies at home, including extra batteries, portable lights, battery-powered radio, and extra supply of prescription medications
- Check on your neighbors and community members, especially elders, people with disabilities, and unhoused people
Carbon monoxide risks
During the 2021 winter storm, many people used generators or ran their cars in garages to stay warm, putting them at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas, is particularly dangerous because it has no taste or smell. According to the CDC, symptoms of poisoning are “flu-like,” including headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, and chest pain. Breathing in a lot of the gas can cause a person to pass out or die.
A 2021 Texas Observer and Southerly analysis after the storm examined emergency alerts and social media posts of Texas’ nine most populous counties on the ERCOT grid. A few days before the storm hit on Feb.14, officials began warning residents about icy roads and the potential for burst pipes. They advised people to dress in multiple layers if they had to go outside, and bring their pets and plants indoors. But the warnings about carbon monoxide poisoning or hypothermia risks were buried in email alerts sent to subscribers; the messaging wasn’t consistent across platforms either. A graphic about fire safety might have been posted to a city’s social media page, but not the county’s emergency management page.
County emergency managers, who are tasked with preparing for and responding to local disasters, say that they received little information from Texas agencies—the Public Utilities Commission, the governor’s office, or the Texas Department of Emergency Management (TDEM)—about the risk of prolonged power failures from the freeze, which ultimately led to individuals using generators, running cars, or lighting barbecue pits in their homes in desperate attempts to get warm.
City and county officials “were caught extremely flat-footed,” said Bexar County Commissioner Trish DeBerry. “If there was guidance that came down from the state, I was not aware of it.” When the power went out, and the water systems started to fail, DeBerry says that county emergency management staff simply had to react to each new threat as it developed. “When it hit the fan, the only strategy we had was hope that it was going to get better. There was no strategy in place to counter it—in a crisis situation, hope is not a strategy.”
Tips to stay safe:
- Make sure your carbon monoxide detector is working
- Never use a generator inside your home or garage, even if windows are open. Only use them outside, at least 20 feet away.
- Don’t run your car inside your garage to warm your home.
- Don’t run your gas or oil-burning oven or furnace to stay warm.
- Don’t have a carbon monoxide detector? Some local or municipal fire departments offer them at no cost.
Water Infrastructure Risks
An estimated 33,000 Jackson, Miss. residents went without running water for weeks after the freeze. West and South Jackson—the Blackest and poorest parts of the city—were last to get it back.
As Southerly reported last year, the “crisis brings into sharp relief the urgency of addressing the city water system’s most egregious problems, including lead contamination.” A million people were under a boil water advisory in Louisiana after the February storm, and residents all across the South faced similar challenges in the days and weeks after.
We have little control over what’s in our water or the larger infrastructure crises many of our towns and cities face, but there are a few steps you can take to protect your pipes before a freeze. These are from Austin American Statesman:
- Wrap exposed pipes with insulating material. Pipes under kitchen sinks, in crawl spaces, near windows or in unheated basements are areas susceptible to freezing.
- Cover vents around your home’s foundation.
- Know where your property owner’s cut-off valve is located and how to use it. Apply oil such as WD-40 to the cut-off valve before operating to prevent the valve from breaking. The valve typically is located adjacent to the water meter box under a 6″ metal lid.
- Drip outside faucets 24 hours a day (5 drops a minute). This is not necessary unless temperatures are expected to be 28 degrees or below for at least four hours. (Be sure to turn off the faucets after the threat of freezing weather.)
- In unheated garages, shut off water to washing machines.
- During sustained subfreezing weather events, let water drip slowly from inside faucets.
If you have other tips or useful information sources you’ve found, please let us know by emailing email@example.com.