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Recovering from Austin's winter storm will take awhile, and that's OK

Addie Broyles
Austin 360
During the power outage in February, we stored our food in a cooler outside, where much of the food froze, but at least it stayed edible.

Candlelit dinners are supposed to be romantic. 

Low-light, soft music playing in the background. A glass of wine and warm bread. You can imagine it. 

But a day after Valentine's Day, when all of Texas was experiencing weather many of us had never seen here, my boyfriend and I weren't having a romantic dinner by candle. We were eating whatever we could cook up for dinner without electricity, using ingredients stored in a cooler outside, where the temperatures were dropping dangerously low. 

We had a few candles in the middle of the table and wine in our glasses, but the meal was of sustenance, not of style or substance. The only thing we could talk about was what was happening to us and to our city. And how dark is was getting outside. And how cold it was inside. (My kids were at their dad's in South Austin with both water and power. He lost a week's worth of wages at his restaurant job, but at least they were shielded from the worst of the utility outage.)

Without power, candles were the only source of light during last month's winter storm.

Our dinner — leftover lamb ribs from a Valentine's weekend roast with pan-fried potatoes — was cold before we finished eating, but at least it was warm when we started, a blessing I wouldn't have appreciated a day earlier.

As the hours passed, the privilege of having a gas stove became even more apparent. Having wood to throw into a chimenea, another privilege. Having a roof and four walls to protect us from the elements. Even the running water we'd been using for the first few days became precious when, on Wednesday, the faucets stopped flowing.

These not-so-small resources, which we typically rely upon without much thought, became the tenuous threads that held our lives together during those few days. It was heartbreaking to see those threads unraveling for so many in our community. With what little cell phone service and power we had, I watched neighbors taking in strangers, people who had been in a strict quarantine all year to avoid COVID-19 make the decision to go to a warming center, despite the exposure risks.

Just when we thought the pandemic couldn't get worse, it did. 

A fridge without power doesn't keep food cool for long, so during the winter storm, we removed all of the food and put it in a cooler to store outside.

I think that's what's making this storm and its recovery so difficult for so many, including myself. For a year, we've developed adaptive coping skills for getting groceries or exercise or going to work or school. For a year, we've been in survival mode, many of us just getting by with the bare minimum of economic, social and psychological support.

For a year, we've approached Maslow's hierarchy of needs in a new way, through Zoom or with masks or through the city's ever-growing mutual aid network that has been getting resources to people who need them. 

But the storm — the literal one and the utility crisis that followed — exposed us, yet again. And to use a farming metaphor, we didn't have much top soil to spare. 

It's been a couple of weeks now since we faced those darkest days, and we're back to our regularly scheduled pandemic, as the El Arroyo sign said last week. 

But even though the sun and warm weather have returned, I'm hearing from so many people who are still feeling the darkness and the cold. We're trying to get back into whatever rhythm we had before, but the before before feels even farther away.

We'll mark many anniversaries this month. A year since South by Southwest was canceled. A year since we stopped hugging each other. A year since my kids' last day in a physical classroom. A year since the first Austin-area coronavirus death.

I hadn't been too reflective about marking a year of the pandemic until last month's awfulness. Now, I find myself flipping a light switch, turning on hot water, opening a carton of fresh milk or cracking an egg and feeling an entirely new sense of appreciation. I think about farmers who are having to start over. Homeowners and renters who are still waiting on plumbers to fix their pipes and water heaters. Restaurants that are working overtime to prepare hot food for anyone who needs a meal. Neighbors who aren't sure if they can make the next rent payment, much less if they can afford a therapist to deal with the emotional distress of the year.

A friend in the mental health field reminded me that we are not experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (yet). That happens at least 30 days after the trauma. We are experiencing what is called acute stress disorder, and we've all been traumatized, even if our losses might not have been as tangible as others. 

As I reflect on this entire year and the awfulness from last month, I'm feeling the shock of it all in a new way and beginning to understand just how normal that response is in a situation like this. 

What I do know is that I don't think I'll ever think about a candlelit dinner in the same way. 

Addie Broyles writes about food, food culture and cooking for the Austin American-Statesman. You can reach her at abroyles@statesman.com.