Tales from the Texas cold: Struggles didn't stop when power returned
Cold but undaunted, Courtney Flores thought her family was doing moderately well after almost two days without power to their South Austin home, but then the water started pouring down from the attic.
It was Tuesday, about an hour before sunset, as they scrambled to limit the already extensive damage while packing up for an escape to a friend's house, knowing that the driving conditions would worsen after dark.
They made it safely, finally warm but — like many other Texans — facing uncertainty.
"For the next who knows how long, we have to figure out a lot of unknowns, like where to live until our home is habitable again," Flores said.
The Flores family was among those featured in an American-Statesman story earlier this week on the struggles of life without electricity, and the newspaper checked on three of those families to see how they're doing as the weather, at least, begins returning to normal.
But there remains a lot for them — and millions of other Texans — to sort out after a harrowing week when worst-case scenarios kept getting worse, when an ice storm that would have paralyzed the state in normal times fell on top of snow during a polar cold snap that had already brought the state's electric grid dangerously close to failure.
It was a week of impossible choices, starting with a big one: Stay home and risk the bitter cold or seek refuge and risk dangerous roads? As days passed without power, those caring for children, sick or elderly family members and pets faced added burdens and no easy answers.
It all happened during a pandemic that limited options for people already worn thin by 11 months of social distancing, quarantines and lost friends and family.
And then the water went out or, for the luckiest, slowed to a trickle that allowed toilets to refill, if slowly. Add drinkable water to the search for food at besieged stores.
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Despite it all, Courtney Flores ended the week thankful. Before the water damage, her family was able to add a little heat by burning everything they could in their fireplace, including lawn bags her husband rolled tight so they would last longer, and wood they got from neighbors in exchange for food.
"Yay for banding together," she said at the time.
"My heart breaks for those that lost their lives, and I am so grateful we are all well. A house is a material thing, but this is hard for many reasons," Flores said later. "We're going to be displaced for a while."
'Could've been a whole lot worse'
Flores' three children — ages 18, 4 and 2 — were bundled up for a second cold night of sleep Tuesday evening when water started pouring out of a light fixture in the garage. Two stories up, in the attic, the water heater was hemorrhaging, immediately flooding the master bedroom, closet and hallway.
Frantic efforts to shut off the water and move furniture and other valuables to safety followed, all while trying to quickly pack for a trip to the house of a friend "in a miracle pocket" that still had power, Flores said.
"You could hear the water inside the walls, just pouring down," she said. "It was kind of crazy."
Because water got into electrical systems, power at their home remained off last week, and the days that followed were an exhausting blur of phone calls to plumbers, contractors and water-repair services, coupled with a search for someplace to stay.
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"Navigating all of this with two toddlers, a teen and dog in tow is extraordinary. My heart goes out to the ones who have newborns or the ones who are alone," Flores said.
"We have to look around and say we are incredibly grateful for just being alive and having somewhere to go and just, I guess, making it through this whole ordeal," she said. "I mean, it is a devastating loss, because it's a home, and it's the first home we purchased. It's a lot to lose. But life is irreplaceable."
Flores said she's been sustained by stories of people opening their homes to those in need, cooking big meals to share with others, distributing extra water to those without.
"That's so beautiful and honestly what's getting me through this time. That and my family and kids," she said. "I feel like we're blessed because it could've been a whole lot worse."
First cold, then no water, then food got tight
David Holmes came to the phone slightly winded Thursday after doing a chore he had never before contemplated: shoveling snow into a large container to haul inside so there'd be enough water to flush the toilets.
At least it was finally warm enough inside to melt the snow, though it was a slow process that didn't offer much help for phase two of an ongoing disaster — the complete lack of water pressure at his South Austin home.
"I can't tell if much has melted, and when it's melted, I'm not sure we have enough large containers to do enough toilet flushing," he said. "It seems ridiculous to have to think in those terms, to hope for more than a few flushes."
Still, it was a far cry from indoor temperatures that plunged below 50 degrees during 67 hours without power, when Mary and David Holmes struggled to keep themselves and 18-month-old Nara warm, resorting at one point to putting old chemical hand warmers in socks and under blankets for the modest heat they could supply.
A gas fireplace added a little warmth to a corner of the house, but a stout barricade was needed to keep a curious toddler away. And then there was the worrisome research on hypothermia and the discovery that young children are at higher risk from the cold.
"If it had just been me and my wife, we would've stayed under a whole bunch of blankets and just been annoyed," David Holmes said.
They could stop worrying a little when the power came back, but then the water stopped flowing, and then another problem arose.
"We are low on milk and food to feed Nara, and much of what we do have left requires water," David Holmes said Thursday. "I was able to get gas yesterday — that was also very hard to find in our area — so I might go around to ... a couple places to see if I can get more water."
A small neighborhood grocery store would supply a gallon of water and a half-gallon of milk, but it wasn't a pleasant experience.
"It was sad. There were people nearly fighting, thinking somebody was taking too much or more than they should," he said. "People are really tense, and things are bothering them right now that probably wouldn't in normal times."
David and Mary also worry about the effect the stressful week had on their daughter, who was notably independent before the polar air invaded Texas.
"The amount she wants to be closer to us, and to be held by us, over the last couple days is off the charts," David said. "She can't talk or explain what she feels (but) the extreme disruption of our routine has caused her stress. You can tell by the way she grabs on to us and wants to be held.
"It's hard to estimate what dramatic change does to a kid when so much is happening."
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A treasure 'wrapped in blankets'
For days on end, 2-week-old Izel Carrillo was kept safe and reasonably warm wrapped tight and held close.
"We must have had her in our arms about the entire time," said her father, Mario Carrillo. "She didn't show any signs of cold. We've been keeping her wrapped in blankets."
Power went out at their Southeast Austin home around 2 a.m. Monday and didn't return for about 84 hours. It was a nervous time for new parents Angelica and Mario Carrillo, but they had backup.
"Luckily, we live with my mother-in-law, who moved here from Utah in December," Mario said. "I told her she'd never have to worry about snow again, but here we are."
Jackie Hernandez's presence has "definitely been a blessing," he said. "My wife and I could take some naps in the evening and during the day and pass off responsibility for keeping (Izel) warm."
Worn out from their fight with low temperatures, the Carrillo family ventured to a friend's house to thaw out and relax on Wednesday, but it was a short-lived respite as the water taps there ran dry.
"We were trying gauge how much water we needed versus how badly we wanted a house with heat," Mario said.
Water won, particularly because they didn't want to be a burden on a friend who had little water saved, and because they had set aside a good supply of water, just in case. "We filled up every pot, pan and water bottle that we had, and we filled the bathtub, too," he said.
Thursday afternoon, the Carrillos were sitting on their couch, wearily contemplating another trip to another friend's house, when the power came on.
"We were overcome with emotion a little bit," Mario said.
Looking back, Mario said he is grateful that so many people reached out with offers of help, including people following his posts on Twitter.
"Things were looking a little dire, but we still had folks to go to," he said. "I really felt the support from the community, which is nice at a time like this.
"I still feel, despite having no water and no power for so long, that we are in a good place, which is kind of wild to say, I know."