As I’m sitting here writing this on a 68°F March day in Austin, you might think me a liar. But less than a month ago, people I love were stranded without food, water, heat, cell service, and electricity for days — even weeks — due to 6 inches of snow falling in the desertifying Central Texas. One of my coworkers still doesn’t have hot water (we’re three weeks out, folks) due to plumbing damage at his apartment building.
The internet aptly deemed this historic emergency SNOVID-21, a nod to the are-you-fucking-kidding-me disbelief most of us felt in Texas as the snow stuck around, no help came, and we inched closer to the one-year anniversary of being quarantined for COVID-19.
SNOVID shook me in a way that even a year of near isolation hadn’t. The vigilance, the not-knowing, the total lack of control. You’d think I’d have fared better, having been trained as part of San Francisco’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) while I lived there. I tend toward catastrophic thinking. (Ask my husband.) Practically speaking, we fared quite well — we never lost power, heat, or internet. We only lost water for a day. As part-time preppers, we had installed a 2,500-gallon rainwater harvesting system less than six months prior, knowing that it might come in handy during unforeseen emergencies like this one. Between the rainwater and my low-key food hoarding, we’d get by.
But, measuring impact by which utilities your home lost or whether you had groceries on hand misses the psychological toll SNOVID took on my entire community, on me. This photo journey is meant to capture a play-by-play of what SNOVID felt like as it unfolded. And, what it feels like to be on the other side, er… back in the middle of a global pandemic.
When I woke up on February 15, I sleepily shuffled to the back door to let my dogs out and squeaked when I pulled back the curtain to this sight. I didn’t even know it was supposed to snow. A few weeks earlier we’d had an inch or three and that had seemed unbelievable. But, this? Six inches of unexpected snow in Central Texas? I went to college in the Northeast, so I felt a little prick of magic when I saw the untouched blanket of snow.
As I turned my phone on Monday morning, I didn’t think much of the text message from Austin Energy, despite their strongly worded warning about rolling blackouts.
I logged into my work’s Slack and it was quickly clear that mine was one of the only houses that still had power. My coworkers without power let us know as they could whether they’d lost power, internet, heat, or all of the above. For two days in Austin, cell service was spotty or nonexistent. No one was sure what was happening, so the few of us with internet puttered uselessly online, grasping for ways to be helpful.
I went out at 2 AM to check on our outside pipes that were dripping. I thought I’d heard water rushing. False alarm.
When we woke around 7 AM it was 5°F and everything in sight was covered with a layer of ice. Another workday of anxious doom-scrolling, while checking in on coworkers who were seeing inside house temperatures dip below 32°F. (Did you know Nest thermostats have a minimum displayable temperature? It’s 32°F.) I also heard from my good friends with a 3-month-old baby two miles south of us that they were going on 24 hours without heat. There was no way for us to get to them because the roads weren’t clear — Austin doesn’t own a single snow plow or salt truck — and neither of us had a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Shit got real. We woke up today and many neighbors and friends started reporting being without water. For most of them, this was on top of being without power and heat. Wednesday was the day everyone stopped pretending the snow was a cute inconvenience that we all needed to power through.
In the face of danger — unsurprisingly — I bake. I baked all day long, making scones, pumpkin bread, banana bread, pizza, and soup. As I cooked my way through our pantry, I’d check the kitchen faucet regularly. Our water pressure was definitely slowing.
We got texts from the City of Austin: We were under boil water notice. We felt unduly lucky with our Berkey water filter (you don’t have to boil water if you have a Berkey). At this point, we had electricity, heat, internet, some water, and gas. We heard through the grapevine that utilities were being turned off for neighbors one-by-one and without notice. We put aside enough water for two weeks, though we had no idea how long this emergency state could last. The SF Fire Dept had taught me to always plan on going two weeks without aid, so we went with that.
By Wednesday, the rest of the country had caught up on what was going on in Texas. We were the subject of prayers and the brunt of many jokes, in equal measure. My husband tried to capture the reality of what snow means for a place like Austin.
By Thursday, we felt stable in our own situation, so we started venturing out in our neighborhood. The nearby elementary school had been converted to a “warming center”, so we walked some blankets and extra pantry staples over to donate. The snow had been compacted to ice on the roads, and we saw several cars slipping and sliding, trying to drive over it.
It was a relief to leave the pressure-cooker of our house. We got to see the icy world with our own eyes, rather than through the anxiety-ridden glimpses we snatched from Nextdoor, text messages, and Facebook updates.
The sinkhole you see here was caused by a water main breaking and gushing water down the street for multiple days. We, and several other neighbors, called to report the main break to Austin Water. They told us to “call back if it got worse.” A water main break gushing millions of gallons of water over the course of 4 days was small beans, considering.
A week after the original snow, we were back to 60+°F weather in Austin. The snow had all melted, and we were just left with the carnage of a place unused to coping with snow. Everyone had inventoried burst pipes and any other lasting damage by this point. We came out relatively unscathed: our irrigation system and washing machine hoses had cracked. Easy, inexpensive fixes.
We started hearing from local businesses about how they had fared. The farm where we get our CSA, JBG Organic, wrote to say they had lost most everything crop-wise, and suffered thousands of dollars in damage to pumps, irrigation systems, and buildings. They would be partnering with other farmers in the area who had done better than they had to continue providing CSA boxes.
Barely worth mentioning, but we also lost the broccoli and kale that had just started to produce well in our little raised garden beds. Yesterday, we spent hours ripping everything out of our garden in order to start over with the transplants we bought to support JBG’s rebuilding efforts. It was cathartic, really. We made the clean slate 2021 failed to deliver.
Hannah Shadrick Hummel was 12 years old when she saved up her allowance to buy The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. She’s fancied herself a writer ever since. These days, she mostly writes for the internet: content designer for a grocery retailer by day, and managing editor at Jumble & Flow by night.
If she’s not writing, she’s reading. Probably romance. Or, a cookbook. Hannah spends most weeknights in the kitchen making gluten free ginger scones — because Hashimoto’s — while watching the Great British Baking Show. She never misses her two daily walks in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two rescue dogs, Basil and Samantha.
Hannah Shadrick Hummel
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