My wife and I moved to Austin in 2014 after living in London (UK) for over four years. When I told my European friends we were moving to Austin, they spoke of the hot Texas summers and mild winters. We looked forward to more temperate winters and later purchased a condo on Vancouver Island (Canada) to escape the Texas summer heat. I named it our ‘Texas arbitrage.’
In 2020, we were not allowed to travel to Canada, and we missed our Vancouver Island summer. We drove north to escape the Texas heat, but it wasn’t the same. As winter approached, we happily said goodbye to record Texas heat and looked forward to turning on our fireplace as the weather cooled. In late January, I was outside in comfortable weather doing spring chores and noticed that the springtime weeds were starting to pop-up in my grass. From experience, I knew summer was not very far away.
Then, the local weatherman announced an arctic cold front and projected the possibility of abnormally low temperatures which could last a week. My first reaction was disbelief and when I brought up the arctic weather to my bible study group, the general consensus was that weathermen typically overestimated the extremes.
Ten days ago, my wife and I drove to Houston for our annual medical exams. The weather was forecasted to be slightly above freezing. We decided to leave early and stop by to see my father before our medical exams. I listened to the early morning news during my workout and learned of treacherous ice on Austin overpasses, auto accidents, and road closures. The temperature was 28F and it stayed below freezing for most of the day. We slowly drove out of Austin and encountered road closures and accidents until we were outside the city. This was the start of a very long eight days.
Upon returning to Austin, I covered exposed outdoor water pipes, turned off our water fountain, and scheduled a HVAC technician to check our central heating system. My wife ordered a food delivery to last the week. Sunday night, temperatures plunged to below 10F with a wind chill below zero. Six inches of snow fell overnight. The daytime temperature did not get out of the teens and Monday night, the temperature fell below 10F again. Our indoor heat could not keep up. We kept both fireplaces blazing except when we were in bed. The house temperature was in the mid-60’s and our bedroom temperature fell to 59F—with the heat on! However, we are aware that we were some of the fortunate ones.
We learned of many power outages, water pipe breaks, and water outages. Roads were iced over and dangerous to drive. Austin has no snowplows and residents did not invest in snow tires. The city endured over 140 hours of continuous sub-freezing weather; 40% of the city residents were without power and over 50% did not have water supply. Then the city instructed us to boil the water due to possible contaminations. People without electricity were forced to boil water on outdoor grills, provided they had water to boil. Food was in short supply because grocery truck deliveries could not safely drive the icy roads. The supply systems were failing around us. Trash started to pile up in the streets.
On Thursday morning, it rained and then the water quickly turned to ice. Trees and tree limbs fell under the weight of the ice. Power lines fell down due to falling debris or ice on the lines. More power to homes was cut. We constantly checked on our families who experienced darkness, cold, and no water. Friends who lost their power came to stay with us.
When the worse of nature humbles you, what do you do? First, you help others and share. Even during a pandemic and in subzero weather, you look around at your neighbors and offer help: hot water, a warm bed, food, supplies, mechanical help, comfort—whatever you have that reduces suffering. Second, you rejoice. I know that this sounds bizarre, but suffering has meaning; it is a time to give which brings meaning to others. It is hard to fully appreciate the mountaintops when you have never been to the desert.
And third, you praise God when times are difficult. Sunday morning was our first morning above freezing in over a week. The church staff had prepared a pre-recorded service because they were unsure of the availability of power on Sunday morning. The senior pastor preached from his darkened home and had not shaved in several days. He spoke of God’s covenant with Noah and how God would not destroy humankind again. The covenant sign was a rainbow after a devastating flood. It was a fitting topic for a weary congregation. There will be life after the arctic freeze and our community will rebuild. Christians worship in all conditions, not just when the sun is shining or within a cozy church building.
But the community started rebuilding during the winter storm. It showed true humanity by neighbors helping each other: opening doors, fixing broken pipes, sharing clean water, and checking on isolated seniors. My hope is that this once-in-a-lifetime winter storm binds our community together into a continuous agape covenant. Arctic winter storms rarely happen in Texas but caring for your neighbor should happen every day.