Over the last year I’ve lived very closely with that tenet, as we’ve had to replace pretty much every household appliance that uses water. The washer, the dishwasher, and the water heater were the big-ticket items, but we also replaced our electric kettle and my water-pik.
And then February happened.
The atypical side effects of “Winter Storm Uri” as experienced by those of us in Texas and other parts of the south made national news. Our state’s greed meant that our electricity infrastructure had not been winterized, even though a similar storm ten years ago made the need quite obvious.
We were warned that we’d have rolling power outages. We were told they’d be 15 to 45 minutes long, every few hours. Instead, in sub-freezing weather, the rolling outages in my neighborhood gave us one hour of power every seven, but that level of surging caused a lot of the grid to fail entirely.
In my house, our heat and hot water are gas, but everything else is electric. If there’s no electricity, there’s no way to distribute the heat (it’s a forced-air system.) We have twenty-foot ceilings in our living room and the registers are at the top of the room. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t have closed off that room to make the rest of the house warmer. We have a fireplace, but it’s mainly decorative and doesn’t really put out heat. During a typical winter, we might use it on a rainy night to cut the dampness a little bit.
This winter was not typical.
On the morning of Tuesday, February 16th, it was 40 degrees in my bedroom. My 12-year-old pointer-mix, Max, was shivering in his bed. His hips are arthritic, and he can’t control his bowels so curling up in our bed is no longer an option. My chihuahua, Perry, had been shivering since the initial power outage on Sunday night.
A gracious friend told me to pack up all four of my dogs and come to her house. It’s a tiny house. 2 bedrooms with a connecting bathroom. Her college-aged son was in his room doing virtual school (he’s in the theatre arts program at DePaul, and he’s going to be a huge talent someday). She gave us her bedroom, and we squeezed the dog crates and dog beds into it. (She had a trundle bed in her office, sewing room). Initially, I’d resisted her offer. Surely, I thought, we would have normal rolling outages.
I’m glad I changed my mind.
As I was packing with numb fingers (our closet is beyond the master bathroom and shares a wall with the garage, so it was even colder in there), there was a loud KA-CHONK sound from somewhere inside the bathroom walls. We’d been dripping the taps – all of them – but apparently it wasn’t enough. When Fuzzy went upstairs to check that bathroom, he found that the tub and one sink were no longer dripping, and the toilet wouldn’t flush.
We packed the car for the first trip across town on icy, unplowed (because Dallas doesn’t own plows) streets. I stayed at my friend’s house and drank hot tea until I felt warm, while Fuzzy made more trips.
When he got back to the house the first time, he found water pouring into our master bathroom (on the first floor) from the tub pipes in the bathroom upstairs. The fire department came and shut off the water at the main, and I called in a claim to our insurance company.
It was Thursday evening before a plumber could come and fix the pipes and at that point the power had just come back on. We were lucky – there are people in my city STILL waiting for plumbers a week and a half later.
We got even luckier: the plumber’s wife is a general contractor. Normally, we’d be getting bids and vetting people. We don’t have that ability right now.
With water, heat, and power restored we could return home. But we are still in limbo. Our insurer wants water mitigation to come and dry things out (it’s been almost two weeks since the initial flood at this point, and it reached 80 degrees outside a few days ago) before the contractor can be allowed to start. There’s other damage to the house, related to the storm, but not necessarily related to the pipes that may or may not be a separate claim (and thus a second deductible), and as it is our deductible is based on our property value and is over three thousand dollars.
The contractor has identified a lot more work than I anticipated, including replacing the sheet rock on the bottom two feet of most of the back of the house, and basically gutting the upstairs bathroom. (The entire subfloor did get drenched. It’s been raining this weekend, and my house smells like a pirate ship… and not in a good way.) Because there are thousands of people in similar – or worse – situations materials are scarce and places where we can relocate during the work that must be done – with four dogs, one of whom has mobility issues – as I do – are even more challenging to find.
Water used to be my best friend. It has always been where I felt safest, where I felt calmest. But right now, my tub is full of debris, and the intense lightning storm the other night had me awake every hour because I’m now paranoid about losing power.
My husband is a calm, stoic Midwesterner. He has faith in the process and believes we will be okay. I cannot share his optimism. I’m frazzled and anxious and exhausted. I look around my house and feel nothing but anger at being cheated out of enjoying a rare snowstorm, and at the fact that the Texas government would prefer that people freeze rather than lose a penny. I feel like I’ve betrayed my dogs by allowing them to suffer, to be confused by being moved away and then home, and by not behaving in ways they expect. My house is no longer a haven, but a prison I can’t escape. If I had a place to go, if I could AFFORD to buy something new, I’d sell this place to a flipper and bail in a heartbeat. In half a heart-beat.
And yet, there is some good that has come from this. My friendship with the woman who gave us sanctuary grew stronger. We’ve connected with some of our neighbors we only really knew by sight before. My husband and I have both experienced moments of clarity about what we want for the future. And my friends, my awesome friends, many of whom are included in the list of my podcast patrons, started a fundraiser to help us offset our deductible and the inevitable expenses that insurance won’t cover, and FEMA may not be able to help with. (I’ll link to it in the show notes.)
“In time, and with water, everything changes.”
Leonardo was right, but what changes I will ultimately see are as yet unknown.