When we recently had a winter storm in Texas, people actually needed to survive! There were electric outages, burst pipes and roads that were not safe to drive on. Not to mention, that our neighbors in the South mostly don’t have the type of winter gear you need, to be able to go outside.
After spending countless hours learning about how to survive a winter storm, and what do during a snow storm in Texas, I have pieced together the best advice from local plumbers and the City of Austin websites on living through a snow storm in Austin specifically, and Texas winter more generally.
Let’s talk about preparing for a winter storm in Texas. Here are lessons learned on how to prevent damage to your home and make the best of severe winter weather in the South! For the next time around we will know what to do if a snow storm is coming!
Winter Storms and Winter Weather in Texas
Even though we lived through several winters in New York, the infrastructure in the Northern USA is built for snow and ice. While the houses in Texas are definitely not.
Winter in Texas is generally mild, with temperatures in Austin usually running with a high of 60 F and a low closer to 40 F. While there are occasional cold spells that send temperatures dipping, a huge Austin snow storm is not common. Unfortunately, these storms may happen more and more often.
What is the Polar Vortex?
The Polar Vortex is an area of low pressure and cold air surrounding the poles, both North Pole and South Pole.
When there are disturbances in the upper-atmosphere the polar vortex can send icy blasts from the Arctic into the middle latitudes impacting Europe, Asia and North America in areas that usually have more temperate climates.
Scientists think that rising temperatures are weakening the jet stream, which holds the frigid air in place, making these occurrences happen more often.
And now that we got that out of the way, here are preventative measures you can take, and what to do during and after a winter storm in Texas!
Protect Water Pipes from Freezing
- Keep your water running, especially overnight. Just a light stream from the hot and cold water.
- Open cabinets doors containing plumbing to let warm air from the house circulate.
- Keep garage doors closed if there are water supply lines in the garage.
- Set the thermostat to the same temperature both during the day and at night.
- Don’t run the washing machine or dishwasher, to not put excess pressure on the system!
What to do if your pipes freeze
Pipes on exterior walls are most likely to freeze. If you turn on a faucet and only a trickle comes out, suspect a frozen pipe.
- Keep the faucet open (it should have been open this whole time, since you’ve been dripping water). Running water will help melt ice in the pipe.
- Use a blow dryer or heating pad to apply gentle heat the the area. (No fire or open flames!)
- If this doesn’t work, you need to call a plumber.
What to do if a pipe bursts
- Locate your water shut off valve (more below).
- Shut off your water at the main water valve. Use a water meter key, to do this more easily. (Pictured below)
- If part of your home is flooded, turn off the electricity to that area. Prevent mold and mildew by using towels or wet/dry vacuum to soak up the water as quickly as possible.
If you see water running down the street and/o buckled pavement, report the location to your water authority as soon as possible. This may be a broken water main.
Find Your Water Main Shut Off Valve
Look at the picture below! Your water shut off valve will usually be under the rectangular cap or a round man hole cover. You may have two water shut off valves, one for you and one for your neighbor.
When cleaning off snow, clear the area with the shut off valve first. In case melting water in pipes causes a pipe to burst, you will want easy access to prevent damage to your home.
If the Electricity Goes Out
The failure of the electric power grid in Texas made international headlines. How could a state that produces so much of the nation’s electricity lose power? How could houses in Houston, right outside the energy corridor lose power?
As the state comes to grips with the failures of winter 2021, we can only learn the lessons to be prepared for the worst case scenarios in our own homes.
Here are some cold weather recommendations on what to do if your electricity goes out.
How to Stay Warm
- Roll up spare towels or blankets, and place at the bottom of doors and windows.
- Close window curtains and blinds. Consider hanging extra blankets over curtains for an extra layer.
- Put on extra sweaters and jackets.
- Make soups and stews. They will help warm you from the inside and the residual heat from cooking helps inside the house.
- If you have a working fireplace, you could light a fire. But please make sure it is safe, has been cleaned and inspected regularly.
- If it’s getting cold, try to keep all family members in the same room, in the center of the house.
- You could also pitch a tent inside your house, and sleep in there to share body heat.
If you lose water
One of the most stressful component of the latest winter storm, was losing water! All the pipes bursting around the city, depleted the city reservoirs. This meant that water treatment plants did not have optimal pressure to treat the water.
As the city worked around the clock, we had no water for a few days. And then we had a boil water notice for a few more days. Here’s what to do if clean water is a concern:
- Collect and melt snow for water.
- Check for free water distribution centers. Tip: There were many set up at breweries that have reverse osmosis filtering on site.
- Under a boil water notice, you can use washing machines and dishwashers without boiling water. You can also shower. You do need to boil water for drinking, and hand washing. Take particular care if you are taking care of the elderly, young children or the immunocompromised.
Prepare for a Winter Storm in Texas
We were woefully unprepared for a winter storm. The 2021 descent of the polar vortex brought ice, sleet, snow, more ice, more snow, then more ice.
When talking about the weather a week or two beforehand, we laughed off a storm, not realizing that the houses and infrastructure in Texas are just not built to sustain long periods of freezing and below freezing temperatures.
We barely had two gallons of drinking water. We had no matches to light our stove without electricity. We hadn’t even brought the car into the garage until after the first freeze because we didn’t realize just how bad the situation could get over the next ten days.
So if I have one piece of advice, it would be to prepare for a storm ahead of time. I’m sure those of you from areas with more stormy weather (hurricanes, tornadoes, floods) are sighing a collective- DUH!
Things you can do to prepare ahead of time for a storm
- Stock up on essentials as soon as you hear that a major storm is coming. By the time it was a day or two before the storm, grocery shelves were already empty.
- Locate your water main shut off valve, just in case you need to access it quickly if a pipe bursts.
- Fill a bathtub with water, that you can use to flush the toilets if water is cut off.
- Bring in outdoor furniture that may be damaged.
- Fill your car gas tank. If your car has a charger, you will be able to use it for backup electricity. If you can, bring your car into the garage, to prevent the door being iced shut.
- Charge all of your electronic devices.
- It can be helpful to keep some cash around in case electronic systems are not working. (Maybe this is antiquated? but it can’t hurt.)
- Here is a trick to try if you are concerned electricity will be out for several days: put a cup of water in the freezer. Once it is frozen, lay a quarter on top. If the quarter sinks into the ice, it means you lost power long enough for the water to melt. Alternatively, if it’s freezing outside you can go ahead and put your food outside!
Things to Buy Before a Storm
- Drinking water- 1 gallon per person, per day, for three days
- Food- non-perishable or frozen, enough for 3 days
- A Lighter (for the stove), or matches
- A Lantern– we have one that has a hand crank and can serve as a device charger with a USB port- Highly recommend! Check price here!
- A wrench- to turn off water main if necessary
- Paper goods- plates, bowls- were very helpful when we didn’t have water to wash dishes!
- First aid, medications, supplements- anything you might need if you can’t go out to a store for a few days.
**One of the things we realized, is that if our camping box had been stocked properly, we would have been all set.
More Things to Buy that are Nice to Have
These are items that are not necessary, but nice to have at home when you’re preparing to hang out during a winter storm with kids.
- A shovel- most Texans I know don’t have a snow shovel, but even a large gardening shovel could work in a pinch. We borrowed one from a neighbor!
- Snow gear for kids: snow pants, and jackets! Gloves, hats, scarves.
- A sled- or, we used a sheet pan, and it worked perfectly for sledding!
- Puzzles- we worked on a 1000 piece puzzle during the daylight hours!
- Board games- we moved on to Rummikub and similar games when it was too hard to discern colors of the puzzle.
- Tea and hot chocolate- these were nice to have during the days we had to boil water!
- Battery powered radio- again super old school, but if you’re really worried about losing all electric and cell service this is a good solution.
- Firewood if you have a fire place.
- Generator- if you’re really concerned about electricity, you may want to invest in your own generator.
If you have toddlers at home, I also have a post about surviving winter with toddlers. (Yes that is tongue in cheek). It is about how to make the best of winter with toddlers at home and has activity ideas for you.
Make the Best of It
I know it’s hard to stay calm in the face of a natural disaster. Thankfully, winter storms in Texas are a rare occurrence! And hopefully it will remain that way.
One of the best pieces of advice I have is to do your best to go with the flow. If you can accept that things are not going as planned, you will have an easier time responding calmly, and setting a a good example for your kids in managing times of stress.
Have you lived through an unexpected winter storm? How did it affect you? How did you manage and what were some lessons you learned?
*As a reminder, the information contained on this website is for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional plumbing advice. Always seek the advice of a qualified tradesperson with any questions you may have regarding your home.