Former Bulletin editor Steve Kittey reounts Texas freeze

Former Bulletin editor Steve Kittey’s driveway was covered in snow at his home near Houston, Texas.

“Biden declares disaster in Texas” the Page 1 headline in the Sunday, Feb. 21 edition of the Houston Chronicle read.

Guess what folks?

Texans already knew the state was a disaster because they just lived through, not a cold day in hell, but a full week of hell, experiencing firsthand what it was like to be a third world country sans electricity, running water or — in some cases — food or any type of water.

And, of course, let’s not forget we are in the middle of a pandemic where people are desperately trying to get appointments for the new COVID-19 vaccine, now one week behind schedule because of being without power and water.

The greater Houston area includes the town of Pearland, the place I now call home after spending the first 75 years of my life in western Pennsylvania, more recently Latrobe (Derry Township).

Pearland is 17 miles south of Houston and during last week’s horrific weather the temperature dropped to 10 above zero and a wind chill of minus 1.

If you have lived most of your life in the Latrobe area, that kind of weather isn’t exactly unheard of during the winter months. In Texas, well, it’s very abnormal. This is a state that welcomed my wife Becky and I with almost five straight months of temperatures in the 90s and, at times, over 100 degrees.

For the record, though, we, like every other Texan, keep our home air-conditioning running 24/7, thus managing to stay comfortable despite the sweltering outside heat.

When our power went out at about 1:30 a.m. Monday, Feb. 15, we thought it might just be a transformer exploding somewhere nearby and power would be restored within hours or at least in a reasonable amount of time, just like such it always did back in Pennsylvania.

At the time, there was about an inch of snow on the ground, a fourth of an inch of ice on the roads, temperatures were in the teens and by daylight, it was somewhat chilly in the house, enough so that thermal underwear, a turtleneck sweater, and a hooded sweatshirt became my wardrobe of choice. Little did I know I would be wearing those same clothes for the next three days.

Though power was restored for several hours, it went off again and the on-off cycle repeated itself several times with the no power stretches always lasting much longer than the restored power ones.

When the temperature in the house dropped below 50 by noon, I made a big executive decision: Time to search for new living quarters.

Thirty minutes away in Houston, my son Drew and his wife Susan and 2-year-old daughter Juliana had power, so that seemed to be a logical destination. But before I could get there, they lost power and managed to find a hotel room in the downtown.

After about 15-20 calls to hotels and motels, I had no luck finding a place. The places I did reach either had no vacancies or no power.

Many of them had no phone services so I began driving around the Pearland area looking for hotels and motels and finally found a place that, under normal circumstances, I would not have considered staying there.

But the place successfully answered my three questions: 1. Do you have any non-smoking rooms available? 2. Do you have electricity? 3. Do you have heat and hot water?

So at 7 p.m. Monday with the outside temperature in the teens, I checked in and immediately cranked the thermostat up to 72, turned on the TV and began checking through my cell phone emails and messages.

I went to sleep at midnight but awoke at 4 a.m., not as warm as I once was. And with good reason: The motel lost power at 3:15 a.m. With less than an airtight door and frost forming on the aluminum frame windows, it didn’t take long for the room to grow cold since the outside temperature was 10 degrees. Also, the very thin blanket on the bed offered little warmth.

There was enough hot water to shave and shower before I checked out at 7 a.m. to head to my cold Pearland home. The trip to the motel and the trip back was an adventure in itself since there were no lights anywhere, including traffic signals. I was hungry but there were also no food places open and no gas stations. It was a strange feeling.

But the worst was yet to come. At about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, the water was shut off. So now not only was there no power but now I was without water. This was not much fun.

Not wanting to be jammed into a very small hotel room with three other adults, a two-year-old and an unhappy cat, I decided to stay home and by Wednesday evening the power came back on at my house.

When a hurricane was heading toward Houston last fall, my son alerted me to stock up on water. The hurricane missed us but the 80 bottles of 16-ounce water I purchased at that time sure came in handy to drink as well as fill up the toilet tank.

Meanwhile, after my son’s home ended up with no power and water on Wednesday, they made a 45-minute trip to the town of Spring, where his in-laws had not only power and water and also a whole house generator in case of emergencies.

Having not showered since early Tuesday morning, I decided to accept an invitation to join them Thursday morning and stayed until Friday morning. We called our neighbor who told us they still had power and the water pressure was slowly returning so we went home.

Yes, the water was a little dirty but good enough to shower and, using bottled water to cook and brush teeth with, it was great to be back in the comfort of our own home.

So how often does this happen in Texas?

According to the weather experts here, not that often. For instance, the seven consecutive days of below freezing weather experienced last week has happened only eight other times in Houston history.

But while my family is back to being warm and comfortable, that is not the case everywhere in the greater Houston area. Some people were still without clean water Sunday, as many as 5 million across the state.

And many families are struggling to buy the basic food items, victims of the pandemic situation and then a week without any income. Virtually all restaurants and eating establishments, including some grocery stores, were closed. Stores that were open saw their supplies of water, milk and bread disappear as fast as they could stock their shelves.

I visited a Walmart 10 minutes before its early closing at 6 p.m. Wednesday and found no water. I got the last half-gallon of milk and took one of the three loaves of bread left on the shelf.

Also shut down were urgent care centers and some hospitals that were without power and/or water. Schools, even those doing all or part virtual learning, were also closed.

When officials announced that NRG Stadium, home to the NFL Houston Texans, would be a site for residents to get free food beginning at 9 a.m. Sunday, the line of vehicles to get into the parking lot was several hundred long at 5 a.m. Officials said they gave boxes and bags of food to 5,000 families.

Many Houston celebrities, like natives Beyoncé and Michael Strahan, have stepped in to help, setting up websites to offer aid to families. Current sport stars also have made big donations for citizens to get free water and food.

And in a notable political twist, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a constant target of Republicans because of her strong left-leaning background, has raised almost $5 million in relief funding for Texas since Thursday.

As for my family, we now realize what valuable commodities electric and clean water are and how quickly things can change.

By the way, it was sunny and 72 degrees Sunday while we celebrated a family birthday at a Houston park.

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