Brutal winter storm leaves Huntsville defenseless

Michelle Wulfson, The Huntsville Item, Texas
·7 min read

Feb. 20—2021 was supposed to be a good year.

It's rare for Texans as far southeast as Huntsville to get one snow day like what was experienced in January, but to have another winter cycle headed this way a month later was just too good to be true.

With wistful thoughts of building snowmen, making snow angels and the family photos that would surely be sweet memories of a magical gift, families began preparing for cold weather and fun times.

Leading up to the storm, Sarah Voskamp-Reeder anticipated that her family might experience some power outage and she and her husband began preparing for a cozy few days inside over the weekend. They gathered firewood for their fireplace, purchased groceries, wrapped up their outdoor plants and exposed pipes, but like many families, it wasn't enough for the turn of events that was yet to come.

"Initially, we were kind of excited because we have kids and we thought, 'oh, snow, they'll think that's fun,' so I guess we were kind of excited to miss school and play in the snow," Voskamp-Reeder said.

However, the magic of a wintery wonderland in Texas wore off quickly.

As power grids became overwhelmed with demand at the beginning of the storm, Texans soon began experiencing rolling blackouts or a complete loss of power for days. A lack of water soon exacerbated the situation further, as pump failures and low pressure has left many across town without water, and those with it on a boil notice.

"It's crazy because we've been dealing with one disaster from COVID and now we are dealing with a whole new one on top of it from this weather," said Huntsville Memorial Hospital CEO Steve Smith.

Huntsville Memorial Hospital went on critical alert Monday, going days without water until they could be supplied with water bottles from OEM and Walker County. The facility finally got their water restored on Thursday, however, on a community level, many are still struggling.

"We just got our fire going and we all huddled by the fire, we drug our mattresses into the living room to sleep," Voskamp-Reeder said. "My two boys thought it was kind of fun at first, like we were camping and telling stories, but then the water stopped dripping and one of the toilets stopped working. It's just not a lot of fun anymore."

Since 5 a.m. on Monday, their wood burning fireplace had been their only source of heat until Wednesday morning when the last of their firewood was gone.

"We were trying to stay, because we were worried about the water and the pipes bursting and if nobody was there to handle it that could be horrible," Voskamp-Reeder said. "We were afraid to leave for that reason, plus the roads aren't very safe, but now that we're out of firewood, we're just going to go."

Like many across Texas, their repeated calls to Entergy have resulted in estimated times for power restoration that have since come and gone.

"I call now and they're not even giving me a time anymore," Voskamp-Reeder said on Wednesday. "It's very frustrating."

Cold and out of patience, Voskamp-Reeder and her family left their home near Bower Stadium Wednesday to make the 10 mile drive to her mother's house across town where there were at least rolling power shortages.

At the Aspen Heights of Sam Houston apartments off of Texas 75, Sam Houston State University student Jayda Gray and her roommates had been without power for over 80 hours as of Thursday morning. Calls to Entergy have left them equally frustrated, disappointed and now without any estimated time of regaining their electricity.

"Our power went off Monday at about 3 a.m. and I think all of us woke up to being super cold, like miserably cold," Gray said. "The energy company kept saying it was going to be just a few more hours and then it never came on and then it was night again."

"I understand that the linemen are working super hard and I'm very grateful for them, however, I wish that the energy companies wouldn't give false hope to us, because we do have to prepare," Gray said.

Leading up to the storm, Gray and her roommates had stocked up on groceries before the storm hit the area, however, they purchased foods that had to be cooked, not expecting that the power would be out for an extended amount of time. With nothing to eat but cold canned soup until the nearby Dollar Store opened, Gray looks back wishing she had been better prepared with emergency foods.

"The city says, 'we're under a boil notice, just boil your water,' well we don't have power to boil our water, so we don't have any water at all," said Gray.

She's spent an estimated over 30 hours in her car with the heat on and on top of it all, experienced the symptoms of stage 1 carbon monoxide poisoning due to snow clogging her muffler.

In a word, the experience has been "brutal," according to Gray.

"It's just really emotionally, physically and mentally exhausting," Gray added.

Across town, Niecy Cleveland's power went out at her home between Riverside and Huntsville for 38 hours, starting on Monday morning, returned for eight and was lost again until Wednesday evening.

Seeing a popular social media post of a terra cotta plant pot covering a grouping of candles for heat, Cleveland's husband got to work right away making several with added bricks to the bottom and sides to further lock in as much heat as possible to place around their living room. As the heat from the flames warmed the clay, the DIY project generated enough heat to maintain the room temperature at or above 60 degrees, keeping their family of five warm until Cleveland's parents could bring by a generator. However, as of Thursday, they still remained without water.

"We lost water the night of the freeze, and then they gave it back to us for a minute out of the reserve tank in Riverside, but people were not conserving water, they were filling their bathtubs, so once that reserve tank was done, we didn't have anything, and we still don't," Cleveland said. "I thought it was going to be like last time when we had the snow, I didn't think we were going to lose power for that long, I knew it was possible because it was reported that it was possible that we could lose power, but I didn't think we were going to go prolonged hours without anything, I didn't expect to go 38 hours in the dark."

Her family wrapped their exposed pipes, covered their windows with extra blankets for insulation, closed towels over their doors to tighten the weather seals. Equipped with a hurricane emergency box, Cleveland had candles and a propane Coleman stove to cook warm meals with, though looking back, she wishes she would have stocked up on more water at the store and been prepared with a generator on standby.

Just north of the city limits, Shannon Murdock adds that the experience has engrained a need for a generator as well. Without access to city water, Murdock's home is supplied by their own well, however, the well needs power to function.

Worried about the well freezing and bursting as it remained out of commission, Murdock's family advised her to put the hot coals from the fireplace that she and her family were gathered around for warmth, in a metal pot and place it under the well cover to keep it warm. Changing out the coals every couple of hours, the family was able to successfully keep their well from freezing for the entire 31 hours that their power remained out. As they regained their power Tuesday evening, the water was able to start right up without any problems.

"It's like everyone appreciates having power, heat and water," Murdock said. "I think it was good for my kids to see that, because they realized we really need that heat, we really need that water, they haven't been through that really before."

It's the kindness of a generous neighbor that helped Murdock's family and their well make it through the storm, supplying her with a portion of his firewood to help sustain their heat source. It's also a kindness that has been seen all over town. From helpful neighbors answering the calls to pick up stranded individuals due to icy roads, to offering up firewood, generators and pipe maintenance service, Huntsville has pulled together to make it through yet another unprecedented emergency.