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My week in Austin's deep freeze
Surviving the storm of the century in Texas
I arrived in Austin, Texas on February 1, following a consistent calling to see if this city is meant to be my next home. I rented an Airbnb for the month in the SoCo neighborhood, just south of all the bustle on South Congress Avenue. I spent my first 13 days in warm bliss, biking and running around Lady Bird Lake, meeting new friends, stuffing myself with breakfast tacos. Then the winter storm of the century hit.
Sunday, February 14
I woke up on Valentine’s Day, feeling giddy after a lovely date the night before. I spent the day watching rom-coms (the sequel of To All the Boys I Loved Before and Two Weeks Notice, if you must know) and feeling nostalgic. I knew the next day would be ice cold, with a high of 20, and I looked in the fridge to make sure I had enough food to last me a few days. Snow started to lightly fall, but I didn’t think much of it—I’m a New Yorker, after all. I took a bath, read The Diana Chronicles and went to bed early. I wish I had cherished that bath much more.
The house was deathly quiet. And cold. I opened the window to see six inches of snow on the ground. I padded out of bed and discovered the power was out. It was nine degrees outside. Here we go.
I had cell reception until 9:30am, when it suddenly stopped working. I didn’t know then that I wouldn’t have cell service or power at my place until Thursday night.
When I packed for Austin, I packed for jacket weather—no coat, scarf or gloves. I bundled up in what warm clothes I did have and a pair of borrowed wool socks and trudged outside.
I’ve never met a snowstorm I didn’t love. I walked for six miles up and down South Congress Avenue in the frigid sunshine, knowing this might be the only time I ever see Austin blanketed in snow. At this point, everyone was cheery, excited at the novelty of snow in Texas. People on skis were towed behind SUVs; others snowboarded down a steep street. I saw many a stranded car, wheels spinning out, strangers wandering over to help push them up the hill. Coated in ice, all of the trees took on a lilac hue. I felt like one of many twirling creatures in The Nutcracker’s sugar plum fairy waltz. The condensation from under my mask traveled up to my eyelashes and froze there.
After I checked my phone for a final time at 4pm, I went back inside for the night. I decided to stay put with Minerva. The sun set around 6:30 and I lit candles and read and wrote for hours. (“Little women,” my friend joked.) For someone as addicted to Being Online as I am, these disconnected hours were hard. A sense of danger didn’t help.
I thought of Hurricane Sandy, which rolled through in my first fall in New York: November 2, 2012. I was at work in Manhattan the last day before Sandy arrived, so I asked my roommate to go get us food for the week. He brought home beer and Doritos. I went to the grocery store to stand in line for an hour to get us enough food to survive on. We were among the lucky ones whose power stayed on. A couple of days later, after the rains had gone, I walked miles over the Williamsburg Bridge to the East Village. (There was no subway service, the tunnels veritable swimming pools.) Cars were still flooded up to their doors. A guy pedaled a stationary bicycle on the sidewalk, somehow charging about 12 phones. People cooked up hot dogs on street corner grills. Bars opened their doors for cold beers by candlelight. I took note of the missing person signs posted along the bridge as I walked back home to Bushwick.
There was a fleeting moment between hope and reality. I opened my eyes, pulled Minerva close and whispered, “Is the power back on?” It wasn’t. Luckily, a coffee and wine shop on my corner, Meteor, was open for business. It was the only place with power for blocks, one tiny connection to the world. I got a coffee and nabbed a table—soon the place was flooded with customers out the door, desperate for some warmth and WiFi.
The news was dire. I didn’t expect power to be back on before Friday, and the apartment was much colder after 36 hours in below freezing weather. I stood over my gas stove with a match in hand, but something made me pause—I wasn’t thinking “carbon monoxide poisoning,” but I knew it might be unsafe. I was worried about Minerva, who was always huddled near me for warmth. I needed to get us out of there.
I texted the closest friends I have in Austin, Uriel and Mariel, who I’d only met a couple of times through a friend in NYC. They kindly agreed to take Minerva and me in.
The two weeks I’d spent in Austin so far were packed with magical synchronicities—everyone I met, from strangers to dates to long-lost acquaintances, were deeply friendly in an alien way. New Yorkers help each other and are strong as hell, but they’re not friendly. I felt as though Austin held out a hand for me, beckoning me closer. And when this storm hit, I felt real love. I got multiple offers for places to stay, a couple from people who barely knew me. I was going to be taken care of. Others were not so privileged.
I decided to make the trek to my friends’ place, about a 20 minute drive north. I tried to call an Uber for an hour. No dice. The roads were too icy and dangerous to drive. Luckily, one of the local friends I’d been texting came to my rescue. Once upon a time we worked on our college paper together—he now teaches at UT Austin. He offered me a ride in his 4x4. He picked me and Minerva up, litter box and all, and carted us uptown. We hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in ten years.
Safely at Uriel and Mariel’s place, Minerva greeted their two dogs with disgust, hissing and sequestering herself upstairs. Uriel lit up the grill outside and cooked up carne asada and grilled onion, caldo cooking in the Crockpot. We drank wine and watched RuPaul’s Drag Race UK until I fell asleep on the couch.
The morning was too quiet again. The power went out sometime in the wee hours and didn’t return. Because I’m a true genius, I didn’t charge my phone or laptop the night before, and they quickly died. I read a couple of New Yorkers front to back. The three of us sat on the couch and tried to do the crossword puzzle. We ate Takis and cereal and warmed up caldo on the grill.
There had been freezing rain overnight, and every tree was coated in thick, Narnia ice—it looked like a picturesque winter wonderland, if that wonderland was out to kill you. A tree in the backyard couldn’t take the extra weight and toppled over. Elder cacti that stood strong days ago now fell squat, straining under the heavy ice, pads littering the sidewalks. I wondered how many of the desert plants here were dead for good, how this would affect Texas’ food supply come spring.
We ventured out to try and find some dinner before sunset. We found an open liquor store, dark inside but with a generator running to power a little heater and a blinking OPEN sign. We loaded up with gin and vodka, giggling at our alcoholic quest, alongside several others desperate for some entertainment.
Almost every store in the neighborhood was closed up, but we finally found a little place that sold only wings. Their phone was ringing off the hook with orders from hungry folks with no other option. We charged up our phones and laptops while we waited and took sips of soju.
At home, we ate our wings in the dark and turned on showtunes. Uriel put on high heels and a wig and lip synced to Kylie Minogue, backlit by flickering candlelight.
In the middle of the night, I heard it: The power roaring to life. That was welcome news, but most people in Austin were still struggling. The day was a bit warmer, but it snowed for hours, the kind that’s light and nice to look at.
That morning, a friend in Austin experienced a mental health crisis, and they were eventually admitted to the hospital. This terrifying situation was the final nail in my emotional coffin.
In the late afternoon, my Airbnb host texted to let me know the power at my apartment was finally back on. The roads were better, and a car picked me up. I made it home safely, happy to be back in my own space, and Minerva happy to no longer contend with two excitable dogs. My host had left the space heater on for me, and it was slowly warming up inside. Only a dribble of water came out of the faucet, but I had some clean water in the filter in the fridge, and a kettle to quickly sanitize more. I zoned out to The Sopranos, grateful for some comfort TV.
I tried to have a normal work day. I ate a pear and a protein bar and the scraps of good food left in the fridge. But I was feeling off.
I turned on the entirety of Fleet Foxes’ “Shore” album on YouTube, a flurry of peaceful, sensuous images: rolling ocean waves, someone reading in a sunny forest, a boy eating wild blackberries, a horse in blue moonlight. I danced slowly around the room, moving my body. I thought about this year and my continuous survival, how I have been so protected and cared for, how I’ve known so many are thinking of me, holding me close from afar. I felt so fucking alive.
I laid down flat on the couch, breathing deeply, feeling my chest rise and fall. “Can I believe you?” I sang. I listened to that one song—over and over, obsessively, manically—for days.
I made my way to the HEB grocery store on South Congress, nervous about the lines. But there were no lines because there was no food. The aisles were barren—not a single item stocked in the produce or meats or frozen section. The supermarket is my country’s grand, shiny testament to capitalism. I’ve never seen it so feeble. I bought some green grapes, seltzer, a kind of Raisin Bran with cranberries that no one wanted, and some wet food for Minerva. I’ve read a lot about how HEB cares for its Texas community members when the government doesn’t.
Still no heat or water. I rolled around in bed for a few hours, then got hungry for a real meal. I ordered a large sausage and ricotta pizza from Home Slice, knowing leftovers would get me through the next few days. I stepped outside to 55 degrees, the snow almost gone. Austinites wandered South Congress like fresh parolees. I was amazed by the number of restaurants open, how they possibly got their food supplies, how this city is packed with scrappy, hard-working, neighborly people. I want to be part of a community again desperately.
At Home Slice, I sat down to people watch while I scarfed a couple of slices and an IPA. I looked at all the people around me, free after days of fear and loathing. Men wore cowboy boots, women had a long conversation in sign language, dogs romped, college kids slipped down their masks to take sips of beer. I was in a deep state of longing, hungry for touch. I have friends here, people to call. But today I wished I had someone to drape my legs over in the sun’s rays, to kiss my closed eyelids.
At home, I poured myself a gin and wrote. The house remained cold. I sank into myself. Dozens of people died this week, from carbon monoxide poisoning, just trying to keep their kids warm, from freezing to death in their homes or on the street. And I’m here, safe, but in an exhausting limbo between one life and the next. I cried and cried, bashing up against my pandemic wall.
I stopped listening to the Fleet Foxes. Enough.
I dry shampooed my still-unwashed hair into oblivion. It was bright and sunny out (a full 70 degrees warmer than it was just five days ago, but who’s counting?) and I needed to go outside, dammit. I walked eight miles, the peril of the last six days already slipping away. I ate chilaquiles for lunch. I got my nails painted a moody, holographic blue at Cute Nail Studio. I walked along shimmering Lady Bird Lake, people out pedaling in swan boats and fishing. And my heart soared.
Austin and I share a trauma bond. The storm and the people who took care of me brushed the frost off the glass—now, I can see a future here clearly.
How to help Texans
Also, if you stumble across a Twitter thread with people posting their Venmo or Ca$hApps, send them money directly. It’s that easy to get help to people, fast.
I asked people what their Austin experiences were like this week. Here are some of their responses:
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