Last week was a bit of a mess in Texas. Record cold weather combined with good ol’ human incompetence to make for a true disaster.
Cold down to 0° F, especially combined with snow and ice, will always pose a problem for Texas. It’s an outlier event, and we’re not really used to it. There’s limited road cleaning equipment, and folks ‘round here don’t know how to drive on ice.
But the real excitement started when a rush on natural gas led to the power grid getting stretched. That led to partial blackouts, with some areas losing power for days. Which led to homes and businesses unable to run heaters. Which led to burst water pipes from the hard freeze. And which also led, at least here locally, to a water treatment plant shutting down. Which led to my water being shut off for over a day.
My house didn’t lose power, and we were able to mitigate the water shutoff without too much trouble. We made out far better than many. In fact, my boys would say the only really bad part of the week was when our internet was down for about a day. Internet service is more important than potable water, it seems.
A lot of folks learned some lessons the hard way last week, though.
When we learned our water supply was at risk, we filled a lot of pots and started boiling (pressure was already low, so they advised that). We also had a good supply of bottled water in our garage. We filled our bathtubs with water so we’d still be able to flush toilets, and we eyed our yard full of snow as an emergency reserve. I even scoped out some good spots in the yard where neighbors wouldn’t be able to see me pee (thankfully it didn’t come to that).
In other words, we had plans, and backup plans, and backups to those backups.
If only the State of Texas or our local water authority had embraced that concept. Texas has made the terribly misguided decision to isolate its power grid from the rest of the country so those bureaucratic Feds can’t tell us what to do (like winterizing our power equipment…). ‘Cause when you’ve got a unique product like electricity where it’s critically important to pool supply and demand and have backup sources, of course you should isolate yourself.
And I learned that my fair burg gets all of its water from the City of Fort Worth, so when their treatment plant went down, our supply was completely cut off. During the scramble to restore water my city found a way to do an emergency connection to a different city. I wonder how much easier and cheaper it would have been to make that Operations 101 connection in peaceful times?
Don’t Pick Up Nickels in Front of a Steamroller
I was shocked to learn that many a person in Texas has decided to skip a negotiated rate for their electricity service and remain exposed to wholesale electricity prices. Normally that would save you a solid $.05 or so per kWh, but early last week, when wholesale prices surged more than 10,000%, not so much. Some consumers are facing $5,000-$10,000 electricity bills as a result. I kinda feel sorry for them, but sometimes, when you gleefully and greedily pick up nickels in front of a steamroller, you get squashed.
Many people are facing massive costs from the winter weather. Hopefully insurance will help, but paying a full deductible still hits hard.
The biggest expenses I’ve heard are from flood damage when frozen pipes burst and flooded the house. But many people had burst pipes and just paid a few hundred dollars to repair them. What drove the massive difference in costs?
Some people knew how to shut off their water main, and some people didn’t. When it starts raining in your house because a pipe burst in your attic, it’s pretty important to turn off the water fast. And despite me being one of the top personal finance bloggers in my neighborhood, it appears that many local folks have missed my brilliant post on Utility Shut Offs. The only thing wrong with my post is that I massively underestimated the value of quickly shutting off your water main – last week showed it can be worth several thousand dollars.
Don’t Own A Pool
You may have heard that I’m ever-so-slightly against pool ownership.
But last week made the case even more. People were desperately running their pool pumps 24/7, and even so they still needed to go hack the ice that was forming. The real magic happened if you lost power – then your pool and its expensive equipment froze solid. Many homeowners are facing thousands of dollars of damage as a result.
I too will have a pool damage expense: our HOA pools lost some equipment. But I’ll owe just a tiny fraction of that expense since the cost will be divided across the entire community. Most of whom own their own backyard pool, of course.
We were very lucky to make out with no major problems or damage, but I’m concerned that it was exactly that: luck. People who lost power were hit hard, and some of them lost their lives.
Winter weather can be destructive, but the gravest concern from last week is that poor planning and incompetence turned a bad winter storm into a complete disaster. I would insert my normal sarcastic comment about how I’m sure we’ll learn our lesson this time, but the local and state-wide mood is a bit dark for that right now.