How February’s Once-in-a-Generation Storm Altered Life on Campus and Across the City

Sunday, February 14, 2021

As lovebirds hunker down together to celebrate Valentine’s Day with what looks to be a romantic evening snowfall, rumors swirl that Texas’ grid infrastructure might not be able to handle the upcoming inclement weather.

Many Texans quickly learn that Texas is the only state in the nation with its own power grid, mainly to avoid federal regulation. That grid is operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a company that releases warnings that “rolling outages” in duration of 10-45 minutes could befall customers across the state if demand outstrips supply.

As a precautionary measure, UT announces that campus will close at 4 p.m. and remain closed until Wednesday, February 17, at 8 a.m. That includes all virtual classes as well. UT Libraries immediately close.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Millions of Texans wake up to accumulations of up to eight inches of snow, many of them without power, water, or both, as ERCOT initiates what it terms “rolling outages” beginning at 1:25 a.m. “Every grid operator and every electric company is fighting to restore power right now,” ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness says in a release posted on the organization’s app, which every Texan with a smartphone now checks religiously.

Videos posted to the Instagram account @barstoollonghorn, a local affiliate of Barstool Sports, show a much different reality on campus. Since UT is connected to the Austin Energy grid but generates all of its own power and can disconnect itself at will, campus buildings are largely unaffected. As such, students gather on the Main Mall to pop Champagne bottles, snowboard, and sing The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” loudly.

An email from the Office of the President notes that the snowstorm doesn’t negate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “Although it’s tempting to let our guard down as we face yet one more unprecedented event, it’s important to maintain our vigilance,” UT Austin President Jay Hartzell writes, also noting that Austin is seeing the most snow since 1937. Hartzell extends the cancelation of classes and events through 8 a.m. Thursday.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

“The amount of time that people have had to be out of service for electricity during a time of extreme cold is terrible. It is unacceptable,” Magness says. Those “rolling outages” aren’t quite rolling, at least in Austin, as many people enter a second straight day without electricity. Austin Energy explains that statewide power demand is still so high that there is no way to rotate customers without cutting electricity to critical infrastructure, like hospitals.

“If the demand were to continue to go up and the generating or capacity supply continued to come down, there would be a point when the whole system would go black,” Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent tells Community Impact. “That would take not just days to restore power but weeks, and even longer for some customers throughout the ERCOT footprint.”

Though students who live on campus have heat and electricity, UT offers assistance to students, faculty, and staff who live off campus. The university opens warming and charging centers at the Texas Union and Gregory Gym. San Jac Residence Hall’s multi-purpose room stays open until midnight for those who need to warm up, and the Texas Union announces it will stay open overnight.

J2 and Kinsolving remain open intermittently for dining, though a reporter for The Daily Texan notes that those without unlimited meal plans still have to pay. In response, UT Austin journalism professor Kevin Robbins and other faculty and alumni send a call to alumni: Venmo us money, and we’ll make sure it gets to students who need a meal.

In an email from the Office of the President, Hartzell reiterates COVID-19 protocols after videos surface of Longhorns continuing to party in large groups, including one where students are playing beer pong in front of the Tower.

UT Austin extends its cancelation of all classes and events—and COVID-19 testing and vaccines—through 8 a.m. Friday.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

With the power still out for hundreds of thousands, Austin-area hospitals also begin to experience water issues. St. David’s South Austin Medical Center begins sending some patients to nearby facilities. “Water feeds the facility’s boiler, so as a result, it is also losing heat,” David Huffstutler, CEO of St. David’s HealthCare, says in a statement. Dell Children’s sends a letter asking patients and families not to shower or wash their hands and that the toilets aren’t flushing. “We anticipate the temperature in the building will be more difficult to maintain as the temperature drops,” the letter reads. “We do have a limited supply of fleece blankets available.”

As such, Austin Water asks those with water to stop dripping their faucets. Additionally, residents in Southwest Austin and the Lost Creek area are put under a boil water notice.

The Amos Rehabilitation Keep (ARK) at UT’s Marine Science Institute announces a rescue effort to save nearly 900 cold-stunned sea turtles, as the temperature in the East Copano Bay dips down below 40 degrees, which can cause shock, pneumonia, and death. As more and more turtles arrive on the shores, the ARK’s sea water tanks quickly fill, and the overflow is taken to the ARK’s auditorium to warm up.

With so many still without power, UT Austin tweets: “If faculty or staff members need to use their office spaces for heat or charging devices, feel free to come to campus if you can travel safely.”

UT Austin extends its cancelation of all classes and events through 8 a.m. Monday.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Many Austin residents have electricity by this point, with the grid stabilizing, but water has become a major issue.

Showers are shut off at Gregory Gym in order to conserve water, a problem that is worsening across the city as all of Austin is put under a boil water notice and thousands still don’t have running water at all.

SafeHorns partners with the Co-op to set up a station to distribute water to students who need it.

Friday, February 19, 2021

President Hartzell confirms that students in need will receive a free meal, and that none will be charged retroactively for meals purchased at UT dining halls during the storm.

UT Austin announces that bottled water is stocked at the warming centers and dining halls around campus, including the Texas Union, Gregory Gym, and J2 and Kinsolving Dining. Additionally, while water and power remain stable on campus, maintenance personnel are on standby to fix water and water-pressure needs.

UT Austin extends its cancelation of all classes and events through 8 a.m. the following Wednesday.

The Aftermath

By Saturday, many Texans have electricity back in their homes, though many still don’t have hot water—or water at all. Organizations like Austin Bat Cave, a local education nonprofit, raise money and donate supplies to community members in need.

Colt McCoy arranges for free Tacodeli and Rudy’s Barbecue for students, which he passes out alongside Steve Sarkisian and Chris Del Conte at 9:45 behind the Co-op.

And Matthew McConaughey, along with his wife Camilla and their Just Keep Livin’ Foundation, announce a virtual fundraiser to help with recovery and rebuilding efforts across the state. The “We’re Texas” virtual concert, held on March 21, features Post Malone, Miranda Lambert, and Don Henley, among other luminaries.

“While most of the power is thankfully being restored, the [burst] water lines from hospitals to so many homes has left so many Texans without the bare necessities they need to survive,” McConaughey says in a video posted on social media. “Now remember, right now is the best time to safely check on your neighbors. Go knock on a door, go volunteer. If you’re a ‘have,’ please help out a ‘have-not.’”

Photographs, from top: Jay Janner; Huy Le; Jay Janner; Huy Le


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