We’re all supposed to be survivalists now

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Empty refrigerated shelves in a grocery store.
A supermarket in Houston, Texas, on February 20, 2021, following Winter Storm Uri. | Francois Picard/AFP via Getty Images

When it comes to a disaster like Winter Storm Uri, what does it mean to be prepared?

My son noticed the rabbit tracks first. We woke up early the morning after Valentine’s Day to discover that the power was out in our home north of Austin, so my husband, 3-year-old son, and I walked to the back door and pulled the shade up to see what the winter storm had brought.

We were expecting some ice and snowfall, but as a born-and-raised Texan, I’d never witnessed the landscape transformed quite like this. I’d never seen rabbit tracks five inches deep in snow, or 12-inch icicles jutting down from a roof edge. That is, until the nearly weeklong Arctic blast of February 2021, when the state froze over, leaving millions of us shivering in our homes or cars or flocking to warming stations, wondering why a “rolling blackout” was lasting for days on end.

Over the next four days, as we huddled under blankets by the gas fireplace we were fortunate to have in our rented home, I thought about that rabbit often, out there alone in the snow. Every day, I checked for new tracks. My updates about whether or not there was evidence that the rabbit was still alive became a running joke between me and my husband. I really needed that little animal to live. Plus, his fate gave us something to focus on when we weren’t obsessively checking the overnight temperatures or turning on a faucet yet again just in case there might be a drop of water.

How would that rabbit, or any native Texas wildlife, adapt to such chills? How would any of us adapt? Texans have gotten used to preparing for hurricanes or floods or scorching summer days so brutal they might make those from more temperate climates weep (hell, they sometimes make me want to weep), but I think it’s safe to say that few of us were fully prepared for this freeze. I even cockily put our winter coats away one day in January because we’d had a series of sunny, warm days. It’s important to note that by “winter coats” I do not mean state-of-the-art jackets with high-tech warming technology. I mean wimpy puffer jackets from Target; the kind that used to keep us warm.

As a diehard, unapologetic fan of shows like Naked and Afraid, I’d put some frivolous thought into the concept of survival over the past few years. After watching people brave harsh jungles, barren deserts, a nauseating amount of insect bites, and no food or water for days, I’d come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t last five minutes in a dire situation like that. I’d made peace with my lack of survival skills and my absence of fortitude in the face of mosquitoes.

But Naked and Afraid is a TV show, of course, and the survivalists are voluntarily jumping into the challenge. It seems silly to even compare it to what we just went through in Texas, since there was nothing voluntary about it. Our infrastructure and our government officials failed us. People died from exposure, carbon monoxide poisoning, car accidents, and fires. Parents struggled to feed babies. Hospitals were at risk of losing water and power. Some residents got slapped with $17,000 electricity bills. And the women who went into labor during that iced-over week? The cancer patients already freezing because of their chemo treatments? I thought of them often, too. Don’t even get me started on Ted Cruz, taking off for sunny Cancun in the midst of this chaos.

Extreme weather events like this make survival frighteningly real, and for me, what was once a fun game of “how would I survive on this TV show” suddenly became: what do we need to actually survive? What should we buy after this? What’s missing from our list?

I wasn’t completely oblivious to the fact that we needed to prep for disasters. My family and friends were affected by the massive flooding in Houston in 2017 from Hurricane Harvey, and I’d seen firsthand the damage and the way people came together. Some lost everything, and, as with this winter freeze, entire communities were left to fend for themselves. My sister, who lives near the bayou in Houston, had so much flooding in her neighborhood that there were fish jumping in her front yard. It’s hard to forget those images, or the images of people being rescued from the floodwaters by neighbors coming by in rowboats. It’ll be hard to forget the images of this freeze too.

As the days went on, we heard the constant hum of our neighbor’s generator, so I started googling generators to get a sense of how much one might cost (we traveled to a hotel lobby nearby each day to charge our phones and thaw out). “Whole house” generators range from several thousand dollars to over $16,000, a cost not practical or possible for most people.

If you’re used to cold climates, generators might seem like an obvious first choice for your survival list. My husband grew up in rural New England, and his family always had things like a small generator on hand, and actual winter coats. We didn’t have a generator to help us through this storm, but his past experience came in handy. He knows how to drive in ice and snow and to lay branches on a steep driveway to create some traction. He’s aware that you should not warm up in a car with the garage door closed because of carbon monoxide poisoning, and he knew right away to bring in buckets of snow so we could bathe. If you have zero experience with actual winter, like so many in Texas, these are things we’ll have to take with us going forward. After listening to our neighbor’s makeshift power source day after day, my husband and I decided that a small generator would be a smart investment in the future.

I’m not saying I’m going to plant crops and pickle my own vegetables and build an underground bunker (yet). I know to have spare water and canned food and a first aid kit, but this freeze took things to another level. A big part of that is that our infrastructure and officials failed us so spectacularly, which leaves you feeling not just angry, but helpless — and helplessness is an emotion that many of us, not just Texans, but everyone living through 2020 and 2021, are pretty tired of feeling.

Terms like “survivalist” and “prepper” used to sound extreme, conjuring up a stereotype of people who flee civilization to live off the grid, and whose distrust of institutions and governments was almost laughable. Over the last few years, though, stockpiling gear and supplies is becoming part of everyday life in America. I have no desire to live off the grid; I just wish the grid were handled in a more competent way. After this, I won’t trust that the power and the heat will stay on in winter anymore. I’ll hope it stays running, but I’m going to make sure I’m ready with candles and batteries and heat sources, just in case.

I’ve talked to several people who’ve made “survival lists” after this freeze. My friend Yadirra made a “Texan Blizzard List” that includes a generator, heaters, camping stove, solar battery chargers, and cans of Chef Boyardee and soup. Yadirra, who grew up in Puerto Rico, told me, “I have survived hurricanes and days without power and water, but nothing like this freezing weather without heat.”

I heard from a seventh-generation Texan who has been building a self-sustained compound that will have “multiple backup systems” when the grid crashes. He says he doesn’t consider himself a “prepper,” but that he’s dreamed of this project for years. “Nothing I am doing can be justified financially,” he told me on condition of anonymity. “Until, suddenly, something happens and the systems and institutions we relied on fail and we as individuals are told, ‘You are on your own, good luck!’”

He said he figured catastrophes like this freeze or even the pandemic would happen one day in the future. “In 2020 and 2021, the future showed up,” he said.

Stocking up on Chef Boyardee or buying generators is one part of survival, but as so many who have gone through extreme weather events like this know, it’s also about helping a neighbor or sharing resources or offering up your home if you can. “Mutual aid is the most essential key to surviving,” says Texas resident Jen Margulies. “The fact that interdependence saves lives is clearer to me now than ever before.”

Hearing from concerned friends and helping out neighbors definitely kept the cold days moving along. Our neighbor shoveled snow with us, and I watched his granddaughter for a few hours so they could get a break. A friend of mine in Southern California who had to flee her home during the November 2018 Woolsey Fire texted me several times to check in during our freezing week. Once, she wrote, “There will be no greater joy than the sound of your power coming back on.”

For days I waited for that operatic moment. I imagined the sound in my head, and in my fantasy it was cinematic, an epic sonic whir worthy of an Oscar. When it finally happened, in the middle of the night on day four, the source was a little more mundane than I expected.

“The printer is making noises,” my husband said as we huddled under our pile of blankets by the gas fire. We jumped up and turned on light switches, our energy level spiking with each flash of brightness. I never imagined that the flick of a light switch could bring so much joy. Our son, being resilient as kids are, slept through the whole thing. Once we were sure it was real, we adjusted the heat, got back into bed, and pulled the covers up. We were too tired to do much else.

The next morning we woke up in a warm house. I walked to the back door and pulled the shade up, searching the snow. There they were, the rabbit tracks I’d hoped to see each day. I told myself it was the same rabbit we’d seen all along. The snow and ice were starting to melt, and somehow, he’d survived. I don’t know what he’d eaten or how he’d stayed warm or how he’d avoided hungry predators. But he did it. I pulled down the shade and got back into bed with my husband and son. I was grateful for some warmth, thinking about the future, hoping the light and the heat would last.

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