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Energy & Environment

Worried about another severe winter storm in Austin? Here's what you can do to prepare.

Residents of a home in Windsor Park put milk outside in the snow after their home lost power in February.
Julia Reihs
/
KUT
Residents in Windsor Park put milk outside in the snow after their home lost power in February.

Lee esta historia en español.

It was 82 degrees in Austin last week, so it may not feel like it, but: Winter is coming.

Rarely has winter in Texas meant days of below-freezing temperatures, blackouts and water outages, but Texans learned all too well in February that the possibility of such events is very real. Winter Storm Uri brought heavy snowfall and ice, and the state’s power grid couldn’t keep up. Millions lost power, some for days on end. More than 200 people died across the state.

This winter will likely be warmer and drier than usual in Central Texas, according to a seasonal forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But the Farmer’s Almanac, which claims to have predicted February’s storm, says late January may bring some “potentially frigid and flaky weather like you experienced last winter.” Whether or not Austin is hit by another winter storm, it’s better to prepare now than during the event.

Austin’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM) promotes four main actions to prepare for emergencies like a winter storm: make a plan, build a kit, know your neighbors and stay informed.

Gather supplies for a kit

Perhaps the most important thing is to make sure you have a reserve of essentials. During February's storm, many people were stuck at home with no power or running water for several days.

Your emergency kit should include everything from flashlights and bandages to blankets and a manual can opener. Ready.gov provides instructions in English and Spanish on how to build a kit.

You’ll also need food, water and any prescription drugs you rely on.

Matt Lara, a public information officer for Austin’s HSEM office, says it’s best to gather enough food, water and medication for seven days. When it comes to food, think nonperishables, like canned food, dried fruit, cereal and protein bars. And you don’t have to buy in bulk all at once.

“You don’t have to build your entire kit right now. Start small and plan big,” Lara said. “Take those small actions when you go to the store, pick up a couple of extra canned items that are going to have a long shelf-life so that you don’t have to constantly replace it.”

For water, Lara says a good rule of thumb is to store a gallon of water per person per day for the seven days. Keep in mind this water may need to be split between drinking and other needs, like washing hands, refilling toilets and cooking.

Have a plan

When disaster hits, you might not be home with your family. Make a plan for how you’ll contact them and where you’ll meet.

In a winter storm, phones and computers may lose power. In that case, you’ll want to have a list of your family members’ phone numbers, as well as contact information for other important entities, like doctors and service providers. FEMA provides instructions on how to make an emergency communication plan.

You’ll also want to consider the various needs of your family members. Is there certain backup medical equipment you’ll need in the case of a power outage? How will you protect your pets or service animals? Ready.gov has tips for preparing an emergency kit for your pets and other ways to strengthen your emergency preparedness plan.

Know your neighbors

In a winter storm like we saw in February, snow and ice may make roads inaccessible and slow down emergency response times. So, it’s important to know the needs of your neighbors and how you can help them during an emergency.

Perhaps your neighbor has health concerns and needs help getting around or taking medication. Or maybe they’ve lost power and heat, but you haven’t.

Neighbors helping neighbors enhances community resilience, Lara says.

“That’s one less person that emergency services has to possibly come out and help, and if those little pieces start adding up, the more that as a whole, we can be resilient,” Lara said. “It really does make an impact, just those little small things do go a long way.”

Know where to get information 

During an emergency, you’ll want to stay up to date with the latest information. Lara says to sign up for Warn Central Texas to receive alerts about what actions you need to take. You can sign up for alerts via text, email or phone. You can also download the Ready Central Texas app, which provides news updates, warnings and other resources.

A lot of people rely on their phones to get information especially during power outages, so it’s good to have a back-up power source, such as a solar-powered phone charger.

“We saw during the winter storm, it was cold, but it was certainly sunny,” Lara said. “So, you can take advantage of anything that charges through solar power to help get you a little bit of information that comes through.”

You may also consider buying a NOAA Weather Radio to stay informed. These radios provide weather information from the nearest National Weather Service. You can buy battery-powered or hand-crank versions.

“That is definitely a very good resource that we definitely recommend everyone has, kind of that third piece of communication,” Lara said. “We all rely on our phones and the internet. But the winter storm showed us, well, what do you do when that goes away?”

Other tips we learned from February

After the last storm, some people are buying items they didn’t think they’d need before, like proper winter clothes or even backup generators, if they can afford them. KUT put out a call on social media to see what new things Austinites are doing to prepare.

But fair warning: Lara says if you do get a generator or a new kind of emergency preparedness tool you’re not familiar with, make sure you learn how to use it to avoid harming yourself or others. FEMA warns never to use a generator, camp stove, charcoal grill, or gasoline or propane heater indoors, because they can start fires or cause deadly carbon monoxide poisoning.

Here's how you responded to our callout:

  • Indoor propane heater, portable solar panel to charge devices, emergency radio, two weeks' worth of water, USB adapters — Schneems via Twitter
  • Jackery generator with a solar panel for charging, candles, buckets, maybe a water filter like Lifestraw, baby wipes — Caroline B via Twitter
  • Setting up a tent inside to sleep in — karawaane via Twitter
  • Sleeping bags made for extremely cold temperatures — Westchester Gasette via Twitter
  • A snowsuit for newborns, proper winter gloves and boots — Marcela Gomez via Twitter

  • Canned water, hand and foot warmers, firewood — Fiona Lachatte via Twitter
  • Exterior faucet covers — Nick Olivier via Twitter
  • "Started talking with a counselor about how nervous I am for winter to arrive this year.” — shalynelise via Instagram
  • “There’s very little I can [actually] do in terms of preparing the unit I live in. … For stocking up on food and supplies I can afford, it is a very slow process that is [contingent] on my monthly budget. I think the best/only true preparation I can do is mental and emotional work.” — moth_dance via Instagram
  • A collapsible 4-gallon water tank and a mini generator — miro_cassetta via Instagram
  • Mylar blankets, a few extra lanterns — vermoots via Instagram
  • “Disposable dishes and cutlery for when you can’t wash dishes. Reusable H-E-B bags and duct tape worked alright for sealing the windows/doorways/vents.” — l.r.hill via Instagram
  • “Community mutual aid kept us alive, distributing firewood and water.” — Marie Catrett via Facebook 
  • ​​Blackout curtains to insulate rooms — Victoria Cbo via Facebook 
Instagram screenshot_ WinterStorm
via Instagram

How are you preparing for winter? Tell us in an audio message here, and we might use it in an upcoming radio story.

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