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A lifeline to Central Texans caught in the Texas Freeze

Jacqueline Fabian, left, an Instacart shopper for Costco, makes a water and grocery delivery to Kristin Rash during the winter storm on Thursday.
Julia Reihs
Jacqueline Fabian, left, an Instacart shopper for Costco, makes a water and grocery delivery to Kristin Rash during the winter storm on Thursday.

Walking over ice-covered sidewalks in north central Austin with heavy camera gear on Thursday, Feb. 18, KUT's multimedia reporter Julia Reihs moved like in slow motion.

From a distance, she captured a photo of two women unloading cases of water from a car. As Reihs approached to ask their names, one of them explained that Jaqueline saved her family.

“Jacqueline Fabian is an InstaCart shopper. The other woman, Kristin Rash, had placed a Costco order with InstaCart the week before, but figured her order had been canceled due to the storm,” explained Reihs. “Surprisingly, Jaqueline called Thursday to confirm she was at Costco filling Kristin’s order. Kristin was so grateful that she told Jaqueline to pick up anything she needed for her own family and add it to Kristen’s bill. The two ended up sharing packs of water and paper plates.

“There was a lot of tension and people were really stressed out there, so this beautiful story gave me a boost during a tough situation,” Reihs continued.

The week of Feb. 14, Texas experienced historic winter weather with a stretch of days below freezing. Sleet followed snow followed freezing rain, leading to a breakdown of the electric grid and widespread power outages. City water reservoirs were depleted, leaving many without water service for days.

Living and working through a disaster

Aware of the critical situation, KUT reporters filed stories from their homes – often without power, while caring for family members and battling broken pipes and freezing temperatures – to deliver clear, accurate information for their audience in Central Texas.

“Nearly everyone [in the newsroom] lost power or water, or was facing significant challenges, yet the team was still going out of their way to get vital information to the community,” said KUT Executive News Director Teresa Frontado.

Projects Editor Matt Largey lost power for three days and had to report a substantial number of stories from his car. Resident energy expert, Mose Buchele lost power and his colleagues were able to pitch in and cover some of the ERCOT press briefings for him. A member of the multimedia team set the record among the newsroom for 103 hours without power, yet he still managed to cover a few assignments.

We knew it was big

On Monday, Feb. 15, multimedia reporters Gabriel C. Pérez and Reihs decided to avoid driving on icy roads and walked around their neighborhoods in hopes of documenting how people were responding to the situation.

“As photographers, we didn’t know what stories would come out, but we knew it was big,” said Reihs. “There was a weird juxtaposition between people trying to enjoy the weather by sledding, snowboarding and building snowmen, and people who lost power and were carrying their belongings, trying to get somewhere warm.”

By Thursday, Reihs was the only photographer on the multimedia team with power and internet – when the water crisis was in full swing.

“There was no government communication on where to find water – KUT eventually became that source,” she said.

“I tried to document how people were helping each other. I searched my Nextdoor app and my local Buy Nothing Facebook page where people were offering to help each other by sharing water or a place to charge phones. So, by the end of the week the story was the way the community came together.”

Hyper local

Throughout the freeze, the newsroom focused on providing information people needed to know to make informed decisions to keep their families and neighbors safe, including updates on school status, updates on power, boil water notices, where to find water and what to do about broken pipes.

During the week of Feb. 14, experienced a 564 percent increase in unique visitors over the previous week from citizens anxious for information about safety, power and water.

“We put a high priority on getting local news out to the community quickly – and that included our Spanish translation (KUT En Español), which was a labor of love due to the situation changing quickly and the need to constantly update information,” said Frontado who oversaw 22 KUT and “Texas Standard” stories translated to Spanish.

Staying Connected

“I was 2 a.m. Monday when our noise machine went off and woke my wife,” said Largey. “I still had cell power, so I checked Twitter and saw there were rolling blackouts. I expected the power to come back on, but it didn’t return for three days.

“Luckily, we had plenty of food and a gas stove we could light and use to cook. We had some firewood, but it wasn’t nearly enough, said Largey. “Thankfully, a neighbor shared some firewood and I had some scrap lumber in the garage we could burn to keep our family warm.”

Since he was up throughout the night adding lumber to keep the fire going, Largey was on Twitter – a lot. “I broke a record on my screen time use,” he said.

“I couldn’t do the kind of reporting I’m used to, so I did it all on Twitter for three days. I was gathering information from official and unofficial sources, monitoring the power supply situation and the city’s response, DMing with sources sharing news tips.

“In fact, a mother of a patient at Dell Children’s sent me a DM about the situation there, that they had lost water and were using cat litter to get rid of human waste – something so unimaginable,” Largey said.

As Central Texans lost power, they sought quick, trustworthy information on KUT’s social media channels through their mobile devices.

  • KUT’s Twitter posts reached 174 percent more people over last month – and mentions were up 161 percent.
  • NPR frequently retweeted KUT to a national audience eager for credible, first-hand information about the crisis in Texas.
  • Similarly, KUT’s Facebook post reach is up 142 percent over the previous month, with engagement up 98 percent.
  • KUT’s Instagram account reached 167 percent more accounts.

Many KUT listeners stayed up-to-date through push notifications from the KUT app. While other media outlets, such as NPR and the “Texas Tribune,” picked up KUT and “Texas Standard” stories, to share local, on-the-ground expertise with a broader audience.

KUT your tweets were my main source of information when our cell signal was so weak that my smart phone could not download videos or even images. Thank you for being there for our 80 hours (and 26 minutes!) in the cold and dark and roughly 18 hours without water! — Cliff Tyllick

I can’t find words to express how valuable they (KUT) have been this week! From covering the biggest stories, to providing details we needed to stay safe, to tweeting press conferences for people on limited mobile, to posting pics of themselves getting through it too. BIG THANKS! — Sarah Breau

Going forward

By the end of the week, power had returned for many, but thousands are still without water and many people’s livelihoods are ruined.

“The inability to go anywhere or reach people, created really tough circumstances for a reporter,” said Largey, “So I’m proud of fact that – in the moment – we were laser focused on getting critical information to the community and didn’t spend time on Ted Cruz.”

“The story now and going forward is getting people the help they need and accountability he concluded. “Now, the questions is ‘What were the decisions that led to this and how do we prevent this in the future?’”