After days of record-breaking cold and winter storms in Texas that disrupted the electrical grid and froze water lines, millions of people are now being told to boil their water for safety.
Other families have no tap water at all. Valerie Contreras, 20, who lives in Austin, Texas, had to take shelter with her infant son at her parents’ home nearby during the storm. She said her family is melting snow in buckets to flush the toilets, and boiling snow water to wash the dishes.
She uses bottled purified water for her son’s baby formula, but is down to her last two gallons.
With critical services disrupted by severe weather, families are scrambling to navigate dangerous conditions. So we asked experts for tips on how to stay safe. Even if you haven’t yet lost drinking water or power, some of this advice might help you plan ahead in the event of a similar emergency. As climate change accelerates, more electric grids may be crippled by unexpected weather events, putting people at risk of losing power.
A weather crisis combined with the pandemic can “feel pretty hopeless and endless,” said Dr. David J. Schonfeld, the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “Your goal is to be able to identify what the current situation is, figure out what’s most important for you to do at this point and be able to deal with that one issue.”
Conserve warmth and make an exit plan
When the power goes out, there are certain precautions you can take to avoid heat loss, like placing rolled-up towels at the base of exterior doors or stuffing rags in cracks under the doors. Closing curtains and blinds can also keep heat inside, according to the National Weather Service.
The service also advised that residents “move all activities to a main room and close the remaining interior doors to retain heat,” adding that people should wear layers of loosefitting and lightweight warm clothing, and have extra clothing layers handy.
Christina DiVirgilio, 36, who lives in Spring, Texas, a suburb of Houston, bundled her sons, 5 and 11 months, in undershirts and fleece pajamas along with gloves, hats and robes.
“They kept pretty warm for the most part,” she said.
Her youngest slept in a portable crib in Ms. Divirgilio’s walk-in closet, which turned out to be the warmest spot in the house. And because they had stocked up on batteries ahead of the storm, they were able to keep their electric fireplace going throughout the week, ensuring that temperatures in their apartment didn’t dip below 48 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you have a wood-burning fireplace, you can start a fire, provided that you have been cleaning and inspecting your chimney annually. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you take a flashlight and check that the damper or flue is open, which will draw smoke out of the house.
But if it’s very cold, sometimes it might not be safe to stay at home, especially if you have small children, who are more prone to heat loss than adults. The most fortunate will be able to flee to a home with heat by sheltering with family or friends, staying at a hotel or renting a home in a nearby area.
Ms. Contreras and her 13-month-old son quickly drove to her parents’ home because her apartment was so cold the liquid dish soap froze into a solid block, snow blew under her doorway and ice crystallized on the floor. Eventually the thermostat in her living room stopped working, displaying only the letters “Lo.”
“We just could not take the cold anymore. It was horrible,” she said. “You could literally see your breath inside my apartment.”
If you’re staying with people you don’t normally live with, ideally, everyone age 2 and older should wear a mask and try to eat in separate rooms, if possible, said Dr. Carl Baum, a professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at the Yale School of Medicine and a member of the executive committee for the A.P.A.’s Council on Children and Disasters.
“You don’t want to be the next superspreader event,” he said.
Beware of carbon monoxide poisoning
When the frigid weather hit Texas this week, hundreds of people in Houston used barbecue pits or portable generators indoors, resulting in carbon monoxide poisoning, the Houston Chronicle reported on Tuesday. Many of the cases were in children.
Portable generators that run on fuel are often used to provide homes with electricity or heat during a power outage, but they can be dangerous when used improperly.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says to place these generators outdoors and away from windows, keep them dry and properly grounded and never plug them into a wall outlet or main electrical panel.
Other outdoor appliances that are powered by fossil fuels, like camping stoves, can also release carbon monoxide, and should not be used indoors.
Cars left running in a garage and malfunctioning gas stoves, gas dryers and fuel-fired furnaces can all release dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain and confusion.
You cannot smell or see carbon monoxide gas, not even when it builds to deadly levels. According to the Texas Poison Center Network, it is considered the leading cause of death from poisoning in the United States, which is why it’s important to also install a carbon monoxide detector in your home.
Avoid contaminated water and protect your pipes
As of Friday morning, more than 14 million people in 160 counties in Texas are facing disruptions in their water service, according to a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
If your community is under a boil water advisory, the C.D.C. says you should either use bottled water or boiled tap water for your family and your pets because your community’s water could be contaminated.
It’s not enough to pour your water through a filtered pitcher or faucet attachment. Tap water should be brought to a full rolling boil for at least 1 minute. If you live at an elevation above 6,500 feet, you should boil the water for 3 minutes before allowing it to cool, the C.D.C. says.
And if you have appliances connected to a water line, like a refrigerator, do not use the water or ice that it produces while the boil water advisory is in effect.
Rather than washing dishes, you might consider using disposable plates, cups and utensils. According to the C.D.C., household dishwashers are safe to use if the water reaches a final rinse temperature of at least 150 degrees, or if the dishwasher has a sanitizing cycle.
If you don’t have a dishwasher, you can wash and rinse the dishes like you normally would. The C.D.C. then recommends soaking the rinsed dishes in a separate basin with 1 teaspoon of unscented household liquid bleach for each gallon of warm water. Let the dishes air dry completely before using again.
Babies who drink formula should be fed ready-to-use formula if possible. If you don’t have any available, try to find bottled water labeled de-ionized, purified, demineralized or distilled.
When the boil water order is lifted, residents will be asked to flush their water lines to clear plumbing of potentially contaminated water.
If you are a homeowner, you can take steps to protect your pipes from freezing. The American Red Cross recommends keeping garage doors closed if there are water supply lines in the garage, opening kitchen and bathroom cabinets to allow warmer air to circulate around plumbing and letting cold water drip from the faucet. You can also consider installing insulating materials like a “pipe sleeve” on exposed water pipes.
If you only see a trickle of water coming out of your faucet, or none at all, your pipes may be frozen or damaged. In that case, experts recommend turning off the main water supply to the house to prevent water damage when the temperatures rise or the power comes back on.
Prepare for potential difficulties in getting food
Ideally, if you know winter weather is on the way, you’ll stock up at the grocery store ahead of time. But what if the weather takes you by surprise? Or you haven’t been venturing outside as regularly because of the pandemic?
When the power went out earlier this week, Andrew Flynn, 45, immediately booked a hotel for his wife and two kids in Austin, Texas, but then the hotel ran out of food.
On Tuesday, he said, “I spent three hours driving around central Austin yesterday and all of the grocery stores had long lines.”
He finally visited a gas station and bought non-perishables like ramen and rice so his family could make meals in their slow cooker.
His kids, 9 and 12, “haven’t loved it,” he said. But allowing them to have some candy or potato chips after their “Crock-Pot mixture” provided some incentive, he added.
If your kids are cold and cranky and you cannot give them comfort food, at some point you need to level with them in a gentle but direct way.
You can try saying: “I’m sorry, we don’t have your favorite food or even food you like at this point, but you’re going to have to eat this,” Dr. Schonfeld suggested. “Or, let’s figure out something you can eat even if it’s not particularly healthy.”
But not everyone has a car or the ability to drive around in search of food. Check to see if hunger relief organizations or food banks are providing food to people in the community and how it is being distributed. Friends might also have extra to spare.
Rawlins Gilliland, 75, who lives in Dallas, lost power for three days but his gas stove was still working so he kept himself busy making vegetable soup for his neighbors, including the large family that lives next door.
“My survival mechanism during this was that we do what we can,” he said.
His neighbors helped him out, too. When the power came back, he discovered that his heater had given out, so one of his neighbors drove more than 50 miles to get a replacement part and help him install it. The heater is working again and he’s no longer wearing his lined boots and layers of polar fleece indoors. “Right now, I feel extremely excited because things are under control here,” he said on Friday. “I wish people really did realize that collectively that we’re all in these things together.”