Tagged Weather

What Families Can Learn From the Texas Storm

What Families Can Learn From the Texas Storm

Take these steps when critical services are affected by freezing temperatures.

From left, Charles Flynn, 9, Lucille Flynn, 12, and their mother, Erica Flynn, at their home in Austin, Texas, before fleeing to a hotel. The frigid temperatures caused electrical grids to fail, sending indoor temperatures plummeting. 
From left, Charles Flynn, 9, Lucille Flynn, 12, and their mother, Erica Flynn, at their home in Austin, Texas, before fleeing to a hotel. The frigid temperatures caused electrical grids to fail, sending indoor temperatures plummeting. Credit…Andrew Flynn
Christina Caron

  • Feb. 19, 2021, 1:18 p.m. ET

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.

Those who cannot find a place to stay can check their state’s list of warming shelters, if they are in need of power and able to travel.

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.”

Eating Outside During the Pandemic

When Dinner is Outdoors, New Rules Apply

During the pandemic, wind chill and loaner blankets are the new considerations (don’t forget your handwarmers).

Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
Steven Kurutz

  • Jan. 23, 2021, 10:02 p.m. ET

When the weather turned cold, Rachel Sugar, a contributing writer for the New York City food blog Grubstreet, thought people would give up dining al fresco. But, she said, that hasn’t been the case: “Restaurants, more than ever, are a place where people feel relatively comfortable.”

Indeed, in cities around the country, restaurants have adapted for colder conditions and diners are proving game, even in northern latitudes. On a recent weekday in Portland, Maine, where the high was 28 degrees, the eatery Little Giant turned its back patio into an outdoor dining deck, with 35,000 watts of electric heat. In Seattle, the seafood spot Westward has installed two fire pits to keep patrons cozy. Scarpetta, in New York, built private dining “chalets.” It’s a testament to local food cultures and the universal human need for social connection that people are willing to eat outside in the depths of winter.

But between the not freezing part and the not getting Covid-19 part, if you decide to visit a restaurant, eating out has become something you need to plan for: Whose outdoor setup promises warmth, what to wear to battle the elements, what to order that won’t get cold as soon as it hits the table (or maybe will still taste good even if it is cold). Getting a table used to be the main concern. Now you have to think about wind chill and the chance of snow.

How are diners and restaurateurs making it work? Here, the new rules for eating outside.

Know what you’re facing.

The pandemic diner will quickly discover that every restaurant offers its own version of the outdoor experience. Heated, custom-designed tents called Yurt Villages, a collaboration between American Express and the dining app Resy, have been set up at 13 in-demand restaurants across the country, including Zahav in Philadelphia and Arlo Grey in Austin, Texas. Many more eateries have erected cheap, rustic structures made of wood or plastic, which Ms. Sugar of Grubstreet has codified by architectural style, from Upmarket Shanty to Cold-Weather Cabana. You’ll want to do some research to know exactly what the set up will be — are there heaters at every table? Blankets on loan? How windy and exposed is the location?

“I generally won’t go to a restaurant without having seen their outdoor situation beforehand,” said William Li, a founder of The Hao Life, a wellness brand, who on a recent week ate out in New York nearly every night. “A lot of them are just tables outside without any heating whatsoever. Even if you’re dressed appropriately, it’s not comfortable.”

Jessica Siskin, a food artist behind the popular Instagram account Misterkrisp, follows the same rule but for different reasons. Ms. Siskin won’t eat inside plastic enclosures or structures that approximate indoor settings. “I don’t think of plastic as a ventilated material,” she said.

Ms. Siskin does a scouting mission, she said, for her sake and the restaurant’s: “The last thing I want is to get to a restaurant, feel uncomfortable and leave. That’s a reservation that could have gone to someone else.”

Which brings up another point about planning: Make a reservation where you can. Many restaurants are operating with far fewer tables than normal, and on weekends (at brunch especially, when it’s relatively warmer) those tables fill up fast.

Bundle up!

Jeremy Levitt, a founder of Parts and Labor Design, a hospitality design firm, has a piece of advice about dress. “Go as if you’re having a hot toddy outside in front of a bonfire that doesn’t exist,” he said.

Mr. Levitt, who lives in Manhattan, has learned the hard way that his feet become blocks of ice when he sits outside for an hour or more. He’s taken to wearing warm shoes with a few layers of socks, and he and his wife and children also make sure to bring blankets.

With their beanies, winter jackets and gloves, outdoor diners have the look of winter athletes. Erika Chou, a Manhattan restaurateur who operates the spots Kimika and Wayla, has seen people come in “with a full snowboarding outfit, like Burton head to toe,” she said.

Mr. Li swears by fleece-lined Heattech pants from Uniqlo and thick wool socks from L.L. Bean. Ms. Siskin has “a couple of tricks I picked up,” she said, including layering long underwear beneath her jeans and a thin Patagonia liner under her coat.

On a recent night, “I went out to dinner and wore those air-activated foot warmers that you buy for skiing,” she said. “I also got this hand warmer that’s been a game changer,” a rechargeable model by Ocoopa.

Restaurant owners are helping their customers stay warm, too. At the Odeon in New York’s TriBeCa neighborhood, there are the ubiquitous infrared heat lamps, along with microfiber blankets to rent for $7 or purchase for $20. The restaurant also has mylar blankets like the ones given to marathon runners for customers to use for free. Many other restaurants are providing blankets, too, which they wash or dry-clean after each use.

Order the soup.

Even the best dishes don’t taste as good cold, so it’s worth considering how a restaurant has adapted.

Back in the fall, Cédric Vongerichten, the chef and owner of Wayan, which serves Indonesian food with a French flair, found that dishes like lobster noodles were getting cold in minutes. Inspired by his childhood in France, Mr. Vongerichten introduced a burner device like the ones for cheese fondue, which plugs into an electrical outlet at select tables, a concept he calls Indo-Chalet.

In addition, Wayan’s kitchen staff now plates hot dishes in cast-iron pans, which Mr. Vongerichten said would retain heat throughout a meal. Off the menu? Es Teler, a shaved ice dessert. And while the restaurant still offers ice cream, servers are suggesting hot desserts like a cookie baked in a cast iron pan.

When ordering, it helps to think about your courses, to minimize having dishes sit on the table for too long or to focus on warming items.

At Heights Café in Brooklyn Heights, a popular brunch spot even on frigid days, soups and hot toddies have become popular orders. The Odeon has been selling a lot of French onion soup and cassoulet, said the owner Lynn Wagenknecht.

It makes sense to adapt your appetite to the weather, as well. Shanise Djuhari, a dental resident who lives in Brooklyn, recently ate outside on a very cold, windy and rainy day. “I typically don’t go for stews,” she said. “But that day, we had a couple of stews on the table. It seemed weather appropriate.”

Even if a restaurant’s menu pays no deference to the cold, there are simple ways to warm up. “I always order hot water,” said Ms. Chou, the restaurateur. “I think that helps. It’s good for your digestive system as well.”

Do a time and temperature check.

With daylight hours limited, lunch is the new dinner, and dinner begins at an hour more common to retirement communities.

At Kimika, Ms. Chou now starts dinner service at 4 p.m. “It’s lighter out so maybe slightly warmer,” she said. “I’m sure people are trying to eat at earlier times when there’s less crowding.”

Ms. Wagenknecht said 4 to 8 is her busiest time on weekends. And anyway, a lingering, late-night meal is virtually impossible: In New York State, restaurants must close by 10. Massachusetts also enacted a 10 p.m. curfew, while other states and cities (like Chicago, which requires restaurants to close one hour later) have similar rules. The compressed dinner service may mean that your restaurant will no longer hold a table if one or more guests arrive late, so maybe ditch you friends who are always texting that they’re five minutes away.

“We have such a small window of service, if everyone’s late, we lose half a turn,” Ms. Wagenknecht said.

In addition to being conscious of time, check the weather during your planned dining hour.

Even worse than the cold, rain or snow is the wind. It rattles under canopy roofs, renders the portable heaters useless and frays the servers’ nerves. On blustery days, it’s better to stay home.

Embrace it.

For Mr. Levitt, who dines outside frequently, the cold is “part of the fun,” he said. “I’m going out to dinner and I’m going to be sitting outside for an hour. People need to embrace that.”

Mr. Li expressed a similar sentiment. He said he has adopted a Scandinavian approach to dining out: There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

Ms Wagenknecht perhaps sums it up best, with advice for eating outside if not for life itself: “If you don’t approach it with a spirit of fun and adventure, you’re probably going to be miserable.”

Why Thunder and Fireworks Make Dogs Anxious

Photo

Allene Anderson said her foster dog, Wrigley, a golden retriever, quaked for hours after a storm.

Allene Anderson said her foster dog, Wrigley, a golden retriever, quaked for hours after a storm.Credit NYTCREDIT: Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

It is entirely possible that no one dreads the dog days of summer more than dogs themselves.

Sodden heat gathers itself into sudden barrages of pounding thunder, crackling lightning and pane-rattling rain. Drives dogs crazy, all that noise.

And then, on the Fourth of July: fireworks.

By some estimates, at least 40 percent of dogs experience noise anxiety, which is most pronounced in the summer. Animal shelters report that their busiest day for taking in runaway dogs is July 5.

Veterinarians tell of dogs who took refuge in hiding places so tight that they got stuck, who gnawed on door handles, who crashed through windows or raced into traffic — all desperate efforts to escape inexplicable collisions of noise and flashing light. Ernie, a wired-hair pointer, was so terrified by thunderstorms that he would vault fences at his Maryland farm and run in a straight line for miles.

“It’s very serious,” said Dr. Melissa Bain, an associate professor of clinical animal behavior at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s a true panic disorder with a complete flight response.”

Over the years, a mishmash of remedies for noise anxiety have sprung up: homeopathic blends; a calming pheromone; CDs of thunderstorms mixed with Beethoven; swaddling jackets ; even Prozac and Valium. But this month, the first drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for canine noise aversion (a term encompassing mild discomfort to phobia) came on the market. The drug, Sileo, inhibits norepinephrine, a brain chemical associated with anxiety and fear response.

In the coming days, the annual onslaught of calls will pour into vets: “‘The fireworks are happening and my dog will freak out, so I need something to stop that, and I need it right now!’” Dr. Bain said.

Some vets prescribe strong sedatives, but even if the immediate crisis is averted, the underlying phobia remains untreated.

Being startled by a loud noise is normal, for dogs as well as humans. But these dogs cannot settle back down. Even if most reactions are not as extreme as the dog who tears out its nails while frantically scratching a door, many dogs will cower, pace and defecate indoors.

Cats can have noise aversion, though reports are less common. Animal behavior experts say cats often seem more self-reliant and understated than dogs, so when they hide under beds during storms, owners may not read that response as unusual.

Photo

Storms frighten Stella, a miniature breed.

Storms frighten Stella, a miniature breed.Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

Veterinary behaviorists say that as years pass, dogs with noise aversion may associate one sensation with another: storm-phobic tremors can be set off merely by dark clouds.

And thunderstorms are complicated beasts. “There are significant pressure changes, frantic winds, massive electrical discharges, concussive sounds: Dogs can hear above and below our auditory range,” said Dr. Peter H. Eeg, a veterinarian in Poolesville, Md., who has been reporting Sileo results in patients to Zoetis, the company that distributes the drug.

Wrigley, a 10-year-old golden retriever in Naperville, Ill., started trembling three hours before a recent storm, said Allene Anderson, a foster caretaker of abandoned dogs.

“She was desperate to climb down my throat,” Ms. Anderson said. “I got down on the floor with her, and she clawed me. She couldn’t get close enough.” After the storm passed, Wrigley quaked for hours.

“If owners don’t understand what’s going through the dog’s mind,” Ms. Anderson said, “they shout and throw them in the basement. That just makes it worse.”

Countless other noises set off dogs: jackhammers, lawn mowers, coffee grinders. One vet said that even garments designed to cocoon dogs in a secured wrap can irritate some by the sound of Velcro flaps being ripped apart. A toddler’s shrieks freaked out Winnie, an Indiana bulldog; her owner, Dr. Sara L. Bennett, a veterinary behaviorist, taught Winnie to relax with yoga breaths.

During a thunderstorm two years ago, Rebecca Roach was awakened at 3 a.m. by Stella, her 6-year-old miniature Australian shepherd, clambering on her chest, panting, whining and shaking.

“My instinct was to comfort her,” said Ms. Roach, who lives in Boyds, Md. “so I held her until the storm passed.”

But behavior specialists disagree about whether owners should comfort animals. Dr. Daniel S. Mills, a veterinarian at the University of Lincoln in England who is an expert on canine noise aversion, suggests that owners “acknowledge the dog but not fuss over it. Then show that the environment is safe and not compatible with threat, by playing around and seeing if the dog wants to join you. But don’t force it. Let it make a choice.”

Other experts say that soothing a spooked animal, bred to seek safety with its human, is just fine. “You can’t reinforce anxiety by comforting a dog,” Dr. Bain said. “You won’t make the fear worse. Do what you need to do to help your dog.”

Other tips include muffling noise with quiet music and, if possible, staying with the dog in a windowless, interior room. Because a dog’s flight response is on overload, it is seeking a haven.

For years, veterinarians treated noise phobia with acepromazine, a tranquilizer. It sedates the dog but is not an anti-anxiety medication. During a thunderstorm, the dog can still see and hear everything. But like someone having a nightmare in which he or she cannot run from danger, the frightened dog can’t move to escape. So veterinary behaviorists say that acepromazine can exacerbate noise aversion.

Some dogs function better with Prozac, but as with humans, the daily medicine takes four to six weeks to become effective.

Stella was impervious to prescriptions. During thunderstorm season, she and Ms. Roach lost hours of sleep. Ms. Roach tried positive reinforcement: When Stella’s symptoms would begin, she would be given treats from the night stand.

“Then Stella started climbing on my chest at 3 a.m., whimpering, whining and looking at the night stand,” Ms. Roach said. “And no thunderstorm! That was the end of that.”

The new canine noise aversion drug, Sileo, is actually a micro-amount of a medication approved as a sedative for minor veterinary procedures —- a flavorless gel, measured in a syringe, that is squeezed between the dog’s cheek and gum and absorbed within 30 minutes.

Orion, the Finnish company that developed it, tested it on several hundred noise-averse dogs during two years of New Year’s fireworks. Three-quarters of the owners rated the dogs’ response as good to excellent; their pets remained unperturbed. The drug lasts several hours, after which another dose can be administered.

A syringe costs about $30 and holds several weight-dependent doses. Sileo’s main side effect, in 4.5 percent of dogs, is vomiting.

“I’m not naïve enough to think this is the miracle cure,” said Dr. Emily Levine, a veterinary behaviorist in Fairfield, N.J. But she considered it a worthy option.

The optimal solution, vets say, is catching the response early, and desensitizing the dog with calibrated recordings of the offending noise, and positive conditioning.

But training takes time, patience and consistency.

“And humans,” Dr. Eeg said, “are one of the most inconsistent species on the planet.”