This article is a writeup of the conversation at a meetup hosted by Austin Less Wrong on Saturday, February 27, 2021. The topic was the winter weather and infrastructure crisis that took place the previous week. There were a total of 13 participants, including 8 people who were in Texas at the time and 5 who weren't.
I was the note-taker but I was not in Texas myself, so replies to any comments will probably come from people other than me. Below the section break, "I" refers to whoever was speaking at the time. Thanks to everyone who contributed and helped compile these notes.
Disclaimer: I took pains to make it clear before, during, and after the meetup that I was taking notes for posting on LessWrong later. I do not endorse posting meetup write-ups without the knowledge and consent of those present!
The 2021 Texas Freeze
I lost power Monday through Thursday. The inside temperature dropped from 68°F to 47°F on Monday alone; over the course of the week the thermostat hit a minimum of 40°F. (Either the thermostat couldn't read any lower or the kitchen was even colder, since my olive oil solidified, which happens at 37°F). My breath was visible indoors. I had to keep my phone off most of the time, so most of the day was spent reading books under several blankets. I had a carbon monoxide scare on Tuesday after using the fireplace. I started boiling water on Wednesday, when the order was declared in some areas of Austin but not yet mine, because it seemed likely the order would soon be extended city-wide, which indeed occurred a day later. Even after getting power back, I still couldn't get groceries—stores had long lines, and H-E-B was closed after 5pm. Gas stations were out-of-order.
I lost power Monday through Friday—there was some damage to a local power line. I teamed up with my neighbors. We had a fire going out back that people could warm themselves and cook things at. We didn't have much in the way of preparation supplies, but we did have candles and water bottles. We had advance notice that we might lose water, so we filled up the tub and every container we could find. (We didn't lose water, but we got the boil-water notice.) A tree branch fell and blocked our alleyway; we worked together to remove it, yielding a bunch of firewood as a side benefit. The house was well-insulated (≈50°F), but some of our warm clothing got wet, so it would've been better to have had more. My cat helped keep the bed warm, and my dog was helpful for peace-of-mind what with all the strange noises at all times of the night.
I lost power starting Monday for 8 days, and water Thursday through Sunday. I survived by living within walking distance of the University of Texas campus. I went to the CompSci building and claimed a classroom to live in for the next few days. The whole building turned into a refugee camp for computer science students—they had water and power, since the campus has its own generator. Classes were canceled from Monday till Wednesday 9 days later. On Thursday, a friend's place got power back but not water, so we stayed there but had to go drive to the campus to get water every day.
I live right next to a hospital, so I never lost power. I did lose internet, but I was able to get it back by calling my service provider. I also lost water, for a total of 9 days. I regret not filling up my bathtub beforehand. Fortunately I had a few gallons of drinking water on hand, which was a lifesaver since stores were closed. I used half of it to flush the toilet once, but conserved the rest, and ate and drank a lot less than usual. I ended up filling containers from a nearby lake to use as toilet-flushing water. A nearby store was handing out filtered water for free.
I wasn't in Austin for the freeze, but I returned shortly afterward. My apartment lost power. Food in the freezer melted and refroze. (Tip: If canned food freezes, you should throw it away.) I wasn't around to drip the faucets, but people doing so in other units was effective. Also, the complex has gas-powered heat; it looks like it never dropped below freezing, since the houseplants survived. However, the kitchen sink still isn't working quite right.
I got lucky here, living in a rural area. I didn't lose power or water, though we lost some water pressure. I should've realized beforehand it was going to be bad, looking at the weather forecast. We have a donkey, so we had to bring him inside the garage. He didn't want to move, but once he was inside he was fine with it.
I also got lucky, and never lost power. When we realized water was in jeopardy, we filled up the tub, which was good. I wish I had kept more groceries in the house. I didn't realize that even after stores reopened, lines would be really long. I was running low by the end of the week.
I lost power Monday through Thursday. I had water but it was cold, and there was a boil-water order from Thursday to the next Monday. I booked a hotel downtown, for only 1 night initially, but I ended up staying for 4 nights. The hotel had a false fire alarm.
I also lost power Monday through Thursday, though with 30 minutes of power on Tuesday. It got to 46°F in the house according to an actual thermometer. (Watch out, because sometimes a thermostat has a minimum display temperature in the 40s.)
What things were helpful to have?
- Water purification: battery-powered UV light or iodine tablets. (You can take them camping.)
- Giant bins, buckets, or jugs for storing boiled water.
- Rolly cart for transporting water.
- A home with a gas stove, otherwise I would not have been able to cook or boil water.
- Outdoor grill and charcoal—I could've used this to cook if I hadn't had a gas line. However, there would've been a risk of hypothermia being outside and then unable to effectively warm up inside. I didn't actually end up using it.
- Electric kettle and air fryer (for cooking without a stove), but only because we were in a UT campus building that had electricity but no stove.
- Camping stove.
- Mylar blankets.
- Lots of warm clothing: jogging pants, ski mask, long underwear, Uniqlo Heattech (M, W), other skiing/camping gear.
- REI is a good place for this stuff
- "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing"
- Hand and toe warmers—it's a package that generates heat chemically. You put them inside your shoes or gloves (in between two layers).
- Solar panel, which was enough to keep phones charged.
- Flashlights, battery-powered lantern, extra batteries.
- Lighter and matches for starting gas-powered appliances.
- Lots of dried and canned foods and a few MREs I had ordered for fun and never used.
- Some fireplace fuel, it was mostly old newspapers and brown grocery bags which was not ideal but better than nothing.
What things did you wish you had?
- Much more firewood.
- However much firewood you think you need, get 5 times that. (This is a general principle for preparedness!)
- An axe for making my own firewood.
- Solar generator.
- Solar phone charger.
- Without one I needed to keep my phone off most of the time. The ability to look up safety knowledge (e.g. how to use a fireplace safely) was very limited. If the battery had reached zero, not being able to call someone as a last resort or 911 for an emergency may have been dangerous.
- Electric blanket (powered by a solar generator, if practical).
- Pressure cooker.
- Grains (quinoa, etc.).
- Drinking water.
- A Brita water filter pitcher for water that was boiled then cooled. Sediment may sometimes show up in water during a boil water notice.
Knowledge and skills
What knowledge and skills were useful?
- Knowing about restaurants giving out free stuff. If you could access the internet and had the means to drive on ice, websites were listing places that were giving out free stuff.
- Knowing your neighbors and being in good communication with them. This was a bonding experience. We were sharing firewood, candles, etc., and hanging out to relieve boredom. It'll always be the case that you have something your neighbors need, and vice-versa.
- Reading books like True Grit and The Revenant—optimistic stories of survival to put you in the right mindset. (Not a depressing story like The Road.) Then you can burn the book for heat ☺︎
Miscellaneous safety knowledge that was broadcast to Texans:
- Know the risks of driving on snow and ice, and be able to judge how likely your car may be to get stuck on the road.
- Drip your sinks so your pipes don't freeze. Wrap outdoor faucets with a rag and duct tape. If your pipes freeze they may burst and cause flooding.
- To avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, don't heat your home with a gas stove or oven, don't run your car in a closed garage, don't operate a charcoal grill inside a closed garage, and don't supplement your fireplace fuel with grill charcoal.
Additional safety facts that would've been good to memorize:
- Hypothermia from cold exposure is a risk when indoor temperatures fall below 60°F, more of a risk with infants or the elderly.
- Alcohol makes you feel warmer because it draws blood to your skin, resulting in increased loss of heat and increased risk of hypothermia.
- Symptoms of hypothermia (shivering, paleness, poor balance, slurred speech, confusion).
- Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning (headache, nausea, chest pain, dizziness, confusion).
- How to ration firewood.
- I had only 4 logs and a few sticks and a lot of paper (I did not intend to try lasting 4 days in the cold with that much firewood, it was just all out of stock beforehand). I used 2 logs at a time for 2 separate fires, one on Tuesday and one on Thursday.
- More logs would've been much better than more paper. Burning the paper was labor intensive so I had to supervise the fire more, because paper burns up very quickly.
- Burning a fire in the morning seemed to be the most helpful, because at night I'm under a pile of blankets and I don't need the house to have heat. About 90 minutes of fire burning raised the temperature by 5°F according to the battery-powered thermostat; I'm not really certain how long each fire lasted but I think it was 90 minutes.
Driving was hard, such that some of us considered it not an option. Austin has limited infrastructure for removing ice from roads. Cars were getting stuck everywhere. There was a 10-car pileup near my place! I had to walk to the grocery store, for which having a large backpack was helpful.
If you have 4-wheel drive, know how to use it, but you should still drive very carefully. Don't pass people, and turn gradually lest you fishtail.
If you had chains or snow tires you could put them on, but most people here don't have them. Chains aren't that expensive, but they're a pain to put on and off, and make for an unpleasant driving experience.
The temperature warmed up by 60°F in 24 hours after the freeze ended. This could make your tires run out of pressure. Check and see if you need to get them re-pressurized.
Uber wasn't too expensive, because they suppressed surge pricing, but that meant there weren't many rides available. A 2-mile ride was only $14, but I tipped $20.
Food and water
A lot of people don't know what foods are good to eat in a cold home without refrigeration. I saw posts about people throwing away butter, eggs, vegetables, and other things that would've been fine. My eggs went slightly warm in the refrigerator but I'm still eating them and it's fine. Yogurt was good; meat was fine for a few days. Learn how to tell by smell when something is bad. When ERCOT shut down the power, they were 4 minutes away from a total statewide failure which would've lasted a month. If something like that were to happen, knowing how to stretch food supplies would've been of value.
I used the outside for refrigeration, but my eggs froze. (Incidentally, looking up the freezing point of eggs, I could only find results about human gamete preservation...) It's useful to have a cooler to fill with snow and bring inside, which protects food from animals and sub-freezing temperatures. You'll still want cold beer even when it's cold out!
It's good to have water treatment tablets, especially if you can't boil, but note that you have to let it sit for 1–4 hours (depending on the brand/type of tablet) rather than drinking it immediately. Do not ingest the tablet.
Boiling, UV, and tablets kill organisms, but filters are necessary for removing particulates. You can cobble together a water filter by layering different types of earth—a layer of pebbles, dirt, sand, and ash. (Example)
What other kinds of disasters should we prepare for?
Shortly before the ice storm started, San Angelo, a city in West Texas, was already dealing with carcinogens in their water supply, which cannot be boiled away, so they had to buy water, which likely went out of stock very quickly. Then the snow came, the power went out, and they couldn't drive anywhere. On top of the pandemic it made for a quadruple-whammy. Think about combinations of different disasters.
In a way, this whole event was a weird combination of things all going wrong at once. A cascading failure: The electricity went out, causing heating to fail, which both made generating electricity even more difficult and caused water pipes to freeze.
We had our cold-weather disaster; what about a hot-weather disaster? What if it's really hot in the summertime and a power outage knocks out air conditioning? (The record high temperature for Texas during summer is 120°F.)
I was living on the east coast during such an event. The power was out for a few days. I spent most of my time in the basement, wearing light clothing. This could be bad for Texas: Texas doesn't have basements.
On the one hand, the Texas electrical grid is probably much more robust in heat (at least in a typical summer) than in cold, given that we more commonly deal with heat. On the other hand, the Texas grid is one of four independent grids in North America: East, West, Quebec, Texas. This can be problematic because our ability to import power is limited.
We see evidence reported that climate change may increase the likelihood of extreme weather events, both hot and cold, in the coming years. We don't currently see a scientific consensus regarding whether or not climate change was a contributing cause of this cold snap in particular (source).
Tips to keep cool: Fill your bathtub and soak in it, or soak your feet in a bucket of water (because your feet have lots of capillaries). Keep sunlight out of the house.
Electromagnetic pulse (EMP)
Some preppers worry about it; it would be really bad. Gas and water pumps would fail.
It could be either a deliberate attack or a naturally-occurring solar storm (recent Forbes article about this, Hacker News discussion). To prepare for this, you'd have to set up a house in a remote area with lots of supplies, and have enough gasoline on hand to be able to drive there. (This is a general prepper method.)
Existential risk from dependency on technology
When technology is developed and people start depending on it, its failure can have a worse outcome than if the technology had never been available at all. The electrical grid is one example; others include modern medicine and the logistical infrastructure for transporting food to populated areas.
There could be x-risk from eliminating death—if the population ages past fertility, but then the means of eliminating death is lost, then humanity will die out.
Biological warfare, or a naturally-occurring pandemic: Imagine a disease much worse and more contagious than COVID-19. When COVID-19 began, people were desensitized because of bird flu and other such false alarms.
Civil disorder can be initiated by some exogenous shock such as a hurricane or loss of food supply. Is it plausible that it could happen for an entirely endogenous cause? Maybe when some political situation arises where a lot of people think they have no other option than violence, e.g. the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But it seems like the modern state has more capacity to manage violence than in previous times.
Militia violence is more likely than state action.
Can you prepare for a dictatorship or totalitarian surveillance state? Prepare to leave the country; marry someone with another citizenship. It's hard to imagine that a dictatorship could spread to other countries in the way that Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia did. The interwar period was more fragile than things are now, in terms of the risk of mass killings, and people are more able to flee if things get bad.
But there were people who, by the time they knew they wanted to leave their country, couldn't. In the case of Nazi Germany, there was the situation of the MS St. Louis; Jewish survivors are especially paranoid because of this. Article: When is it time to leave your country? There are no clear answers, but keep journaling and write down your criteria. Otherwise, things will change gradually and everything will seem normal when it happens. Watch out for "emergency powers."
Or maybe anticipating specific events isn't the right way to think about it; instead, think "This country is a total mess, so something bad is going to happen even if I can't think of what." SSC article The Influenza of Evil: We already have antibodies against things like Nazism and Communism, so if mass death occurs in the US, it may be due to something that doesn't pattern-match to either of those things.
When would having a bug-out bag be useful? Mass rioting/looting—but you'd probably have a bit more time to pack than just a few minutes. In summer 2020, San Antonio had one hour's notice. But it might be that stores are more vulnerable than homes. Also last summer, people living in CHAZ might've wanted to leave on short notice.
If your house is burning down, having a bug-out bag is good. Less extreme, having supplies to leave your house for a few days is useful, as it was during the Texas freeze. Packing the bag in advance is helpful because it's stressful to have to remember all the different things you need (e.g. I keep a spare toothbrush and toothpaste in my suitcase, because I always forget it otherwise).
Relatedly, keeping a bag of extra clothing and supplies in your car in case it breaks down in the middle of nowhere is good practice.
Is AI risk preppable?
Be as illegible as possible, so the AI doesn't know where to find your isolated wilderness hideout or that you exist at all. But this isn't helpful against nanobots. In an unfriendly AI takeoff scenario, you probably won't survive very long regardless of where you are.
Context: AI Impacts 2020 review
Think about career security: Is your job still relevant with AI in the picture?
There's a spectrum of takeoff scenarios. A hard takeoff is too fast to react to; a slower takeoff might make things more difficult and displace people's jobs. But there's also an intermediate case, where AI can still do a lot of harm short of existential. E.g.: terrorist drones that can be deployed by anyone untraceably; robot robbery; weaponized self-driving cars.