Urban Survival: How to Survive a Snowstorm in the City

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A lone fire truck on North Texas’s snowy streets.

Though Texas does not really come to mind when one thinks of the phrase “winter wonderland”, the Lone Star State does get a fair bit of snow every so often. Parts of the state north of I-20 and the higher altitudes in West Texas typically receive annual snowfall. It’s a running joke that when Texas gets just a light snow, schools and businesses close and society starts to collapse—all because people can’t drive on snow and ice (which is very true). Some parts of the state have snowplows and de-icing equipment, but most don’t, because they rarely if ever receive snowfall.

Enter Winter Storm Uri, a hundred-year storm bringing hundred-year snow, hundred-year lows, and hundred-year chaos. Welcome to 2021!

Sunday morning, a light dusting. “The storm before the storm.”

In my area, it started on Thursday, February 11, when a first wave of winter weather iced up roads and bridges, causing a hundred-car pileup on one of the I-35W express lanes in Fort Worth. We then started receiving snow on the following Saturday, and woke up Sunday with a good amount of powder, the second snowfall of 2021. But that was just the beginning.
My family and I woke up on Monday morning with no power. The temperature outside was in the teens. Due to the lack of electricity, we had no heat. There was four to five inches of snow on the ground, certainly the most I’ve seen in North Texas.

We spent the day inside, offline, doing things like reading books (or, in my brother’s case, using his cell phone data to watch episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). The house temperature continued to drop. Power was out across the state. We contacted the power company, who reported that they were relinquishing control of the grid to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT—which most of us didn’t even know existed until this event) in order to roll blackouts and gradually bring people back online. Our neighbor, who works for the power company, confirmed this. He also said that the power substation for our area was down, and wasn’t sure how high of a priority it was to get it back online.

We found one of the few restaurants open, a to-go pizza place, and ordered lunch. We spent the rest of the day reading, talking, praying for the power to return, and staying warm. The house continued to cool. We kept the water running on all taps to prevent the pipes from freezing. We kept the fridge and freezer shut to keep the cold in.

Monday morning. This is all the snow we would receive, but the cold weather would remain. The windchill got down to -3º F (-19º C) overnight.

Evening came, and still no power. We bundled up and went to bed. The thermostat read forty-six degrees Fahrenheit; the temperature sensor on my G-Shock read forty-two degrees in my room. It was a cold, unrestful night, but we made it through.

The next day, Tuesday, was more of the same, just colder. At one point, my brother and I went outside and carefully walked down the street just to get our body heat up and feel warmer.

We found out that the local Chick-fil-A was open, so we went there for a to-go lunch. When we returned home, we had power. We were saved!

Vader the truck on Sunday morning.

Or so we thought. I got online and started checking in with some of my friends, and learned that cities to the north of us were under boil orders for their water. Apparently pipes at the water treatment plant had burst, and the cities couldn’t guarantee that the water wasn’t contaminated.

The next morning, Wednesday, the same thing happened to our city. People started consuming inordinate amounts of water by filling up containers and bathtubs, which apparently caused a pipe burst. So, the city issued a boil order and greatly reduced the water pressure. We had power, but now we had little water.

This continued until Saturday, when the city identified the pipe break and then had the water tested for contaminants. The test came back negative, and the water pressure was restored. Finally! Back to normal!

Vader the truck on Monday morning!

As a young, healthy male, this whole situation didn’t affect me too much. I believe I was well-prepared, not only physically but also mentally. But I know it affected a lot of people far worse than myself: the elderly and infirm, young children, and the non-prepper-minded.

I don’t know enough about the power grid situation in Texas to weigh in on what went wrong and why this disaster shouldn’t have happened (though I should know), and that’s not the point of this article. Instead, I want to share what helped my family and I make it through this disaster. A lot of things might be “common sense”, but it’s surprising how few people think to prepare themselves for this kind of catastrophe. This goes beyond having items for survival, too; it also has to do with your mental state and how you think about things.

Enough rambling. Here’s a breakdown of you need to survive another Winter Storm Uri.

1. A survivor’s mindset

You can have all the gear and resources in the world, but if you don’t have the mindset or the will of a survivor, you’re not going to last long. Stories of survivors of plane crashes, school shootings, terrorist attacks, and other crises show that those who believe they will survive usually do. On the other hand, those who wallow in their sorrow and have a negative outlook are less likely to make it through intact or even at all. You have to stay positive. Things could be a lot worse.

That said, you also have to be realistic enough to realize that you may be without utilities for an extended period of time. Winter Storm Uri saw my family without power for about thirty-four hours and without drinkable water for four full days. In 2010, a similar (but milder) snowstorm left us without power for a full three days.

Utility providers, and especially electricity providers, have to prioritize who gets restored first. That means making tough decisions. Are they heartless corporate executives who are out of touch with the “little people”? Perhaps, and I believe some are, but that’s not always the case. The point is that you can’t expect to have your power and water back in a certain period of time just because someone across town got theirs back. (In the aforementioned 2010 storm, our side of the street was dark, for three days while our neighbors on the other side had full power!)

So, be hopeful but be realistic. Have cautious optimism. Be prepared to stick it out for longer than you’d like, but realize that it will get better.

Ultimately, learn to be self-reliant. Don’t worry about things that you can’t control, but do take care of those that you can.

Yours truly and the Snow Dog!

2. A home base.

I know some people who rented hotel rooms as soon as they lost power. Some went to stay with family members who did have power. Others, like me and my family, stayed home despite not having power.

I don’t think there’s a single right answer, but I am more inclined to “hold down the fort” because I still maintain a degree of control over my circumstances. Renting a hotel room with power and hot water is great as long as the hotel has power and hot water—some lost power or suffered from the same rolling blackouts.

Regardless, you need to have a place where you can stay and ride the storm out. It’s hard to sit still during a crisis, but unless your health or safety are in immediate danger, you really need to stay put and wait.

3. A week’s worth of water.

Once you have a place to shelter out of the elements, you need to address your water needs. The thing is, when a crisis hits, it’s usually too late.
Common survivalist knowledge is to have a gallon of water per person per day. That would be seven gallons of water per person per week. Buy some bottled water and store it in a dark place so it doesn’t get contaminated by plastic. There are other options, but bottled water is usually the easiest.
It’s also a good idea to have some “wash water” for bathing, washing dishes, and so forth. This could be some tap water stored in containers (again, away from sunlight). But when a disaster hits, you can’t count on having water available.

We stocked up on water when COVID hit, just in case. I don’t like drinking bottled water because I think it tastes funny (maybe it’s the plastic?), but when you’re in survival mode, you take what you can get. Image courtesy of Sam’s Club.

In this same vein, for a winter storm, make sure you leave your water faucets, taps, and spigots open and dripping so that pipes don’t burst. I think that’s self-explanatory.

4. A week’s supply of food.

We take running water and readily-available food for granted. But when a disaster hits, people hit the supermarkets, and you can’t guarantee you’ll get there in time-—or that there will be deliveries to restock.

I remember hearing that the lady who runs one of my area’s large charities saying that peanut butter is the only food you need to survive. And while I’m not a fan of preservatives, if your peanut butter does have preservatives in it, it doesn’t have to be refrigerated (which is great if you have no power). In my family, my dad is allergic to peanuts, so we substitute almond butter. Regardless, nut butters are some of the best foodstuffs to have on hand for a crisis.

Almond butter (or any nut butter) is a good survival staple. Nut butters contain healthy fats and proteins that your body needs to stay warm, and also helps you feel full longer. Image courtesy of Whole and Natural.

Other good foods are crackers, rice, beans, preserves, bread, energy bars, and raw nuts. Although I wouldn’t normally recommend this, eating chocolate bars can give your body quick calories that it needs to help you stay warm. (Maybe a good excuse to indulge!) Freeze-dried foods can be good, as can dehydrated meals (assuming you have access to purified water that you can use to reconstitute them).

Ideally, you would have enough food to feed each person two-thousand calories a day. In a survival situation, that’s not always possible, but it is important to make sure everyone is eating enough to have energy. There’s no point trying to ration food out over a week if you only have a few days’ worth—eat what you need and start looking for more.

On a final note, vitamins are also good to have on hand for cases like this. You may not be able to eat your five fruits and vegetables daily, so taking vitamins will help ensure that your body has what it needs to keep operating as it should.

5. Warm clothes.

I don’t like either the heat or the cold, but at least I can bundle up in the cold to stay warm. One of the first things I did when the inside temperature dropped was to put on a base layer—basically synthetic long johns that make me look and feel like a superhero. Over that I wore a merino wool sweater and a puffer vest. I put on a pair of merino wool socks, and eventually a second pair over those. I was comfortable wearing jeans over my base layer bottoms, so no big deal there. I hate wearing things on my head, but I put on my wool cowboy/adventure hat when outside and wore a headband to sleep in. (I wound up pulling the front of the headband over my nose because my nose got really cold at night.) I kept a few different pairs of gloves handy to keep my hands warm.

I’m all about dressing to impress, but when it’s survival, you use what you’ve got. My merino wool turtleneck is stylish but also very functional; I would not have stayed as warm without it.

My Joseph Abboud merino wool sweater is stylish but, more importantly, warm. Go for quality when shopping for clothes. Image courtesy of Men’s Wearhouse.

6. Camping gear.

Surviving a natural disaster is a lot like camping. Before you go on a camping trip, you have to assess where you’re going and what gear you’re going to need to not just survive, but enjoy yourself. When my brother and I went camping in Zion National Park a couple years ago, we were prepared for freezing temperatures by taking mummy bags and all our cold-weather gear. We also had a Coleman stove and propane for cooking.These are the same things you need to survive winter weather in your home. You can’t sleep (at least not well) if you’re cold. For me, sleeping in my bed with two sleeping bags serving as blankets, I stayed very warm. I could have stayed in there all day! Having a sleeping bag or two that are rated to low temperatures is necessary.

We have an electric range, so cooking anything without power was not an option. That’s why having a backup stove and fuel source are also essential. You can use a camp stove to cook food and boil water. Speaking from direct experience, having a hot meal when you’re battling the cold can do a lot for you psychologically. Many great survival foods, such as rice, oatmeal, lentils, and dehydrated foods require you to boil water anyway, so you’d might as well acquire something to prepare them with.

A propane stove, such as this Coleman, is a campground staple and a must for any family in an urban survival situation. There are other stoves that use different types of fuel, so make sure you have the right fuel stocked up in advance. Image courtesy of Camping World.

7. Assorted accessories.

While everything above is the bare minimum for urban survival during a winter weather event, the following accessories can make your survival a little less survival-esque. I have listed them below in no particular order:

My G-Shock is one of my favorite pieces of gear. It’s easy to read, even at night. It has a built-in compass and temperature sensor. And it’s virtually indestructible. I can wear it anytime, anywhere with confidence.
  • Cash money (because if power is out and Internet is down, chances are the credit card systems won’t work; you still need the ability to buy stuff)
  • Ice or dry ice (in case you need to keep stuff cool in a fridge, freezer, or cooler)
  • A wristwatch to keep track of time (I like my G-Shock for this)
  • A thermometer to keep track of temperature
  • A first aid kit
  • A notebook and pen for note-taking or journaling (good to write down your thoughts and make notes for reflection after the fact)
  • Body wipes (if you don’t have warm or running water, you can use these to stay clean)
  • Dry shampoo (same as above, especially for those of us with long or thick hair!)
  • Hand wipes or sanitizer (and not just because of COVID)
  • Boots (for walking in the snow, and ideally keeping your feet warm)
  • Crampons (hikers strap these on to their boots for walking on ice)
  • A car with a full tank of gas (fill up before a storm hits, because gas may be scare and pumps may not work after the fact)
  • Power bricks (if you don’t have power, you can use these to keep your devices charged)
  • Handheld radios (in case cellular communications go down, you can use these to stay in touch with family members and neighbors)
  • Firewood (for burning in a fireplace or firepit)
  • Fire starting kit (for starting the aforementioned fire)
  • Dish soap (for washing dishes without a dishwasher)
  • Board games or card games (for entertainment with others)
  • Books or magazines (for entertainment by yourself)
  • Lip balm (because the cold, dry air can cause chapped lips)
  • Snow shovel (if you need to get snow off a sidewalk or driveway)
  • Weather radio (I have a hand-crank version)
  • Flashlights and lanterns (keep a flashlight on your person at all times, and keep a lantern in each main room or bathroom)
  • Extra batteries (for all flashlights, lanterns, and other devices that could need power)
  • Balaclava (if your head gets really cold, then this could be a great solution)
  • Sunglasses (you can sunburn your eyes from the light that reflects off snow)
  • Pet accessories (because if you’re cold, your pets probably are, too)
  • Camp/survival knife (just in case you need to cut something; this kind of knife can do most everything)
  • Tools and/or a multitool (just in case you need to repair something)
When there’s no electricity, you need light—sometimes lots of light. This is my Nitecore tactical flashlight, more than enough for navigating a dark house at night.
My Leatherman Micra multitool. I carry this pretty much everywhere on my keychain. It’s a good idea to have a bigger one around the house, just in case.

I hope you’ve learned something from this article. More importantly, I hope you take action by preparing for the future storm. We are perhaps the most pampered that people have ever been, which makes dealing with situations like loss of water and power utilities are starker than they might have been in the past. But it doesn’t have to be as tough or unpleasant; preparing for a survival situation makes the survival itself less physically demanding and more mentally reassuring.

Let me know if you have any winter survival tips to share or anything you would add to this list!

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2 Responses

  1. I read quite a few articles about the Texas Winter storm in the European press. I am glad to see that your family did well through these difficult times.

    1. Yes, it was tough, but thankfully lasted only a few days. Thank you for your kind words and I hope you’re doing well!

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