On February 11, 2021, temperatures in Austin, Texas, dipped below freezing. It would remain at or below 32°F for the next 162 hours.1 Cold weather records in the city were met or broken. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport recorded 6.4 inches of snow, the most in 72 years.2 On February 15, the city recorded its first single-digit temperature in 30 years. The culprit of this frigid weather was Winter Storm Uri, which swept across the United States from February 12-16.
At least 111 people in Texas died as a result of the storm, which left 15 million homes without water and almost 4.5 million without power, often for multiple days. The arctic blast caused damages potentially in excess of $125 billion, according to the Texas Tribune, which would make it the costliest disaster in the state’s history.3,4
At the American Botanical Council’s (ABC’s) 2.5-acre Case Mill Homestead, the loss of power and water had dire consequences for some of the infrastructure, and nothing could prepare the gardens for days of freezing weather and snow and ice.
“It made me nauseous,” said Toby Bernal, ABC head gardener, upon seeing the gardens (oral communication, March 15, 2021). “It was not pretty. Everything was covered in ice. There was a crust over everything. You couldn’t see any damage right off, because it was frozen. When I came back after, you could just tell that some things were automatically damaged.”
ABC Education Coordinator Jenny Perez added that “things looked so traumatized” (oral communication, March 15, 2021).
Like many cities in Texas, Austin lacks winter infrastructure for snow and extreme temperatures. It has no plows and very little material for treating icy roads. The lack of preparedness and winterization of the state’s power grid would make the winter storm even more deadly and destructive.5
On Monday, February 15, at 1 am, as electricity use peaked and power plants across the state were going offline because of the weather, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) made the decision to initiate “rolling outages” to avert what it claimed would be a “catastrophic blackout.”6 Before these emergency measures, the Texas electric grid was reportedly less than five minutes away from a cascading failure that could have left parts of Texas without power for months.7 Trouble compounded as frozen pipes burst, and the lack of power impeded the city’s Ullrich Water Treatment Plant’s ability to maintain water pressure and supply.
Many members of ABC’s Austin-based staff lost water and power. “I live in an older Austin neighborhood just south of the river and early Monday, February 15, I woke up and thought it was colder than it should be in my house,” wrote one ABC staff member (email, March 15, 2021). “Our power was out until 3 am Thursday. The temperature in my house during those 73 hours stayed between 34°F and 39°F the entire time.” As soon as the power came back, the city issued a boil-water notice. The staff member noted it was “a miserable experience.” Other staff members had to melt snow to have water to flush toilets, including ABC Art Director Matthew Magruder.
“[That was] not how I expected to spend my 43rd birthday,” he commented (email, March 17, 2021). “But in the times of COVID-19 and in the wake of 2020, you just never know.”
ABC headquarters lost power for at least four days. An external pipe also burst. ABC Customer Service Coordinator Perry Sauls, who lives nearby, walked to the office, as the roads were too icy to drive, to turn off water to the property until the pipe could be fixed almost a week later. However, unlike many in the city who sustained extensive water damage, the main building of the homestead itself, with its recent renovations and well-insulated pipes, escaped unscathed.
Unfortunately, the organization’s greenhouse and rainwater collection system sustained severe damage, which is still being assessed. The sub-freezing temperatures burst the system’s pipes and damaged its pump system. “I’ve been in maintenance for over 25 years, and in some pretty hostile environments, like Alaska,” said Bernal, “and I’ve never seen that before, where a solid iron pump broke. Even though we had set up a contingency plan, I don’t think we ever [anticipated] losing power for four days.”
Pipes also burst in the greenhouse. Bernal described them as “splintered.” With no electricity to the computer-based control panel, the natural gas heating system did not turn on. As a result, ABC’s collection of tropical plants, many of which were donated from the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, DC, and driven to Austin in the late 1990s, were subject to some decidedly un-temperate temperatures and were not watered during this time.
“We’re not willing to say that [any of the plants are gone for good],” said Perez. “Absolutely not.” The garden team has started carefully trimming back the plants and giving them seaweed fertilizer and water in small amounts, waiting to see what might show signs of life. The broken pipes have made this more laborious than normal, as they must manually bring water into the greenhouse. This has not deterred the team, which, along with a few other staff members, continued to work onsite for three days before running water was restored to the house.
The Case Mill Homestead, which dates to an 1853 land grant, has been ABC’s home since 1998. ABC has preserved the historic structure while making improvements and cultivating numerous gardens that showcase medicinal plants from around the world. These outdoor classrooms, the heart of the organization’s physical headquarters and emblematic of its nonprofit research and education mission, face a long road to recovery. Rarely have this house and the surrounding gardens witnessed winter weather of this severity.
As the snow and ice thawed and power and water returned, the story of the winter storm became that of community interconnectedness. A concerned neighbor initially noted the burst pipe on ABC’s property and attempted to help; he contacted ABC Finance Coordinator Cecelia Thompson and, eventually, Sauls was able to turn the water off. One staff member was able to take refuge at a friend’s house after enduring no power in his apartment for almost 40 hours.
ABC Development Director Denise Meikel recalled how her neighbors banded together with their limited resources. “My neighbors across the street never lost power, so they took in my mother since my house was really too cold for her,” she wrote (email, March 15, 2021). “It got to 39 degrees in my house, probably lower but I stopped checking. Almost everyone in Texas has these stories now, and it proved how much we all need each other. We gave food to people who hadn’t stocked up. My friend, with her trusty special tool to turn off water at the water main by the street, helped six of her neighbors get their water turned off quickly once a pipe burst, reducing the amount of damage in their homes. There were tradespeople who live in my neighborhood working for free to help fix water pipes.”
ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal said: “All of us here at ABC are grateful that we survived the storm, particularly those who were without power and had to endure near-freezing temperatures in their homes and apartments. Unfortunately, some of our fellow Austinites and other fellow Texans didn’t fare so well. At least 111 Texans reportedly died in connection to the winter weather, through exposure, carbon monoxide poisoning, and other causes. We are truly sorry about their passing. With respect to ABC, we are hopeful that many of our plants will regenerate; if needed, we can replace them. But people obviously cannot be replaced.”
Now, growth and repair seem more attainable. In the gardens, Perez sees reasons to be optimistic.
“I feel fortunate that we have … some cuttings of plants that we aren’t sure will make it. I feel a lot more hopeful, because I have seen in my own yard that there will be resilience.” Though the extended freeze damaged many of the plants above ground, it did not last long enough to freeze the ground itself, and many root systems are still intact. Plans are being discussed for new equipment and procedures for future freeze events, including the possibility of a back-up generator to help ensure that the greenhouse does not lose heat in the event of a power outage.
“I feel more hopeful than devastated,” Perez concluded. “That’s just how you have to be.”
To donate to help rebuild the gardens, please visit http://tinyurl.com/wvtaae8t. All donations are gratefully appreciated.
- Past weather in Austin, Texas, USA — February 2021. Time and Date website. Available at: http://timeanddate.com/weather/usa/austin/historic?month=2&year=2021. Accessed March 12, 2021.
- Winter Storm Uri spread snow, damaging ice from coast to coast, including the Deep South (recap). Weather.com. February 16, 2021. Available at: https://weather.com/safety/winter/news/2021-02-14-winter-storm-uri-south-midwest-northeast-snow-ice. Accessed March 12, 2021.
- Mulcahy S. At least 111 people died in Texas during winter storm, most from hypothermia. Texas Tribune. March 25, 2021. Available at: www.texastribune.org/2021/03/25/texas-deaths-winter-storm/. Accessed March 18, 2021.
- Ferman M. Winter storm could cost Texas more money than any disaster in state history. Texas Tribune. February 25, 2021. Available at: http://texastribune.org/2021/02/25/texas-winter-storm-cost-budget/. Accessed March 18, 2021.
- Bogel-Burroughs N, Nieto del Rio GM, Paybarah A. Texas winter storm: What to know. New York Times. February 20, 2021.
- Salinas R, Blake K, Spivey S. Timeline: How the historic winter storm, Texas blackout cold-stunned the San Antonio area. KSAT. February 25, 2021. Available at: http://ksat.com/news/local/2021/02/25/timeline-how-the-historic-winter-storm-texas-blackout-cold-stunned-the-san-antonio-area/. Accessed March 12, 2021.
- Largey M. Texas’ power grid was 4 minutes and 37 seconds away from collapsing. Here’s how it happened. Houston Public Media website. February 24, 2021. Available at: http://houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/energy-environment/2021/02/24/392290/texas-power-grid-was-4-minutes-and-37-seconds-away-from-collapsing-heres-how-it-happened/. Accessed March 18, 2021.