After days of record-breaking cold and winter storms in Texas that disrupted the power grid and freeze water pipes, millions of people are now being instructed to boil their water for safety reasons.
Other families have no tap water at all. Valerie Contreras, 20, who lives in Austin, Texas, was forced to take refuge with her young son at her parents’ house nearby during the storm. She said her family was melting snow in buckets to flush the toilets and boiling snow water to wash the dishes.
She uses purified bottled water in her son’s baby formula but is limited to her last two gallons.
As severe weather disrupts critical services, families strive to navigate in dangerous conditions. That’s why we asked experts for tips on how to be safe. Even if you haven’t lost drinking water or electricity, some of this advice can help you plan ahead in the event of a similar emergency. As climate change accelerates, unexpected weather events can cripple more power grids, putting people at risk of losing electricity.
A weather crisis linked to the pandemic can “feel pretty hopeless and endless,” said Dr. David J. Schonfeld, the Director of the National Center for School Crisis and Grief at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. “Your goal is to identify the current situation, find out what is most important to you at this point, and be able to resolve that one problem.”
Save heat and create an exit plan
If the power goes out, you can take certain precautions to avoid heat loss, such as: For example, place rolled towels at the base of exterior doors or stuff rags into cracks under the doors. Closing curtains and blinds can also keep the heat inside, according to the National Weather Service.
The service also recommended residents “move all activities to a main room and close the remaining interior doors to retain heat.” Also, people should wear layers of loose and light warm clothing and have extra layers of clothing on hand.
Christina DiVirgilio, 36, who lives in a suburb of Houston, Spring, Texas, bundled her sons, 5 and 11 months, in vests and fleece pajamas along with gloves, hats and robes.
“They stayed pretty warm for the most part,” she said.
Her youngest boy slept in a portable cot in Ms. Divirgilio’s walk-in closet, which turned out to be the warmest place in the house. And because they stocked up on batteries before the storm, they could keep their electric fireplace on all week to make sure the temperature in their apartment didn’t drop below 48 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you have a wood fireplace, you can start a fire provided you’ve cleaned and inspected your chimney annually. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you take a flashlight and check that the hatch or chimney is open to draw smoke out of the house.
But when it is very cold sometimes staying home is not safe, especially if you have young children who are more prone to heat loss than adults. The happiest can escape to a house with heat, by taking shelter with family or friends, staying in a hotel, or renting a house nearby.
Ms. Contreras and her 13-month-old son drove quickly to their parents’ house because their apartment was so cold that the liquid detergent had frozen into a solid block, snow was blowing under their door and ice was crystallizing on the floor. Eventually the thermostat in her living room stopped working and only displayed the letters “Lo”.
“We just couldn’t take the cold anymore. It was horrible, ”she said. “You could literally see your breath in my apartment.”
Ideally, if you live with people you don’t normally live with, everyone aged 2 and over should wear a mask and try to eat in separate rooms if possible, said Dr. Carl Baum, Professor of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine at the Yale School of Medicine and member of the Executive Committee of the APA Council on Children and Disasters.
“You don’t want to be the next superspreader event,” he said.
Those unable to find accommodation can consult their state’s list of thermal protection rooms if they need electricity and can travel.
Beware of carbon monoxide poisoning
When the cold weather hit Texas this week, hundreds of people in Houston used BBQ pits or portable generators indoors, causing carbon monoxide poisoning, the Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday. Many of the cases involved children.
Portable generators that run on fuel are often used to provide electricity or heat to households during a power outage. However, if used improperly, they can be dangerous.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends that these generators be located outdoors and outside of windows, keep them dry, properly grounded, and never plug them into an electrical outlet or main switchboard.
Other fossil-fueled outdoor appliances such as camping stoves can also release carbon monoxide and should not be used indoors.
Cars parked in a garage and broken gas stoves, gas dryers, and fuel stoves can release dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.
Headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion are the most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
You cannot smell or see carbon monoxide gas, even if it builds up to a fatal extent. It is considered the leading cause of death from poisoning in the United States, according to the Texas Poison Center Network. This is why it is important to have a carbon monoxide detector installed in your home as well.
Avoid contaminated water and protect your pipes
According to a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, more than 14 million people in 160 counties in Texas faced water disruptions on Friday morning.
If your community is under a boiling water recommendation, according to the CDC, use either bottled water or boiled tap water for your family and pets as your community’s water could be contaminated.
It is not enough to pour the water through a filtered jug or faucet attachment. Tap water should be brought to a 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, according to the CDC.
And if you’ve plugged appliances like a refrigerator into a water pipe, don’t use the water or ice it creates while the water boiling recommendation is in place.
Instead of washing dishes, use disposable plates, cups, and utensils. According to the CDC, household dishwashers are safe to use when the water reaches a final wash temperature of at least 150 degrees or when the dishwasher is on a disinfection cycle.
If you don’t have a dishwasher, you can wash and rinse the dishes as usual. The CDC then recommends soaking the washed dishes in a separate basin with 1 teaspoon of non-perfumed household bleach for each gallon of warm water. Allow the dishes to air dry completely before using them again.
Babies who drink formula should be fed ready-to-use formula whenever possible. If you don’t have one, try to find bottled water that is labeled as deionized, purified, demineralized, or distilled.
If the order for boiling water is canceled, residents will be asked to flush their water pipes to clear the pipes of potentially contaminated water.
If you are a homeowner, there are steps you can take to protect your pipes from freezing. The American Red Cross recommends keeping garage doors closed when there are water pipes in the garage, opening kitchen and bathroom cabinets to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing and to allow cold water to drip from the faucet. You can also install insulation materials such as a “pipe socket” on exposed water pipes.
If you see a drop of water or no water at all from your faucet, your pipes may be frozen or damaged. In this case, experts recommend turning off the main water supply to the house to avoid water damage when temperatures rise or power is restored.
Prepare for any possible difficulty eating
Knowing winter weather is on its way be sure to stock up at the grocery store ahead of time. But what if the weather surprises you? Or did you not venture outside so regularly because of the pandemic?
When the power went out earlier this week, 45-year-old Andrew Flynn immediately booked a hotel for his wife and two children in Austin, Texas, but then the hotel ran out of food.
On Tuesday, he said, “I drove three hours through downtown Austin yesterday and all the grocery stores had long lines.”
Eventually he went to a gas station and bought non-perishable goods such as ramen and rice so his family could cook meals in their slow cooker.
His kids, 9 and 12, “didn’t love it,” he said. But it is an incentive to allow them to eat candy or potato chips after their “crock-pot mix,” he added.
If your children are cold and grumpy and you cannot feed them comfortable food, at some point you will need to measure yourself against them in gentle but direct ways.
You can try saying, “I’m sorry, we don’t have a favorite food or any food you like at this point, but you have to eat it,” suggested Dr. Schönfeld ahead. “Or let’s find out what 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 food aid organizations or food banks are providing food to people in the community and how it is being distributed. Friends could have extra spare too.
75-year-old Rawlins Gilliland, who lives in Dallas, lost power for three days but his gas stove was still working, so he busied himself making vegetable soup for his neighbors, including the large family that lives next door.
“My survival mechanism was that we do what we can,” he said.
His neighbors also helped him out. When the power came back he found that his heating was down and one of his neighbors drove more than 50 miles to get a replacement part and help him install it. The heating is working again and he is no longer wearing his lined boots and polar fleece layers inside. “At the moment I’m very excited because things are under control here,” he said on Friday. “I wish people had really realized together that we are all together in these things.”