Shared from the 1/21/2022 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Freeze leaves shivers of dread

As cold front hits, some who endured outages, burst pipes fear repeat

Brett Coomer / Staff photographer

Mariam Ahmed checks on the progress of the home restoration Thursday in Houston. Her home was severely damaged during last year’s freeze as a broken pipe poured water throughout the house. She’s scheduled to move back in on Monday.

Jason Fochtman / Staff photographer

Gardener Randy Young works Thursday to remove a stubborn water hose from the garden while working to drain the irrigation system at Senior’s Garden in Conroe.

Brett Coomer / Staff photographer

Mariam Ahmed shows a video of the damage to her Houston home caused by a burst pipe during last February’s freeze, which left 246 confirmed deaths, including 43 in Harris County. Ahmed plans to shut off the water and drain the pipes before the cold snap hit.

Mariam Ahmed is not taking chances with this week’s cold snap. The mother of three has spent the past year displaced from her Jersey Village home since a pipe burst during the 2021 freeze, causing her ceilings to cave and her drywall to dissolve as water gushed unencumbered for three days.

She will move back in on Monday. But first, Ahmed planned to turn off all her water and drain her pipes completely — just in case the worst should happen again.

“Some may say it’s excessive, but I don’t want a repeat of last year,” she said. “I fear it happening again.”

Ahmed was one of many Houston residents bracing as a cold front moved Wednesday into Southeast Texas, and portions of the Houston area were forecast to experience cold rain mixed with sleet Thursday evening. Temperatures Friday and Saturday morning were forecast to be just below freezing in northern areas, including The Woodlands and Con-roe, while lows in the coastal regions were expected to remain in the mid-30s.

The weather pattern is a far cry from last February when residents endured 44 consecutive hours below freezing. Temperatures at Bush Intercontinental Airport dropped to 16 degrees on Feb. 15 and 13 degrees on Feb. 16, said Lance Wood, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Houston/Galveston office. It won’t be as cold this week and the pattern won’t stick around as long. It’s expected to briefly touch freezing and then warm up during daylight hours.

“It’s nowhere near as dangerous of a cold temperature threat as the February 2021 event,” Wood said.

Preparing mentally

Still, people like Ahmed are jittery after last year’s freeze caused power outages, burst pipes and 246 confirmed deaths. That included 43 confirmed deaths in Harris County, 10 in Galveston County, seven in Fort Bend County, three in Montgomery County and one in Brazoria County, according to a December report from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Houstonians are mentally prepared for floods and hurricanes. But before last year, people didn’t anticipate winter storms would cause statewide blackouts. It’s a new worry to stack atop the COVID-19 pandemic, hurricane season and heavy rains that bring flash flooding.

“The Texas freeze was, in some ways, an even more unsettling experience than (Hurricane) Harvey because it was unpredicted,” said Dominic Boyer, an environmental anthropologist at Rice University who researches how communities recover from catastrophes. “People this winter are kind of on pins and needles. And if there was a more severe cold snap coming, people would be very anxious and understandably so.”

Officials were taking the weather seriously. Experts at the National Weather Service’s Houston/Galveston office were providing weather briefings, and agencies tasked with keeping roads clear were ramping up preparations. Harris County Toll Road Authority said it would get ready, especially in areas where overpasses are likely to ice over faster than surface streets.

“Crews and spreaders are prepped and will be staged over the next 24 hours to start anti-icing and de-icing operations if hazardous roadway conditions develop,” toll road officials said in a statement. “Several Incident Response Team trucks have also been equipped with bumper-mounted spreaders to treat small accumulations of ice.”

Texas Department of Transportation officials planned to do some spot-treatment of bridges, including the Fred Hartman Bridge spanning the Houston Ship Channel, in advance of the weather, spokesman Danny Perez said. Houston Public Works was likely to wait for problems to occur rather than pretreat roads and have wind and rain wash the products away, spokeswoman Erin Jones said.

Elsewhere in the region, people had long ago made arrangements that would help them through what’s expected this week.

In South Houston, Willie Rios said his community was well prepared this time around. A South Houston City Council member, Rios spent last February checking on residents after roughly 85 percent of them lost power.

His neighbors have since repaired damaged homes, updated plumbing and purchased generators. They felt ready for the cold weather and weren’t fretting about the forecast.

“They’re a little bit more prepared than the years before,” he said. “I guess it comes with the experience. That one hurt last year.”

Flashbacks of falling ceiling

Not everyone feels calm after what they lived through last year. Saadia Faruqi of northwest Houston can’t stop thinking about how the ceiling collapsed in her bedroom and almost hit her.

“Sometimes I lie in my bed and worry that the ceiling will fall back on me or the fan will fall on me in the middle of the night,” she said. “I randomly get stressed out about it if my husband tells me it’s going to freeze tonight or get really cold.”

It’s common for people who’ve lived through traumatic events to recall these emotions — especially when that event’s anniversary approaches, said John Vincent, professor of psychology at the University of Houston and director of the doctoral program in clinical psychology.

“When the next year rolls around and it’s a similar time, you remember what that felt like,” he said.

Some of his patients had especially bad experiences last year, Vincent said, and they still become anxious when the temperature dips below freezing.

But as time passes, strong emotions to past traumatic events, like the freeze, tend to subside. Especially if nothing bad happens again.

In that sense, winter weather can be similar to hurricanes. People are prepared and proactive the year after a major hurricane. But slowly, as time passes and storms swing left and right of Houston, they become less and less vigilant.

Before 2021, the last cold freeze on a somewhat similar scale occurred in 2011. It wasn’t as bad as last year’s storm, and enough time had passed for people to forget. The same will likely occur this time should Houston be spared another catastrophic freeze in this year or the next, said Boyer, the Rice anthropologist.

“If we go two or three winters without something similar happening,” Boyer said, “I do think that people will begin to let their guard down again.”

Dug Begley contributed to this report.

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