PORT ARANSAS, Texas — Donna Hammond had just finished telling me via cellphone about her adventure in Texas, if that's the correct phrasing, when she texted the following message:
"Now there's a water main break and people are carrying swimming pool water to flush the stool."
Uff da, as they don't say in the Lone Star State.
What began as a hopeful getaway to a waterfront condominium on the Gulf of Mexico in usually balmy south Texas turned into a nightmarish stretch without electricity, heat and — for at least a couple of days — decent food.
"I'm spending a not-small amount of money on the condo, and I can't say that I'm enjoying it at the moment," Hammond laughed.
The 73-year-old still seems to be in good spirits despite being stuck in an area of Texas that is without power after the energy grid collapsed because of record cold weather, the strain of overuse and inadequate infrastructure. A state that prides itself on not being regulated by the federal government is paying the price for not being regulated by the federal government.
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"I was staying at a ranch near Austin before I came down here and, as I understand it, they don't bury their water pipes deep enough underground to avoid frost because they don't want to follow federal regulations. And so when it gets extremely cold, they just tell people to keep their water running all the time," Hammond said.
Hammond is a longtime resident of Fargo, the widow of a legendary North Dakota State professor in plant sciences, who each winter drives to Arizona or Texas for warmth. This year, she found a beautiful condo with an ocean view and settled in for what she hoped to be a relaxing stay of walking on the beach and enjoying the sunshine.
Instead, the Arctic blast that's crippling the south has turned Texas into a disaster area. Millions have been without power for days and, as of this writing, there is no definitive end in sight.
"I saw snow blowing across the sand on the beach. That's not something I expected," Hammond said.
The area in which she's staying, between Port Aransas and Corpus Christi on Mustang Island, has been without electricity since Sunday night. The temperature outside when we talked Wednesday afternoon was 39 degrees, which was just a touch colder than her condo.
"It's really cold. It's in the low 40s inside my place. I'm no wimp. I walked barefoot on the beach when it was in the 40s, but this is tough," Hammond said. "Nights are fine because I can lay under a bunch of blankets to stay warm. But I'm sick of staying in bed during the day to keep warm. There's not really an end in sight."
The weather will gradually warm over the next several days, perhaps hitting a high of 60 on Sunday. But the power? That's another question entirely. As of early Wednesday afternoon, media reports had 3.5 million people still without power.
"The sun sets at 7 o'clock, so we're basically in the dark for 12 hours. Luckily I have a good flashlight, and if I shine it on the ceiling it gives off pretty good light. But there's only so long I want to lay in bed and read a book. There's just not much you can do. It's been a long time since I've been without electricity for this long," Hammond said.
Monday and Tuesday, she ate trail mix and wheat crackers. She found some takeout food Wednesday.
Bill Magness, president and CEO of the body that runs the Texas power grid, said warmer weather would help things to return to normal.
"Looking at the next couple of days," he said, according to media reports, "if those things break right and we get the generation online in the quantity we need to, we're optimistic we could move through this."
Hammond has the condo rented until the end of the month. She hopes to stay, but might have to return to Austin or some other city with power if the blackout persists much longer. Given her age and that she's not yet received the COVID-19 vaccine, she's also fastidiously avoiding people as much as possible.
"I'd like to stick it out. I like to think of myself as North Dakota Tough," Hammond said. "But this isn't much fun."