Krista Maldonado keeps her 4-year-old daughter Zoey bundled up in a blanket, and her room is the warmest in the house. But Zoey has shivered since the heat cut out in the early hours of Monday morning, when an onslaught of freezing rain and snow brought energy demand that overwhelmed Texas’ power grid.

By Tuesday morning, she said her daughter’s lips had become so dry and cracked that they bled.

As the winter storm plunges temperatures into record lows in San Antonio and throughout the area, mass power outages and frozen pipes have left thousands in the city without basic utilities for hours, and even days. But while all face the same weather, the crisis affected San Antonians in myriad ways.

Maldonado has had to work hard to care for her daughter, who has autism and is nonverbal. Zoey doesn’t like anything to touch her arms or legs and prefers to wear a bathing suit.

“I can’t communicate to her that it’s cold in the house, and we need to put clothes on,” Maldonado said. “She’s fighting me every step.”

When the lights went out Monday around 4 a.m., Zoey woke up scared and cold. Maldonado sprang into action. “All night I was trying to comfort her,” Maldonado said. Last night was the first night she finally fell asleep.

During the day, Maldonado – a veterinarian technician – does her best to keep her daughter busy and occupied. Part of the challenge is that her daughter wants to play in the snow.

“I love the snow, too,” Maldonado said, her voice raspy with an illness. “But we can’t enjoy it. There’s no warm shelter to go back to.”

Still, Maldonado said she considers herself luckier than most. Her boyfriend’s father had been out of power completely for well over 24 hours.

Her own household gets short bursts of power every hour or so, which she has begun timing. “The second the power comes on, I start cooking,” she said. 

Now the groceries she had stocked up on were running low, and resupplying posed a challenge. She lives on the outskirts of San Antonio – close to Schertz – where the snow has kept roads icy and dangerous. Grocery stores were opened for limited hours.

On the city’s near East Side, the H.E.B. at the intersection of New Braunfels Avenue and Houston Street was open from noon to 5 p.m. By noon, hundreds of people had braved the bitter cold to form a line that wrapped around the block. Those at the front said they had been there since 7 a.m.

Shoppers wait in line at H-E-B at East Houston Street and New Braunfels Avenue on the near East Side. Credit: Waylon Cunningham / San Antonio Report

Shortly after doors opened, shoppers filed out pushing shopping carts packed with water bottles.

“I don’t have a drop of water,” Robert Ellison said, whose pipes have been frozen for nearly two days. “I can’t cook, I can’t wash my hands, I can’t shower, I can’t even flush my toilet. I can’t do anything.”

Ines Rodriguez brought home two packs of water bottles and two gallons to her wife and two small children, who have not had power or water for two days.

“We’re sitting in the dark, waiting for a miracle,” she said in a phone call later in the day.

Her wife, Heather Barker, said she spent hours in the car charging her phone to distract one of their children – who also has severe autism – from the cold and darkness.

“He is just melting,” she said. “He doesn’t understand why the lights won’t turn on, why he can’t flush a toilet.”

Just before she called, she said she had been sitting on the floor with him. “He was crying, and I was crying with him, because I didn’t know what else to do.”

She said she called municipal utility CPS Energy. “They give you the whole spiel about the grid and conserving power. I know it’s more than that,” she said. “Somebody messed up.”

She and her wife ended up giving half of the water they bought to an elderly neighbor who struggles to leave the house.

As evening fell, a man wrapped in blankets outside the AutoZone across the street from the H.E.B. adjusted his position on his cardboard mat, preparing himself for what he knew would be another bone-chilling night.

Clifford, who declined to give his last name, said he watched the skies last night as the freezing sleet turned to snowflakes. It was the coldest night he’d ever experienced on the streets of San Antonio, he said, a city where he’d lived for the better part of five decades.

A veteran of the Vietnam war, he credited his survival to an inner strength – and a thick, water-proof quilt that protected him from the snow.

“The trick is to keep moving,” he said, draping the quilt over two layers of blankets as the sun began to set. “Hypothermia is your body telling you to move. Just keep moving.”

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.