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Charity Yoder-Smith and her husband, Rex Smith, first lost power at their home in Gillespie County on Feb. 12. That evening, to their relief, it came back briefly before flickering out again. 

As of Wednesday, the couple has been without power for 12 days. Their service provider, Central Texas Electric Co-op (CTEC), told them it could be off for another two or three weeks, Yoder-Smith said. 

“We have multiple [utility] poles on our road that snapped off – in fact, one of them is blocking part of the road and it’s not been moved yet,” she said. “So every night when I come by that pole, I [know] we have no power yet because that pole’s still laying in the road. We’re driving over top of the actual wires.”

Even as temperatures rise, the winter storm that sapped the energy grid for millions in Texas last week is still being felt in parts of the Hill Country.

As of Monday, thousands of customers in Gillespie and Kerr counties were still without power, according to CTEC, which provides service to 26,000 members across the area. 

At least 2,000 utility poles are down due to the storm. Without power, many of the well pumps that provide water are also out of commission. Though crews are working overtime, according to CTEC updates posted to its website and on social media, the work to restore power throughout the Hill Country could take several weeks. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, an outage map for customers of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, which delivers power to over 300,000 customers in two dozen Hill Country counties, showed outages affecting 11,000 customers. The Bandera Electric Cooperative, which also serves the region, had 2,000 customers without power.

A utility crew works to replace broken poles around Gillespie County with power outages still widespread. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Minnesota weather

With the power still out, the Smiths are collecting water when they go into town for work, and sometimes from the Harper Volunteer Fire Department, which is providing area residents in need with bottled water, firewood, food, plumbing supplies, and even a hot shower.

The station opened as a shelter on Feb. 12, and then became a collection and distribution point for food and water for the entire community, said Kimberly Long, secretary and emergency medical technician/firefighter for the 12-member department. A church is also providing laundry services at the station.

The Smiths moved from their home state of Minnesota a year ago to escape the winters there. Now living on 5 acres between Harper and Mountain Home, they slept in the living room last week, happy for warmth from a fireplace.

“This is a little bit outside of our normal mission but our community is really struggling right now, and they have a lot of needs,” Long said. “So we are doing our best to fill those needs.”

The Hill Country Baptist Association’s Steven Van Meter (right) assists residents needing showers or laundry assistance at the Harper Volunteer Fire Department. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

When the winter storms hit and they lost power, their biggest concern was for their 77-year-old neighbor across the road. As the temperature fell to single digits, they insisted he move to their home to stay warm. When his medications and oxygen ran low, they were able to get him evacuated. 

But for many, leaving for the safety and comforts of the big city isn’t an option.

Ranch life

It had been two weeks since the power went out at the Stieler Ranch near Comfort in Kendall County before it was finally restored on Wednesday.

On the former goat ranch, Dayna De Hoyos and her husband run 40 head of cattle and keep three horses and dozens of chickens. In the early days of the extreme weather, when temperatures didn’t get above freezing, the power outage turned life at a bucolic farm into a race to keep animals fed and watered.

“Cows have to have forage to create enough body heat to survive the temperatures, so we had to get a round bale every day,” De Hoyos said. “We can’t just leave.”

To manage the icy roads, she drove a four-wheel-drive truck and weighted the bed with sacks of feed. When the water troughs froze, her husband and brother-in-law broke the thick layer of ice daily and worked to round up cows that were calving due to the extreme cold. 

For the horses, De Hoyos hauled 5-gallon containers of water three times a day from a house on their property with a generator. “Every faucet we had dripping and every faucet we had wrapped, all of them froze,” she said. 

Her chickens were adapted for the weather, but after two days of pumping fuel into a generator every three hours to warm her greenhouse, De Hoyos gave up on the new plants and lost them all to the freezing cold. Neighbor Tina Kent encouraged her to give it up.

Kent, who owns The Bread Box in San Antonio with her husband, Lucas, said they have been “co-oping their resources” to keep the ranch and one another going. The Kents, who suspended operations at their San Antonio-based business last week, have the only structure on the property they share with the De Hoyos with water service. They’ve been baking bread in a Dutch oven on a hearth.  

“We’re all really rugged campers so we’re kind of prepared to be uncomfortable. Weirdly, we love it,” Kent said. “During the ice, that definitely was a different situation.”

The ranch chores extended from the usual two hours a day to 10, De Hoyos said. Still, “there was nothing that was insurmountable,” she said. “And the past two days have been a little bit of a respite since I don’t have to worry about any animal freezing to death.”

Sheep graze among broken branches and dismembered trees after the storm, which caused widespread outages in Texas. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Colder and colder

Bill Sirakos called it a fight for survival. Sirakos has been without power for 14 days, his whole-house generator having failed on the first day. He ran two propane-fueled fireplaces intermittently to keep warm at his home 14 miles west of Fredericksburg in Gillespie County.

“It was phenomenally cold and it kept getting colder and colder, and I woke up one morning and it was 2 degrees outside and it was 31 in the house,” Sirakos said. When he discovered his workshop, at 42 degrees, was warmer than the house, he moved into that space and ran a space heater with a generator.

“That was how I survived,” he said. “I never started out thinking I could die. But when it gets as bad as it did you actually start thinking, ‘I could actually croak in the bed here’ … so it’s kind of sobering.”

His chickens, however, did not make it; without power for the heat lamp in the coop, they froze to death, Sirakos said. Some of the trees on his 140-acre ranch fell or shattered. But his sheep weathered the cold just fine.

Although he’s still without power and could be waiting weeks for it to be restored, Sirakos said the warmer weather and a delivery of propane is helping. “Things are starting to look up now,” he said, though he wants some answers from officials about why the infrastructure he was counting on failed.

Supporting the effort

E.J. Dennis lost power at his home west of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Fredericksburg on Feb. 11 as a winter storm blasted the Hill Country. 

By the time the storm struck in San Antonio a few days later, “we were already in the thick of it,” Dennis said. “And most of us weren’t battling rolling blackouts – we were just battling no power, period.”

Ice forms along electric lines near Fredericksburg. Credit: Courtesy / E.J. Dennis

A stock tank on the 55-acre ranch where he’s lived six years froze over to the point his three kids could skate on it. But Dennis was able to break the ice and retrieve water for the animals he raises. 

“Our only personal issue was just combating the sheer cold in an old farmhouse that’s not meant for that,” he said. He soon ran out of firewood and turned to burning old wine barrels and two-by-four pieces of lumber in the fireplace. “I know a lot of people were in a lot worse situations than us,” Dennis said.

That includes the power company’s crews, who were already out in the field in the freezing cold working to restore power. So Dennis used Facebook to reach out to individuals asking them to donate snacks for the utility workers. The campaign grew steadily and local businesses have started offering free meals to the CTEC employees and other crews, he said. 

Dennis was told to expect his power to be out for another week or so as crews worked to get utility poles fixed on remote ranchland. On Tuesday afternoon, the power unexpectedly returned to the Dennis home. 

Though he recently purchased a generator, he’s also making a vow to be prepared for the next power outage. 

“I’m going to do better,” he said. “So that if and when this happens again I’m not worried about my kids freezing to death in the house, or what table I’m going to chop up to put in the fireplace.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.