It’s hard to believe that Valentine’s Day was just one week ago, last Sunday when it all started.
Adam and I had planned a cozy date night at home — our pasta ingredients and pinot noir were at the ready. Our plan was to drop-off the kids at my parent’s that afternoon for a sleepover, and I’d been looking forward to it all week. My dad (in a moment of foreshadowing) brought up the crazy winter storm that was supposed to hit that night – and wondered if it might be difficult for us to pick them up the next morning. To which I replied, “You’re crazy, we have 4-wheel-drive, a little snow won’t stop us!” So… we proceeded as planned.
The next morning, we woke up to a blanket of snow. It was breathtaking in its beauty – like nothing I’d seen in Austin before. In the early morning hours, we drank coffee and enjoyed the coziness, but then – as text messages from friends and family started coming in and we caught up on the news, everything changed. Power was out all over the city and temps were at record lows with no sign of warming. My parents lost power, and as their bungalow became colder, I felt a desperation to get our kids back home before another round of snow and ice was dumped on the roads. So, Adam set off in our SUV, headed for my parent’s house. He made it about a mile before sliding down a hill where he had to abandon our car altogether and walk back home.
We were among the lucky ones who somehow never lost power. A friend with a jeep picked up our kids and brought them home. I tried to get my parents to come with them, but they stayed home with the dogs under a pile of blankets to make sure their pipes didn’t burst. My sister and her family stayed with us for a few days while their power was out – I was thankful that my two-year-old niece could stay warm. They salvaged a steak from their fridge before it went bad, so we sliced it up and make tacos for the whole house that night. Everyone said there would be more power outages and we might lose gas, so I threw myself into preparation: I made a big batch of beans, a massive pot of soup. Our dishwasher and laundry stopped working when the hot water went out (it’s still out) but my main focus was trying to keep a 5 and 8-year-old from going completely stir-crazy trapped at home for a week. Heat and water felt like a major luxury.
Over the next two days, things escalated at a rate that was hard to believe. Pipes were bursting, grocery stores were either closed or cleared out, more people lost power as trees branches collapsed under the weight of ice and fell onto power lines. We all got citywide text messages that we had to boil our water before drinking.
Like so many others, my first instinct was protection mode – I wanted to make sure my family was safe. But I’ve been inspired by the way that so many people in our city – even those enduring major suffering themselves – immediately mobilized to help the community. Chefs turned their kitchens into food pantries, essential workers did 30+ hour shifts, others leveraged social media to rally their followers around the country to donate to relief efforts. It reminded me that, though my first step may be to make sure those I love are safe, my next one should go a step further to help those in our community suffering most.
I’m grateful to have friends who led by example over the past few days, showing what it means to live beyond themselves. Each of them used their unique strengths and spheres of influence to make a difference – and they make me want to follow their lead. Their stories make me proud to be a Texan, and I wanted to share a few of them with you here:
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Kelly is one of my dearest friends. From the first hour of chaos, her Instagram became my go-to source for ways to help the community. Although she was without power herself for most of the week, she was tireless in the way she served Austin – and I asked her to share a bit about her experience over the past few days:
“I woke up at 1:30am early Monday morning when my building’s power shut off. Over the next several hours, as my own home got colder and it dawned on me what a bad situation so many people in our city were in — I went into immediate action mode. I realized how uniquely connected I am, and how many restaurants I have relationships with — how could I use those strengths to help? I was on a thread with a group of other women, and we worked together to make connections between Austin EMS, the hospitals, the restaurants, anyone with access to clean water. There was no strategy or game plan — we didn’t even have Internet — we just moved.
I’ve never seen community come together and help in such a powerful, immediate way. I’ve been getting Venmo’s from people I’ve never met who follow me on Instagram, entrusting me to put the money to good use. It’s made me realize that any agenda I had online can wait until after my neighbors have power and water. If I have time, I’m gonna help, If I have money, I’m going to donate it or put it to good use, and if I have a platform, I’ll use it. I didn’t sit around and think – I just DID.”
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Cara runs a PR firm with many of her clients based in Austin. On Monday morning, she got online and realized how many of them were without power, so she started checking in to get a pulse on where the greatest needs were – and how she could help. Over the last few days, she’s helped mobilize brands like Kendra Scott and Bumble to give on a large-scale. Along with Austin Winter Storm Relief, Cara helped get restaurants the funds they needed to provide meals for the city’s hospitals and warming centers. Cara also leveraged her PR chops to keep local news media in the loop by sending nightly updates letting them know where viewers could donate and find free meals. “I asked myself how my strengths could be used in this crisis. So, I took what I do day-to-day: organizing communications, creating spreadsheets, and connecting people – and then I applied those skills to the crisis and made it my full-time job this week.”
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Michael is a celebrated chef in town whose food I’ve loved for years. When Covid hit, he pivoted the dining room of his fine dining spot, Olamaie, to a fast-casual biscuit shop called Little Ola’s in order to keep their doors open, his team employed (and Austin fed with the best biscuits on the planet.) When the winter storm hit, he pivoted once again, this time mobilizing the troops to turn out thousands of meals feeding people in need and emergency medical services. “It’s been a wonderfully fulfilling and exhausting week,” he texted yesterday. “This event has brought me back to positivity in a lot of ways. The last two days have offered moments that inspired the core of why I started cooking.”
Seeing the way that Michael has stepped up to serve, during a time when his own business has been hit by one thing after another, is truly hospitality in action. (You can donate to the Lee Initiative to help these efforts.)
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Over the last several years, Jane’s built her career as the foremost blogger covering Austin’s restaurants. So, when the industry was hit hard this week by the storm, her inbox was flooded with requests for how to help. She called her friend Chelsea and learned that many of her restaurant clients were in a really bad place. “As someone with so much love for the industry, you immediately think, ‘How can I help?'” Jane had started a gofundme during Covid to raise money for restaurants, and although it was scary to commit to another such undertaking in the midst of uncertainty, she knew it was her calling. “What many of these restaurant teams are doing is just incredible,” Jane told me. “The team at The Peached Tortilla cooked in the dark for 300 people and served them, then washed dishes for an hour in the dark. The owner’s family didn’t have power at home, so his family had slept in the car the night before. But he was grateful to be able to pay his staff that day and send them home with a meal. And there are so many other stories just like that happening all over the city.”
As of this newsletter, the Austin Winter Storm Relief gofundme has raised an incredible $126,000 in less than four days. They’ve fed every major hospital in Austin, plus warming centers, homeless shelters, and provided thousands of community meals. “And we’re not going to stop. We’re all in this together. We’ll rebuild Austin together.”
It’s amazing how everything can change in a week. Our story started on Valentine’s, and although it turned into a week of heartache, there was also so much love in action. My friends above are four examples – and there are hundreds of others happening behind-the-scenes.
Let’s follow their lead, support the organizations serving those who need it, and not lose sight of the fact that each one of us can use what we’ve got to make a difference.
**If you’re looking for ways to help, we published an up-to-date resource guide right here with some great ways to donate and volunteer.