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The bitter failures of our ‘energy state’ have taught me that it doesn’t hurt to have a dozen ways to boil water in your toolkit—and skills to barter for a steady coffee supply.
As a woman who considers mascara a desert-island essential, I did not set out to become a “prepper.” And I’m not. Not really. But I’ve learned some things from the hurricanes of my childhood in Houston and Galveston—thinking our shack of an apartment by the beach might fly like in The Wizard of Oz, palm trees thrashing wildly, and every window everywhere taped with capital “X.”
Texas was already a land of extreme weather before the looming prospect of climate change became a present-tense climate crisis. After Rita, Ike, Harvey, and Uri—2021’s winter freeze and blackouts—we know there comes a point when you run out of time to get ready. The TV goes silent. The lights go out. The wind howls loudly, endlessly, and all you can do is wait and hope.
During the 2021 blackouts, the temperature dropped to 13°F and my mother shook for hours in her West Houston apartment without heat, lights, and water. After my brother-in-law delivered her to safety at my sister’s, his own frozen pipes burst, flooding much of his home, including my 10-year-old niece’s sky-blue bedroom. But in another Houston suburb, an 11-year-old boy died in his bed of hypothermia.
The bitter irony of “the energy state” plunged into darkness and freezing temperatures for a week left family and friends in Texas angry and afraid.
The pandemic was bad enough. Then millions lost power. Many others lost water. Some friends spent days in bed, wearing their warmest clothes and coats under every blanket they owned. While I was living in the Northeast at the time, my phone rang with texts reading: “a friend’s ceiling collapsed,” “water gushing from the roof,” “The sun’s going down and still no lights or heat.”
Texans came “seconds and minutes” away from a catastrophic blackout that could have lasted months. Officials claimed a death toll of 246, although Buzzfeed estimated that 700 were killed during the freeze.
Since the blackouts, Texas has done too little, too late, to prepare for future winter storms that could be “as bad as—or even worse than” that catastrophe. While the Texas grid was not designed to withstand extreme cold, our increasingly hot temps are also straining systems as evidenced this summer when grid operators struggled against record-shattering heat. Recently, the president and CEO of Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) admitted that the Texas grid is still not ready for extreme conditions. ERCOT’s own reports show that very high demand could once again result in calls to cut usage followed by rolling blackouts and ongoing outages.
The problem is far bigger than the electric grid. The climate crisis is exposing vulnerabilities across our nation’s infrastructure able to “set off a domino effect of breakdowns in hard-to-predict ways,” according to The New York Times. Then there’s the growing problem of snipers, hackers, and cyber-attacks. In fact, as I write this, I’m hearing reports of a December 3rd attack on the grid in North Carolina—intentional gunfire—that’s left about 45,000 people without power.
I have little interest in most apocalyptic doomsday narratives. Growing up, when I thought of survivalists, images of stockpiling guns and ammunition came to mind. Mainstream culture portrays those who face the reality of the grid’s vulnerability as a radical, even hysterical, minority compared to the rest of us who (I would assert) are the ones in denial. But what can we do if we cannot trust our city, state, or nation to prevent a forewarned crisis or rescue its own people?
We cannot afford to depend entirely on government and the energy industry to protect us from their failures. It is time to take matters into our own hands before the next storm, flood, freeze, heatwave, or wildfire.
After the Texas freeze and other recent climate disasters, my wife Vivian and I decided it was time to reevaluate the ways we gamble our lives on the grid and government.
Surveying friends after the blackouts, I learned that well over half of the people I know—friends from New York to California—do not have secondary ways to heat and cook.
I may not have earned a prepper badge, but after witnessing increasingly violent weather, my wife and I now have about twenty alternative ways to cook and several ways to stay warm and ensure we have potable water. We simply want to get through a crisis—comfortably, with ample staples like coffee beans and bars of dark chocolate in bulk—while helping out family and community.
Vivian’s collection could be seen as “stockpiling” but she makes a good argument that it’s just practical with all the extreme weather we’re seeing. She has several variations of stoves and ovens that are fueled by either wood products (twigs, branches, pine cones, charcoal), propane, butane, alcohol, and of course the sun. She reminds me that there are many other options people can use for cooking and heating and power, such as gasoline, kerosene, and canned heat (think sterno). She also never lets me forget that most of these stoves should not be used indoors—all of them need proper ventilation—and I need to read their safety instructions before use.
Whether you’re more of a homesteader, van lifer, or boondocking RVer, someone curious about tiny homes, full-on preperdom, or you just want to eat hot food and stay warm during the next power outage, you can find ways to meet your basic needs in your own style.
My wife focuses on staying warm and dry, with water and food, and at least one additional way to cook and boil water in any situation. We prioritize hygiene and first aid supplies, ample lighting, a way to generate enough energy to keep essential devices charged, a way to keep informed of the weather and important news, and a way to communicate with each other when there is no cell reception.
Sooner than later, we want to create a solid family plan so we know that our loved ones have what they need or we have a way to get to them in a predetermined place.
Learning to take this preparedness thing more seriously and actually make changes in our lives seemed to happen in fits and starts. And I lucked out by marrying someone who would almost certainly qualify if there were a prepper Olympics.
Vivian traded her truck for a van and began “building it out” so we’d have a way to travel more comfortably and affordably without having to fly, which has proved profoundly practical during the pandemic. Her “survival pod” also provides a way to reach family in severe weather or a disaster. She insulated “Athena,” built interior walls, a cedar ceiling and bamboo floor using scraps from a leftover house project. She installed solar panels on top connected to a portable solar power station (a.k.a. generator), a small energy efficient DC refrigerator, a low-tech kitchenette with running water via a $20 USB rechargeable water dispenser, a bathroom with compost toilet, a ceiling fan/skylight, a bed with storage underneath, and a wooden cabinet and shelving. I painted the wooden sink “Chili Red” and made curtains. Athena is also equipped with strategic instant food, cold-weather clothing, and, of course, camp stoves.
Vivian also maintains a lightweight day pack for hiking that’s got us covered if we have an unexpected overnight in the woods.
“Why the hell would we have an unexpected overnight in the woods?” I ask. She’s got a list of reasons—an injury on a hike (say a twisted ankle), getting lost (it’s happened to me), or sudden severe weather (like a tornado).
Her day pack includes a tarp for shelter with titanium stakes and 100 feet of 550 paracord, a rain jacket, an extra layer, hat, gloves, neck gaiter, glasses, lighter, matches, and tinder for starting a fire, water, sustaining snacks, battery pack with cell charger, fully charged headlamp with extra batteries, a mini-water filtration system, a titanium pot for boiling water, minimal first aid kit (but Vivian’s, of course, has blood clotting gauze!), cell phone, compass, signal mirror, multi-tool, a sturdy fixed blade knife, and a pocket-sized emergency thermal blanket. She plans to add her hand-held ham radio transceiver that she’s learning to use.
Other lifestyle changes: We are saving so that we can install a rooftop solar power system for our Hill Country tiny house. When we buy groceries, we often pick up extra staples such as rice, beans, flour, oil, and hot sauce. (Yes, hot sauce is a staple in our home.) Regardless of the weather forecast, we keep our devices charged and chargers full. For birthday and holiday presents, we’ve begun giving family members practical, affordable gear so they can “camp” in their own homes if necessary. We’ve passed along rocket stoves for cooking, which can efficiently burn twigs and sticks they can all find in their yards (the propane grills will only last so long). Headlamps were a theme for last year’s gift giving. The year before was emergency radios. We’ve begun to discuss plans for various disaster scenarios with family members who will entertain our musing.
Prepping is an ongoing process, not a destination. Aim to have options. Know how to use the equipment you do have. Ask your neighbors and family members if they have ways to heat food and stay warm next time the power goes out.
The goal is not to create an isolated fortress dependent on a few, but to build a more resilient community by sharing ideas, knowledge, skills, and resources that meet needs and supports mutuality as a way of life.
For example, where we live in San Marcos, our close friends one mile away are coffee roasters. In the event of another winter freeze, we might trade a small, efficient stove for coffee beans. Then, we could trade some of our coffee with a next-door neighbor who hunts deer on his land to make sausage and buck strips. For other neighbors, we could carry wood or trade some of our food, water, and supplies.
While climate shocks can come unpredictably, the 2023 winter forecast is for warmer-than-average temperatures across South Texas. Yet with our climate being loaded with 50 gigatons of extra heat-trapping gases per year, extreme events are certain to return fast and furious. Let’s take this lull as an opportunity to fill the supply closet and learn some new skills.
While you’re figuring out what you most need to live without power, remember that you might have to do much more physical labor than you’re used to, and be unable to check email, news, and social media. Don’t forget that musical instruments, drawing pads and pencils, and journals and books can feed hungry minds and spirits by candlelight.
Here is a partial list of our stoves—and an oven—to boil water or cook:
- Butane cookstove (1-burner) with a built-in igniter—an easy portable alternative to a kitchen gas stove, although it uses disposable butane canisters and does not work well below 32°F.
- Propane cookstove (1-burner)—simple and inexpensive, uses disposable propane canisters and works in the winter months just fine.
- Propane camping stove with a burner and grill.
- Jet boil butane stove to boil water really fast on the trail or on the road.
- Portable steel wood-burning rocket stove that folds flat and fits nicely in a car.
- Two twig stoves, one is titanium, folds flat and lives in a daypack.
- An alcohol stove with multiple pot stands—a simple clean burning fuel, denatured alcohol is easy to find. Alcohol burners are simple, inexpensive, and quiet.
- Very small, lightweight, folding canister stove (using IsoPro fuel) for backpacking.
- Multifuel stove that burns wood, alcohol, solid fuel tablets, wood biomass composite, or ISO-Propane
- Wood and charcoal insulated rocket stove (extremely efficient)
- Foldable wood and charcoal open stove with grill (easy to take along for camping)
- 19-inch diameter steel fire pit with a sear plate and cooking grate—fun to sit around and cooks some serious meals. The cooking grate has a spike on its post so it can be pounded in the ground and used over an open fire.
- And the cleanest option (though it may not reach the temps you need): a solar oven that can cook or heat up food wherever there is sun.
For heating, in addition to having the appropriate clothes and layers, we could create a small space with ventilation (and a carbon monoxide detector for safety) using:
- 9,000 BTU portable Propane Buddy Heater.
- Portable wood stove made for heating a tent or other small space—stainless steel and built like a tank, it includes accessories like an oven that attaches to the stove pipe.
- Large wood stove that can heat a small house (it sits in storage waiting to be installed in our tiny cottage).
- Numerous ways to start a fire including flint steel, char cloth, lighters, and waterproof matches.
Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms. Magazine, winner of the 2021 Claire Keyes Poetry Award, and author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the Foreword Book of the Year Award in poetry. Her essays and poems are forthcoming or have appeared in the Texas Observer, The Rumpus, Southern Humanities Review, and The Long Now, among others. Ms. Muse, her column, features contemporary feminist poets and essays on the intersection of poetry, politics, and our lives. Her debut nonfiction book is forthcoming from the University of Texas Press. Follow her on Twitter: @ChivasSandage.
THIS STORY WAS FUNDED BY DECELERATION’S READERS