This story is part of Fast Company‘s Climate Change Survival Plan package. As time runs out to prevent climate catastrophe, we’re looking at what we need to do now to safeguard our future. Click here to read the whole series.
February 14, 2021 was a happy day for 39-year-old YouTuber and videographer Mikey Neumann, as he and his partner of two years, Teara Eakin, celebrated Valentine’s Day by making chicken-shrimp-Andouille sausage gumbo and watching the first part of Looper. But less than 24 hours later, they lost power during an extreme winter storm that would ultimately destroy their home in Plano, Texas.
The storm crippled a good chunk of the state, knocking out the grid that provided power to the four-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom house that Mikey and Teara had transformed into a workspace and nest for their quiet, simple lives, working 9-to-5 and then hanging out in an aesthetic they describe as modern farmhouse, rainbow colors and art-student chic. They endured four days without power—their cell phones long dead, the rooms punched up with the scent of Yankee candles, and tea lights to help them see. They couple ate gumbo warmed in the fireplace and tried to stay warm under nine blankets.
Forced to abandon their home and seek shelter at their friends’ house, they weren’t there when the pipes began to burst. By the end, they’d also lost much of what was in their home—laptops, a printer, merchandise they sell, framed artwork, custom-drawn movie posters, a sofa, a nightstand. Their world was filled with filthy, frigid water. They became essentially homeless, which was particularly hard for Neumann, who’d suffered a stroke at age 29, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a half a decade ago, and then broke his knee in mid-July.
Close to one-third of Americans live in a county impacted by extreme weather, according to analysis by the Washington Post earlier this month. And a study by the University of Houston found that 69% of Texans lost their electricity in February, like Neumann.
Everyone from academics to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects extreme weather events to become more frequent. A report by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction last fall found that the number of climate-related disasters jumped from 3,656 in the period between 1980 and 1999 to 6,681 between 2000 and 2019. A World Meteorological Organization report last month that a weather-, climate- or water-hazard disaster caused an average of $202 million in losses every day in the 5-year-old period between 1970 and 2019. And things will only get worse: Last month, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said that with the expectation that Earth will another 2.7 degrees Celsius, the world is on a “catastrophic pathway.”
Neumann is no stranger to harsh weather: When he was a pre-schooler in the mid-80’s, a tornado destroyed the Oklahoma city where his family lived. But as he describes below, the devastation he experienced last winter feels to him like an alarming, and escalating, trend.
‘At first, people in Texas acted like people in Texas’
[In] February, [we started to hear] warnings about an imminent freeze. At first, people in Texas acted like people in Texas. There’s always bravado before the moment. We decided to tough it out, but it was sub-10 degrees in our house at night. We were making food in the fireplace. We had an electric stove, so we couldn’t even cook food. We evacuated our house hours before the pipe burst. It was a pipe running the length of house that filled with water. My house was destroyed, because the power grid couldn’t keep up with demand. Entire sections of the grid went down.
The power grid was an issue also in the summer. It gets over 100 degrees then. In the winter was the first time where we were hearing that not only would the AC in the summer go up, but heaters and everything. Everything was running, because everyone was freezing. Most people were without power for 24 hours at a time.
[Our home] was destroyed. Basically, it was taken down to the slats. We had to remove all the walls and all the floors. It took seven months. We had insurance, [but] we had to refinance our house to get it back to working order. It was $300,000 in loans.
‘I do recall white Christmases being like a joke’
There was a lot of snow, not a lot of people. We left when it stopped snowing, so it was safe to drive around to some degree, but Texans and snow, not a good mix. There was one really bad winter when I was 14 or 15, but that was the last bad winter storm, while recently, it’s kind of every year now. I do recall white Christmases being like a joke.
It’s depressing to know… we’ll keep on like we’re keeping on. It seems like it’s not serving Texans very much, ignoring it. You can’t [say] the words “climate change” in Texas. They’re bad words. It’s so hard to separate the politics and the issue. I’m sympathetic to it. I think changes in our world are scary, because you never know where you’re going to be next week. Most of this year, we didn’t know where we’d be. Do we believe it won’t be destroyed again? Not 100%. Maybe in another weird climate disaster.
I’m not free to move, I’m disabled. It’s hard. It’s lots of work, and financially, we’re not in the best frame of mind to move right now. We just rebuilt our house.
‘We’re not winter people’
Texas has rain storms, but all have gotten more severe. More tornadoes, which is usually what we deal with. We never had the winter storm that February, March brought around. They’re strong, more frequent, by far. We didn’t have winter storms in quite the same way. Our original city, Broken Arrow [Oklahoma] was destroyed by a tornado. My whole life I’ve had to deal with tornadoes. The winter stuff is so much more severe in Texas. We’re not set up for that. We’re not winter people.
We’re absolutely on a trajectory for things to be worse. We watched our house get destroyed, while people never stopped at a political level. The easiest prediction to me is the energy grid, come winter, will fail in exactly the same way. What did we change?