The North* Remembers
Forecasts of "wintery mix" for the Central Texas region are giving us flashbacks of a very bad week last year. (*North Austin)
“Apparently, our customers are eating toilet paper, again.”
According to the clerk, the grocery store manager had opened their morning staff meeting with this quip. He and the checker both laughed as they hustled the last of my groceries into bags.
With severe weather forecast for this week, the collective trauma of February 2021’s snow-pocalypse has left the shelves of HEB1, Texas’s beloved grocery store chain, emptied of staple items, again. When I visited yesterday, I found a packed parking lot, long lines, large sections of bare shelves at odd intervals, and expensive, off-brand toilet paper.
Here’s a partial list of my grocery store observations from approximately 48 hours prior to the predicted weather event.
Not available: plain, non-exotic varieties
Available: colored, patterned, and perfumed2
Plentiful: expensive, organic, recycled, small rolls
Not available: large tubs of plain, whole milk Greek yogurt3
Available: small cups, heavily sweetened, antifreeze-colored, the kinds marketed to kids
Plentiful: small cups of odd flavors and/or with little side cars of optional add-ins (eg, Fruit Loops, nuts, sprinkles)
Not available: plain, non-exotic varieties (by far the emptiest aisle in the store)4
Available: whole wheat and organic, elbows and penne only
Plentiful: gluten-free; those made from seaweed and garbanzo beans
Not available: fresh blueberries or strawberries
Available (berries): two small packages of fresh blackberries and six small packages of fresh raspberries, all of the above with dodgy-looking furry spots
Plentiful: just about everything else; apparently no one was panic buying broccoli or potatoes
I don’t drink, so I didn’t see what specifically was flying off the shelves, but I do have to walk through one aisle of the huge store’s extensive beer and wine section5 to get from the freezer section to the produce section and, y’all, it was packed.
Not available: Most name-brand chips, think Lays, Cheetos, Ruffles, Doritos, Rold-Gold pretzels, etc.; popular flavors of snack cakes (eg, Little Debbie’s chocolate-peanut-butter-wafer things6); standard cracker varieties (eg, saltines, Ritz-types)
Available: approximately a half dozen bags of each, bright orange BBQ-flavored pork rinds, lime-flavored pork rinds, Takis; a couple of the short cans of odd flavors of Pringles; Little Debbie’s holiday-themed “cakes” for both Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s
Plentiful: those potato sticks that come in a can, chips made of whole grains and seeds and vegetables, and some tortilla chips of uncertain provenance7; granola bars and cookies with long shelf lives
Despite limited supplies of some items, however, I personally witnessed no brawling. In fact, the mood in the checkout lines seemed to be largely one of good-humored resignation of the here-we-go-again sort, maybe a little bit of giddiness from fear.
We were among the people affected by last year’s storms. We shivered for a week without power, huddling in front of our gas fireplace reading and working crosswords by the light of our camping headlamps like depressed spelunkers. Like just about everyone else’s in our neighborhood, our pipes burst and damaged the house, but we considered ourselves lucky. Our ceilings poured water and sagged, but did not collapse onto us—which happened to some of our neighbors. Lots of people lost their homes. Hundreds of people died.
Typing that, I am reminded of what a traumatic experience it was. This week’s severe weather is forecast to last only a day or two; I keep repeating that to reassure the part of my brain that wants to panic.
Want to know what’s not reassuring? The announcements from officials with tips like “stockpile firewood,” “put blankets in your car,” and “insulate your house.” That last one, really?8 Like, I’ll just dash over to Lowe’s and grab a couple truckloads of insulation. Be right back!
What this sounds like to me is, “you’re on your own; try not to die.”
The snow was magical on the first day last year. While Austin occasionally gets something snowy that meteorologists call “wintery mix,” it’s usually more icy, sleety, or melty-dirty. But, on that first morning last February, we woke up to all of the dreamy winter wonderland metaphors: the dazzling white blanket; fat, fluffy flakes floating gently from gray clouds; ice-dipped tree branches sparkling like glass against a dazzling blue sky when the clouds blew away. We took pictures and sent them to friends and family. It seemed like a grand adventure. And then it wasn’t.
It was encouraging to know that we managed some rudimentary survival skills. Here’s a picture of our water processing operation. You’ll see a large plastic storage bin on the lower right, full of snow gathered from the back yard. We melted it on the gas stovetop and then poured it through a spaghetti strainer with a coffee filter in it.
I am hoping that this storm is easier than last year’s, but I am also wondering if we should have invested in solar panels or a generator. We have plenty of food and water and the best case scenario is that we stay home and off the roads for a couple of days and it passes.
Y’all, stay safe out there. “Hunker down,” as my Colorado family says. Enjoy your junk food benders, fresh blueberries, and jasmine-scented toilet paper.
HEB—pronounce the letters—is named for its founder, Herbert E. Butts. It’s such a Texas institution and good neighbor that no one even makes jokes about the name Butts and Texans make crude jokes about a lot of things. HEB is better at handling disasters than our state government is, they pay their workers living wages, and their charitable foundation is very generous. The stores are typically huge and well-stocked. The one I frequent is the size of a small airport, so keep that in mind when envisioning how many people had to be there for it to be so packed.
I cannot overemphasize how very aggressively fragrant these products are. I had not previously known that perfumed toilet paper was even a thing, so I leaned in to investigate. No need! The smell met me at several paces—through the plastic wrap.
Not totally true. There were three large tubs of the variety, but not the brand, that I usually buy. I took one of them.
I think pasta, in particular, has had supply issues for a while, maybe sitting on a cargo ship somewhere.
HEB only sells beer and wine, but this section has four or five aisles and is bigger than most liquor stores.
I couldn’t remember what they were called, so I googled them and got vague information. They are either called “Nutty Bars” or “Nutty Buddies.” I remember eating them as a kid and thinking they were delicious. These things.
I couldn’t get close enough to see them through the swarm of chip hunters with lowered expectations. It looked like the closing scene in “The Lottery.”
Original observation made by my friend Robin.
The “Electric Reliability Council of Texas,” profiteering weasels who not only caused the energy grid’s failure last year by refusing to make necessary repairs and updates, but actually made money on the disaster. The North* remembers. (*me)