Brittany Forbes was 13 when Hurricane Andrew ripped through Miami-Dade County in 1992. Communities across South Florida were devastated by the Category 5 hurricane, one of the most economically destructive natural disasters in U.S. history. Their home was beyond repair.
For a time, she and her single mother camped on a neighbor's floor. They bathed using a hose. They waited hours in line for drinking water. She felt helpless.
Last month, as a severe winter storm moved across the country, Forbes, and her fiancé, Gabriel Duran, never expected their state’s power grid to fail, buckling under the historic frigid temperatures. Millions in Texas were temporarily without power and running water. The unexpected disaster, amid a global health pandemic, revealed the lengths strangers, friends, and neighbors were willing to go to help another.
“It was awful, especially when you have a child with special needs, and they don’t understand why Alexa isn’t working and not singing their songs. Or why her iPad isn’t playing her shows,” said Forbes about her seven-year-old daughter, Isabella, who has cerebral palsy.
She and her oldest son, Alec, moved around the state after her husband, Aaron, was killed in 2005 in Iraq. They eventually settled north of Austin in Georgetown. She met Duran, a Sheriff's Deputy in Williamson County, years later and gave birth to their son Michael in 2010. They adopted Isabella, and their youngest son, Maximus, when they were infants.
Spasms of power came at random days before shutting off on Feb.14. The thrust of the storm came two days later. In the window of time they unknowingly had, Forbes said, “If I want to cook, cook. If I want to boil water, boil water. And that would last like, maybe, 20-30 minutes, and then it would be off again.”
Shelves at their neighborhood grocery store were bare. No milk. No eggs. No meat or fresh fruit. “The stores were wiped out,” Forbes said. She and Duran transferred everything from their fridge and freezer onto the patio table, insulated in the snow.
Meals were what you would expect: dry cereal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chili, and when they had power, they cooked hot dogs and boiled SpaghettiOs. They boiled water before their pipes froze. Fortunately, they stockpiled cases of drinking water in the garage.
Firewood kept the fireplace crackling and the living room habitable for the family of five and their four dogs.
On Feb. 16, a Tuesday, Forbes got a call from a family liaison with the Gary Sinise Foundation who asked if she could deliver firewood to the elderly parents of a Gold Star spouse living in Georgetown. Her response was unequivocal, “It’s no question I’m going to help.”
Laura Allen and her husband, Jeff, live a short drive from Forbes. The winter storm, Laura said, was terrible. “I’ve had four back surgeries, so when I get cold, I’m instantly, constantly in pain.” Several pipes burst in their apartment, flooding the first and second floors. Then the second-floor ceiling caved in. The Allen’s feared for their two cats’ survival.
When Duran arrived with what looked to Laura like half a truckload of firewood, she said, “I wanted to cry.”
In Killeen, Texas, Kayce Lee and her ten-year-old son Dennis experienced three days without power in their home. They lit candles in each room and kept the fireplace alight with what remained of the firewood. There wasn’t much in the pantry: some canned goods, chips, ramen noodles. Driving to the grocery store was too dangerous: the roads were blanketed in ice and snow.
Lee’s late husband, Dennis Lamont Lee, a sergeant in the Army, died in 2011 at Fort Hood after experiencing chest pains during physical training.
“I was so depressed,” Lee said, “because I’m not used to being without water, electric, it kinda puts you in a frenzy.” Dennis thought it was the apocalypse.
Her family’s circumstances aside, she worried about the elderly couple next door, Javier and Margie Esqueda. And the young couple a few doors down, Tremale and Janet French and their infant son and baby. Lee’s motherly instincts took over.
Tremale, Janet, and their toddlers spent the night at her home. They grilled sausage links over the fire and snacked on chips. The baby drank warm milk heated in a pan over the fire, whose warmth provided them a comfortable sleep.
“It doesn’t matter what’s going on if someone needs help or y’all are stressed out,” Lee said. “You gotta help each other.”
Lee’s father lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. When her mother died two years ago, she and Dennis grew close with the Esqueda’s. They exchange meals with each other like enchiladas and firecracker casserole and pound cake. Javier fixes Dennis’ bike and lends him books usually reserved for his grandkids, including “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
Margie tested positive for COVID-19 on Feb. 12. What started as a bad headache and body aches became prolonged fatigue and nausea. When he wasn’t helping his wife of 53 years eat and stay warm by the fireplace, Javier shoveled snow from their driveway and sidewalk.
They texted Lee throughout the week, keeping her informed of their health and news about the power outage and the city’s boil water notice. On Valentine's Day, Lee surprised them with a box of flowers and candy on their porch.
Javier, in turn, shoveled their driveway and walkway and brought them drinking water.
Like many in Texas, the Esqueda’s lost power intermittently before completely shutting off by midweek. “We didn’t have power for 32 hours,” said Margie, who has since recovered. They didn’t have firewood stockpiled either.
“We cut up two-by-fours and put them in the fireplace,” Javier said, who resorted to cutting up ten-foot boards he uses for carpentry projects.
Daytime temperatures that week hovered in the low 30s with overnight temperatures plunging below freezing. By Wednesday, Feb.17, the Esqueda’s were running low on salvageable wood. Desperation crept in. That evening, Lee texted Margie that her oldest son, Chaz, and her friend, Kazi, had dropped off firewood on the front porch.
The Esqueda’s were stunned. “We appreciate them a lot,” Margie said. “They kindly adopted us, and we kindly adopted them.”
On Feb. 19, a Friday, power was restored at the Forbes home in Georgetown. Water flowed through the pipes. The central heating system kicked on; the boys returned to their video games; Brittany took a steaming hot shower. And to no one’s surprise, Isabella commanded Amazon’s Alexa to play “Baby Shark.”