The winter storm of February 2021 was one for the record books. The Austin area hit record low temperatures while getting barraged with rounds of snow and ice for over a week. Carnivero weathered the storm and we wanted to share this story to recount the extraordinary efforts which saved the livelihoods of the Carnivero staff and share our experience so that other growers might be able to learn and better preparation for extreme weather and natural disasters in the future.
Here's what happened:
The Austin area remained below freezing for 140 consecutive hours. Though other parts of the country may regularly experience temperatures this low on a yearly basis, Texas is simply not prepared for it on any level which created deadly conditions.
1. Power generating plants across Texas were not equipped for the cold weather which led to a majority of Texans experiencing blackouts lasting for days while battling record low temperatures without operating heating.
2. For 1 week, nearly every road was closed and a dangerous hazard to drive on due to icy conditions and the absence of snow plows or de-icing materials.
3. Since most Texas homes and businesses are not equipped for the cold, water pipes quickly froze and burst causing many people to lose water for a week or more. Water treatment plants went offline so water was not potable for most who retained it.
4. Record demand for propane made it nearly inaccessible for weeks especially with the icy road conditions that prevented delivery.
The forecasts initially predicted lows getting down to 2°F. Our previous experience with brief cold snaps suggested that temperate carnivorous plants native to the southeastern USA (flytraps/Sarracenia/Drosera) were hardy down to 15°F. However, historical anecdotes from other growers reported heavy losses of almost all species (except purpurea ssp. purpurea) for sustained freezes below 10°F. We entertained the idea of using frost cloth and piling on layers of snow for insulation. However, ultimately, the decision was made move all 1200 sq ft. of outdoor plants into the greenhouse aisles. This was a monumental task but with lots of manpower we braved the already freezing temperatures outside and made the move. (special thanks to Patrick and Justin for helping out at the last minute).
Ultimately, temperatures only plummeted down to a balmy 7°F. There were some upright Sarracenia hybrids we purposely left out in the cold unprotected as an experiment. Some did show signs of death very quickly while a few others seemed like they survived unscathed. It's difficult to tell if it was it was the plant genetic factors that contributed or if it was the configuration of the snow/ice around them which played the biggest factor.
Even given the record breaking temperatures, keeping the greenhouses warm wouldn't have been an issue under normal circumstances since they are especially well insulated and we have adequately sized heaters with backups running on different fuel/power supplies. However, our propane supplier (Ferrellgas) became completely unreachable despite us placing an order with them a week before the storm and having a contract that they need to deliver to us within 5 days. The intermittent power outages further depleted our propane supply since our main backup generator runs on propane.
It became quickly obvious that we would not be able to outlast the cold temperatures running on our existing propane supply unless we were able to stretch it to last longer. Unfortunately, generators, space heaters and small propane cylinders quickly sold out in our area so we had to figure out alternate ways to heat the greenhouse. Our efforts became centered on safely creating as many BTU's of heat as possible using electric and other non-propane heating so as to save the propane we had left while we suffered power outages. We borrowed as many space heaters as we could as well as brought in our hot plates and micro-incinerators from the lab which we ran under fans for heat distribution.
This still wasn't going to be enough so I rigged up a makeshift hybrid geothermal heating system. It started out with our well water (which comes out at about 70°F). The water was then heated through a series of electric tankless water heaters and copper coils laid out over BBQ grills. The water was stored in insulated tanks and re-circulated through the water heating system after being passed through radiators in the greenhouse rigged up to run on AC power. This allowed us to create and store heat while the power was on and/or charcoal/wood grills were running. By coupling this with our makeshift electric heaters, we were able to stretch our dwindling propane supply for a few more days.
After it became apparent that we had been completely abandoned by Ferrelgas, our last resort was to find more propane elsewhere. We spent days telling our story to every propane company and delivery driver in the area. Most were already completely overwhelmed so we understood. However, 1 driver was taken back by our story and willing to brave being out late on the icy road for us (you know who you are and we will forever be grateful). We had just enough propane left to last 1 more night so it was a glorious sight to have the propane truck arrive. The roads were so icy that the truck couldn't make it up our driveway so the hose was run from the middle of our (deserted) highway.
As you can imagine, this was an incredibly stressful experience. In addition to working to save the greenhouses, our homes throughout the Austin area had extended power loss anywhere from 3-5 days and were without running water for over a week in most places. We filled bathtubs with snow stored for water and huddled under stacks of blankets to keep warm. Many people in our community were extremely generous and shared what they could such as taking those without power in (thank you James and Jamie!)
In the end, we were able to save the greenhouses. We did lose some recently imported aroids and a couple trays of lowland Nepenthes in an area of the greenhouse that had its heaters cut during the power outages. However, in the grand scheme of things, Carnivero came through this ordeal relatively unscathed compared to the catastrophe we were facing.
We thank all who have reached out in support. We're going to be alright. The greatest assistance would be to consider supporting us and other Texas businesses with purchases.
-The Carnivero Team