February 18, 2021
Winter Storms Challenge Texas Zen Centers

Photo credit: Tim Kroll

by Tova Green

In a winter when many regions of the United States have experienced fierce storms and freezing temperatures, last week’s extreme cold, snow, and freezing rain in Texas was unexpected and unprecedented.

On Tuesday of this week, I noticed that Reirin Gumbel, Milwaukee Zen Center’s guiding teacher, posted her concerns about sanghas in Texas on the Soto Zen Buddhist Associations member’s forum. She wrote, “How are you doing in this weather? Are your centers safe? Thinking about all Texans and others in the South. We have a seemingly unending snowstorm here; but Milwaukee is ready for it.”

This prompted me to reach out to Austin, Houston, and San Antonio Zen Centers, all members of Branching Streams, a group of sanghas in the Suzuki Roshi lineage.

The guiding teachers of the three Texas Zen Centers responded within hours. Here is what they said on Tuesday. I was able to follow up with Mako and Choro in Austin and Colin in San Antonio this morning.

Front of Austin Zen Center [Photo credit: Tim Kroll]

Mako Voelkel, guiding teacher of Austin Zen Center replied, “Texans are really not prepared for such low temperatures, and freezing pipes seems to be a huge issue. Natural gas still works, thankfully, but we just received a recent warning statement from Texas Gas Services saying gas wells are starting to freeze due to the sustained cold!

“While Austin Zen Center (with five residents) has not lost power CI — likely due to its location a few blocks from a major hospital CI — our Tanto (head of practice) and a few board members have not had power since 5:45pm last night. With no clear end in sight of either above-freezing weather or repairs to the energy grid, this may go on for some time. Driving anywhere right now seems out of the question, with snow on top of a sheet of ice, cars left stranded, and zero preparedness for such conditions! I myself am safe and thankful for having power (as well as Tassajara training in hot water bottles, headlamps, and bundling up).”

I called Mako and Austin Zen Center’s Tanto, Choro Antonnacio, Thursday morning.

Austin city dwellers are on a boiled water alert because a water treatment plant was compromised. Mako said that  she has collected clean water in buckets. She noted that it was snowing lightly this morning, as we were speaking. She has never been in temperatures as low as the minus eight degrees she experienced in Austin this week, even at Tassajara. She said, “Once things start to thaw out we’ll see how many pipes are broken. There’s been an emergency request for out-of-state plumbers to come in.”

Choro said, “The city is a disaster. Although things are slowly improving, there are still a lot of people without power. What has changed since Tuesday is that the water system is in a state of collapse.”

Choro had gotten her power back but had no water.  She was melting snow to use to wash dishes and flush the toilet. Choro described the roads as a sheet of ice, with no equipment for taking care of snow and ice on the roads. She has been mostly inside for five days. She said, “A lot of us are very fortunate. I don’t know how we’ll get back to normal with the infrastructure.”

Gaelyn Godwin, Abbot of Houston Zen Center, commented on Tuesday: “Thanks for asking — the report in Houston is almost identical to Mako’s in Austin. A wide array of concerns and outages. Perhaps the biggest issue right now is that the water pressure is so low — due to everyone leaving their taps dripping and the big pumps freezing — that we may start having backflow into the drinking lines. The city asked us all to stop the dripping, but we already had frozen pipes here the first day and we are reluctant to repeat that. There are no newspapers or mail, and limited broadband, but we always have rumors.

“We’ve brought a member and her two dogs into the temple for refuge from the cold. The lack of hot showers was a challenge, but we are very grateful for all we have.”

I was unable to reach Gaelyn for an update.

Colin Gipson, San Antonio Zen Center’s guiding teacher, wrote on Tuesday: “Thank you very much for asking, and for your concern. We received around 3 1/2 inches of snow here at SAZC and so far have been very lucky in that we haven’t lost power or heat at the Zen Center. We are supposed to receive freezing rain tonight, but it begins warming tomorrow and the overall situation will improve rapidly over the next few days.”

Thursday morning Colin said, “Tuesday seems so long ago. It’s snowing now, and will be warming starting tomorrow. We’re at the tail end of it. Many sangha members were affected by power loss. This part of Texas is not set up for this cold weather. There were burst pipes, causing low water pressure. There was an order to boil drinking water. A few days ago some highways were shut down.” He has been staying off the roads. Sangha members are still joining online when they can.

Colin has been working on insulating San Antonio Zen Center’s building. He said growing up on a ranch and being the Tassajara plant manager helped him prepare for the current storms in Texas. His wish is, “May everyone have power, heat, and clean drinking water in these very difficult times.”

Update 2/19/21
From Konjin Gaelyn Godwin, Abbot of Houston Zen Center

The Houston Zen Center sangha members were affected by a wide range of conditions during the ice storm. It’s actually still going on, and many members are staying with friends, or in their offices, or hunkered down at home with only one or two of the regular city utilities functioning. I feel that what we are experiencing is a taste of things to come: we will all recognize how precious water is, and how necessary it will be to conserve and share.

HZC never lost electricity, or gas, so we were warm and dry, even when it was 14 degrees for 2 days. However, the ice storm basically knocked out the Texas electric grid, which led to the collapse of many municipal water systems which rely on pumps. Houston, population 6 million, has been without running water for several days. It’s really amazing. The roots of the problem are in Houston politics, so that will make for interesting reading in the coming weeks.

We still do not have sufficient water at the Center. Many members lack either heat or internet. Some members have fireplaces for heat, and that’s it. The other 3 residents and I connected with all our members this week to make sure they were doing okay. We also gave refuge in the temple to members who lacked all services. We reached out to individuals who live on their own first, then checked with families and roommates.

Here at the Center we have water for drinking, because we keep 5-gallon containers on hand. We use the trickle from the taps for dishes, but all water from the taps must be boiled since it is now contaminated. We saved rainwater for flushing the toilets. The City has asked that we limit our electrical use so that others can come on line. The sharing feels very appropriate, and a taste of what is to come in our future, when we will all really know how precious water is, and how scarce our resources really are.

With palms together,

Side yard icicles (Austin Zen Center) [Photo credit: Bruce Smith]

Fountain in snow (Austin Zen Center) [Photo credit: Bruce Smith]

Icicles at night (Austin Zen Center) [Photo credit: Bruce Smith]