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How Nextdoor saved my family during the Texas deep freeze

Commentary: My family members were stranded without power amid snow and freezing temperatures -- until Nextdoor and a stranger came to the rescue.

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I opened my front door to this seemingly innocent layer of snow last Monday.

Natalie Weinstein/CNET

I was delighted last Monday to wake up to a beautiful 6 inches of snow blanketing my world. After all these years, my two teenagers would finally experience a day of real winter in Austin, Texas. I imagined all of the fun ahead.

Then I turned on my phone.

My ex-husband, David, had texted at 2:30 a.m. to tell me that his power was out as part of planned rolling outages. I texted back, asking when his power had returned. His response: It was still out. This was just before 9 a.m., and the temperature was in the low teens.

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This doesn't look like much, but it crippled Austin -- a city without snow plows.

Natalie Weinstein/CNET

I started to worry.

David lives on one side of a duplex. My 18-year-old daughter, Shoshana, lives on the other side with two housemates and a bearded dragon. Two friends and a kitten had also spent the night.

The rolling outages had failed. They were supposed to last less than an hour to help keep the Texas power grid up and running. But once an outage kicked in, it lasted for days.

Austin wasn't alone. A massive snowstorm and record-breaking cold hit Texas over the long weekend, overwhelming the power grid and cutting power to millions of people for days. A widespread water crisis struck next as frozen pipes burst and water treatment plants failed. President Joe Biden declared a major disaster and authorized the federal government to provide aid. 

I didn't know any of this at the time. But the 6 inches of snow suddenly looked very different to me. 

Austin doesn't get snow. In my 19 years here, we'd gotten a few dustings of ice crystals that native Texans call snow. Once we got a quarter inch of actual snow that quickly disappeared. As far as I know, Austin doesn't have any snow plows. I told David to head to my place immediately with the kids, but he didn't think he could get out of the driveway in his Kia Soul, let alone drive anywhere.

He was trying to save his phone battery and asked me to call 311 to see when the power would return. I tried 311. It was down. I tried the city website. It was down too. I needed to figure out which streets were passable. Shoshana and David only live 10 minutes away on a normal day, though there are two steep hills between us. They now seemed completely out of reach.

I started to panic.

Picking them up in my Nissan Rogue was my first thought, but I felt very iffy about this plan. I don't have four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. I was so worried that I suddenly decided to do something I'd never done before. I sent out an urgent alert on Nextdoor, the social network organized by neighborhood. 

"Urgent alert. Road status in southwest Austin? I need to get from Escarpment/Davis to Westgate/Davis to get family members who haven't had power since 2:30 am. I am just afraid of getting stuck. Does anyone know which main roads are drivable?" I wrote.  

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This is what I sent out as my panic grew.

Natalie Weinstein/CNET

The alert apparently went out to the 1,454 households in my neighborhood that have joined Nextdoor. That's about 80% of all the homes in my subdivision.

People started replying almost immediately, suggesting certain routes or telling me that it was far too dangerous to drive. Then came a reply from someone who lives less than a mile from me. He was someone I'd never heard of or met before that day. He was a lifeline.

"I think our Outback's able to handle it as it has AWD plus plenty of low gears. Please see private message. Thanks," wrote Mr. B, who asked to remain anonymous for my story.

In a private message, he gave me his cell number and told me to call him. I felt extremely uncomfortable about putting someone in such a dangerous position, but I was desperate. When we spoke, I warned him that it could be treacherous and that it would take two trips to get everyone. Yet he insisted on helping us, telling me that his Subaru Outback had come with him from Colorado and that it could easily handle the snow.

When I got off the phone, my 17-year-old daughter, Miriam, who was with me, stated the obvious: "What about COVID?"

Oh yeah, the pandemic. I had forgotten all about it. I told her I would mask up and hope for the best. I also threw out my rock-solid rule against getting into a car with a stranger. I had no time for that now.

Within 15 minutes, Mr. B had arrived in his Outback.

I started to relax.

It was slow-going to the duplex. There were some tire tracks on the major streets, but few people had dared to go out. It was eerie to see empty parking lots as we passed stores and businesses in the late morning. But Mr. B, who is in his early 70s, is a delightful conversationalist and made the time pass quickly with snow stories. As a native Nebraskan, I had my share of stories too.

In terms of COVID-19, Mr. B told me that he and his wife had gotten their second dose of vaccine a couple of weeks back. At that moment, I realized that the vaccine may have given him the extra confidence he needed to decide to help us amid the pandemic.

When we got to the duplex about 30 minutes later, I found my ex-husband sitting in his idling car, trying to stay warm. The snow had drifted over the sidewalk, and I walked through a foot of snow to get to my daughter's front door. Their home was ice-cold inside. The kids were shivering. The bearded dragon had only survived by lying against her owner's chest since 2:30 a.m.

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A plastic tub and a window screen became a temporary home for Rango the bearded dragon.

Natalie Weinstein/CNET

Two hours later, David, Shoshana, her four friends, the bearded dragon and the kitten were safely at my house. We'd made it. Relief and gratitude poured over me.

I started to count my blessings.

We thanked Mr. B profusely that day, thanked him again over Nextdoor and text, talked about him with awe repeatedly for days and donated to the local food bank in his honor.

His only request of us was to "pay it forward." I hope we can follow his example and live up to that.

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We shoveled, melted and strained snow for five days for hand washing and toilet flushing. 

Natalie Weinstein/CNET

The kids ended up having more fun in the snow than I had even imagined. But it was still a hell of a week. We had no running water from last Wednesday morning to Sunday afternoon and were then under a boil notice until Tuesday. I lost power twice on Friday but got it back after a couple of hours each time. Gas stations were out of fuel for days. People lined up by the hundreds in the cold to get into grocery stores. My guests finally went home Friday. I'm still cleaning up.

Regardless of all that, my family was safe during a time when people literally froze to death in Texas.

Here was the Austin Water outage map on Sunday morning. The red marks outages. The orange marks low pressure. I was in the red.

Screenshot by CNET

I've thought a lot about Nextdoor over the past week. I truly believe that Nextdoor (and Mr. B!) saved my family. I was at wit's end when I turned to the site, simply hoping to learn about road conditions. I got that information, but Nextdoor also connected me with someone who was willing to put himself in harm's way for a stranger. 

Think about that. None of us knew what the streets would really be like that day. Mr. B could have stayed safe and warm in his house. Instead, he took the chance of getting stuck or ending up in an accident in the bitter cold to help someone in desperate need.

By the way, I do have great neighbors on my own street who I could have turned to. But I didn't assume that any of them would know what the streets were like that morning. One of them saw my Nextdoor alert and reached out to offer help, but Mr. B was already on his way.

Nextdoor has long been my favorite social network because it's just so practical. People post on Nextdoor about lost (and found) pets, coyotes, snakes, weird bugs, break-ins, scams, piano lessons, math tutors, owl houses and HVAC systems. They sell possessions or give them away for free. Over the past year, they've shared valuable information about coronavirus testing and vaccinations.

This past week, Nextdoor has also been an amazing resource regarding power outages, water outages, burst pipes, boil notices, bottled water giveaways, gas stations with gas, grocery store lines and the restocking of milk, eggs and bottled water.

I definitely wasn't alone in how I used Nextdoor to cope with the crisis. According to the company, the volume of posts last week in Texas was 471% higher than the previous week. Conversations with people asking for or offering help rose 400%, and keywords such as "power," "water," "firewood," "open stores," "pipes" and "heating" surged. Searches were also up 140%, and "plumber" was the most-searched term.

Nextdoor, more than any other social media site, helped hundreds of thousands – maybe even millions -- of people suffering in Texas last week, including my family.

I haven't stopped feeling utterly grateful.