By Farrah Varga
When the calendar rolled over to January, we did not expect everything to immediately change for the better, but no one in the path of the almost benignly named “Winter Storm Uri” in February 2021 had anything quite like a “snowpocalypse” in mind. For those of at Villa Finale, a National Trust Historic Site located in San Antonio, Texas, we learned a lesson in resilience.
For almost a week in February, temperatures all over Texas dropped well below freezing and stubbornly stayed there. Snow and ice blanketed San Antonio after a winter of mostly warmth and sunshine. An afternoon of temperatures in the 40s mid-week melted a bit of snow, bringing housebound Texans outside to monitor their water pipes—bravely wrapped with household towels and duct tape to counter the unusual cold. This reprieve didn’t last. More snow fell the next day, glittering and beautiful, but decidedly unwelcome. We were exhausted. We were cold. We were, frankly, dirty. We were so done.
As many now know, the electrical grid in Texas, separate from the grids used by the rest of the country, failed spectacularly. It was truly a Texas-sized failure, because when the power went out, it went out all over the state. Those sub-freezing temperatures outside now meant near-freezing temperatures inside. Rolling blackouts lasting hours into days plunged temperatures lower, freezing water in pipes that lay unprotected in the pier-and-beam foundations so common in this typically overly warm part of the world. Electricity was even shut off to water stations across San Antonio, resulting in not only a loss of electricity in homes but in a loss of water. Many could not cook, bathe, find potable water to drink, or stay warm. It was (and for some still is) an appalling, heartbreaking crisis, and it was absolutely enraging. Texas was not the only state to suffer the wrath of this destructive storm. Other states across the southeast saw not just freezing temperatures and snow, but hail, damaging winds, and tornados."
Always Be Prepared
Our historic site was lucky, in part. The 1876 Italianate home, clad in native limestone and lifted up onto that ubiquitous breeze-seeking foundation, is well-built and well-maintained. That was a mark in our favor (and a sign of our stewardship, I’m proud to say), but for this weather event we needed more than just luck.
On February 13th, the managerial staff gathered onsite, wrapped in our warmest winter coats, to film a live broadcast of our annual Valentine’s Day concert. After we settled the performers into our Napoleon Parlors and switched on the camera, we huddled in the kitchen to watch the live feed on our phones and to do some light weather-related panicking. We kept switching back and forth from the concert to our weather apps and to the news reports, growing ever more alarmed at the forecast.
Fortunately for us, our Executive Director, Jane Lewis, is pretty unflappable and she had a plan. Our exterior water pipes were already tightly wrapped—advisable every winter here, just in case—but the exposed pipes that ran under the house were not guaranteed to be a match for temperatures in the teens. As the band (pianist, actually) played on, our Manager of Buildings & Grounds, Orlando Cortinas, turned off the main water access and dashed around the property emptying faucets and double-checking wrapped pipes. Water left in pipes could freeze, expand, and burst, potentially spelling disaster for our collection. With the water off and the site secure, we carefully crept home and waited.
Jane returned to the site each day to check for any signs of damage and when the snow finally melted a week later, Orlando returned to the site to turn on the water. Jane hadn’t seen any signs of burst pipes, but we were still nervous. A burst pipe would be costly at best and everyone in the city was facing weeklong waits for appointments with plumbers. Our hearts sank when the water refused to flow. A burst pipe. This was not what we were hoping for after preparing so well. But fortune smiled upon us and a visit from our friendly layman plumber the next day showed that it was merely clogged sediment blocking the flow of water. We were also lucky that we had only lost electricity for a brief period, ensuring that the collections remained free from temperature damage.
Though we dodged an icy bullet in terms of our interiors, the beautiful gardens that were the pride of Villa Finale’s final owner, Walter Mathis, were truly heartbreaking to behold. February in San Antonio hosts the first signs of spring and this year was no different. The budding trees, the ancient English ivy, and the spring-heralding jasmine vines were bludgeoned by the cold. The rapidly greening lawn became brown straw. The small palm trees turned an alarming shade of rusty orange. We knew we were awfully lucky that this was our only real issue, but it was disheartening to see the property in such a state.
Once again, best practices, experience, and intuition saved the day. Jane and Orlando prepared a plan to whip the gardens back into shape and, to our delight, the fruits (and flowers) of those decisions are becoming more apparent by the day. Trees are leafing out, the lawn is back to its green glory, and the antique rose bushes look no worse for wear even after the punishing cold. The beloved fruit trees—fig, persimmon, and pear—are blooming and budding and behaving just as springtime fruit trees should. The palms? Well, let’s just say that they’ve been trimmed sharply back in hopes that they’ll recover. They look far more like pineapples than palms these days, but we’ll cross our fingers. We believe we’ve lost some English ivy, which is very sad, but remain hopeful that the sweetly scented jasmine vines that run from fence to border will come back to life.
Now that we are on the other side of this weather crisis, we are able to think a bit more clearly about how we managed to avert disaster and what advice we have for sites that may have to deal with an event of this magnitude—or worse—in the future.
- Know your climate and understand the problems that come with it, both expected and unexpected. Make sure your insurance offers the best possible coverage.
- Save aggressively, just in case that insurance does not stretch as far as it should.
- Study best practices and communicate with staff a plan for weather-preparedness. Villa Finale does not yet have a formal weather-preparedness plan in place, so this is advice that we will be both giving and taking.
- Be flexible, be proactive rather than reactive, and, if you’re blessed with good judgement, use it!
We steward historic sites and interpret the stories they tell, but without the people who populate the tale, we lose the story entirely. We lost people in this disaster and that weighs heavily on my mind. As guardians of historic sites, I ask that we think very hard about ways to support and sustain not just our sites but the communities that support and sustain us.
Farrah Varga is the manager of marketing & programs at Villa Finale.