people waling on snowy interstate
Pedestrians walk down I-35 near Denton, Texas. Photo courtesy of Texas Department of Transportation.
by Hannah Wolfson

How does a caregiver end up unexpectedly working three eight-hour shifts in a row? Ask Texas—and its disastrous snowstorm last week.

While homecare and other businesses knew bad weather was on the way, no one predicted the state would be hit with record snowfall on Feb.14, 2021, resulting in extensive power and water outages that in some areas continued for more than a week.

“We knew it was coming but I don’t think anybody knew it was going to be as massive as it was,” said Margaret Robinson, client care manager at SYNERGY HomeCare North Houston. “We’ve seen a bit of snow in Houston, but nothing like this.”

Her franchise, which provides nonskilled companion care and employs about 80 caregivers, prepared the day before the storm—Valentine’s Day—according to its emergency plan. The administrative team worked to rearrange overnight shifts to ensure that staff who had small children or dependent family members would not be working overnight heading into the storm, and they warned those with shifts to be prepared to stay late. Office workers took home the secure laptops they were issued during the COVID-19 pandemic and printed out client lists to ensure they could access them if the power went down.

Caregiver Suzanne McCulley took an overnight shift with a 97-year-old client, expecting to be relieved the next morning by another employee who lives nearby. But on the morning of Feb. 15, the roads and schools were closed, and that person couldn’t make it.

So McCulley stayed. And after another shift, she stayed again. She worried that she needed to get home to take her blood pressure medication—but then remembered she had extra in her car. She worried she’d get home to burst pipes and power outages, but fortunately her power didn’t go out until Wednesday and returned soon after.

"I was worried about my house because I didn't leave any water running or anything," McCulley said. 

The situation repeated all across Texas, where at least 4.5 million customers lost power and record low temperatures led to a number of reported deaths.

“It’s been a pretty difficult time,” Jeff Salter, founder and CEO of Caring Senior Service, said at the opening of a panel at the National Association for Home Care & Hospice's Private Duty Home Care Winter Leadership Conference on Tuesday. His agency had 20 locations affected by the storm, he said.

“Fortunately, we’re required here in Texas to have an emergency plan, so we implemented that plan,” he said. But the weather was worse than anyone predicted, he said—and then the power and water outages hit.

“Once the power started going out it really created a cascading effect of issues,” Salter said. “If we had caregivers in clients’ home and the power went out, they stayed. We had some caregivers stay for as many as three days with their clients.”

For SYNERGY North Houston, at least two caregivers stayed with clients Sunday through Wednesday and helped them manage burst pipes or power outages. Robinson said that her team wasn’t just dealing with client issues—many staff members and their families were in difficult straits. In fact, for the future, she said, she'll update their emergency plan to stock the office with water and other supplies to send home with staff. 

Her advice in general for agencies staring down storms is to do more than you think you need.

"What I can really tell them is, despite how small you think whatever emergency is, you should always prepare for it to be more major than you think," Robinson said. 

Hannah Wolfson is editor of HomeCare.