Strangers who became heroes: The amazing ways people helped each other weather the Texas storm

Krista Johnson, Ryan Poe and Deborah Sengupta Stith, Austin American-Statesman
·16 min read

AUSTIN, Texas – Ryan Sivley left his Austin, Texas, home on Feb. 15 to get a Mountain Dew and a pack of cigarettes, as snow began to blanket his city. But as the weather worsened and conditions quickly became dire, the routine errand turned into a grueling four days spent hooking straps and chains to hundreds of stranded vehicles, pulling their passengers to safety.

It was just shy of a year since a horrific motorcycle accident had left Sivley, 40, badly hurt, his injuries repaired with titanium rods. Yet the physical pain in his legs, back and hips was outweighed by the emotional guilt he’d endure knowing he could help someone but didn’t.

"If it was me and my kids in a car, even if someone else was in pain, I’d still hope they’d help me, opposed to going home and laying down,” he said.

As the snow came down and the power went out, it soon became clear that thousands would be stranded in freezing temperatures, many without food and supplies, or a way to salvation. Few had ever experienced a time like this, and, even with the knowledge of how to best weather such a storm, Texas infrastructure wasn’t built to sustain such conditions.

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That realization inspired many like Sivley to resist urges to hunker down and protect their own. Instead, they sought out strangers in need, offering whatever skills or resources they could offer.

People throughout Austin invited people into their homes to shower. They sent whatever cash they could spare to Venmo and GoFundMe accounts. They delivered baby diapers, firewood and bottled water.

Ryan Sivley poses for a portrait with his 2010 Chevrolet Silverado Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Sivley used his truck and a 4x4 SUV to help 500 stranded motorists during February’s winter storm that brought freezing temperatures, sleet and snow.
Ryan Sivley poses for a portrait with his 2010 Chevrolet Silverado Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Sivley used his truck and a 4x4 SUV to help 500 stranded motorists during February’s winter storm that brought freezing temperatures, sleet and snow.

'I'd panic': Why Ryan Sivley pulled stranded drivers to safety

That Monday evening, Sivley turned the corner headed toward a nearby gas station for his cigarettes when he saw the first car in a ditch. He got to work. By the time he pulled that guy out, another car would get stuck.

“It was flooded with people,” he said of the downhill road they were on.

His motorcycle accident last March put him in the hospital for months. The chronic pain had made him give up off-roading, which he'd loved to do in his spare time. But that experience, and two capable vehicles, would be put to the test over the long days that followed. Despite the pain, he’d free nearly 500 cars over the course of the week.

“You can’t call 911 because it’s too busy. You can’t call Lyft. You can’t call Uber. You have your wife and kids in the car. I’d panic,” he said.

One woman, who had her dogs in her car, had to be pulled miles to her family’s home, in reverse. Another family was pulled from a ditch around midnight after their car had lost power and the dad had a head wound that was bleeding, Sivley said.

More than doing his part, Sivley inspired others to help.

After his story was shared by other news outlets, he was contacted by other truck and Jeep owners, offering to help. While pulling cars himself, Sivley fielded calls and text messages from other stuck drivers and delegated the jobs out to the rest of the makeshift team.

A week after the storm, Sivley was still getting a couple of calls a day from people who had left their cars in ditches, wanting to know if he’d be willing to help. He was, of course.

'I honestly don’t know how my mom can cook so much food in such a short amount of time '

Enriqueta Maldonado has spent her life inside the walls of kitchens, preparing countless meals over the three decades she worked at a South Austin middle school.

“People like my mom — they are nourishing bodies and nourishing souls,” her daughter, Monica Maldonado, said. “You can taste it.”

Enriqueta Maldonado and her daughter Monica fed over 75 people with hundreds of home cooked meals in a coordinated effort to help those most in need from the community as water and electric service went out in Austin due to winter storms. The pair is photographed at the family home in Dove Springs on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.
Enriqueta Maldonado and her daughter Monica fed over 75 people with hundreds of home cooked meals in a coordinated effort to help those most in need from the community as water and electric service went out in Austin due to winter storms. The pair is photographed at the family home in Dove Springs on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

After the storm hit, Monica Maldonado spent the first day or so in her apartment without electricity before making it to her mom’s, where there was electricity.

“When we first kind of determined that we had the resources to cook food, it was honestly like a no-brainer,” she said.

Monica Maldonado called on the pastor at Teri Road Baptist Church, who donated its entire pantry full of food. Nonprofit Do Good ATX set up an online portal to sign up for meals, provided the supplies and enlisted the help of volunteer delivery drivers.

And Enriqueta Maldonado got to cooking.

The first day she made breakfast tacos that were delivered to families staying in hotels. The next day, after someone donated several pounds of ground beef, she paired it with beans, mashed potatoes and fideo. Starting before dawn, she’d made enough meals to serve 75 people by 10 a.m.

“I honestly don’t know how my mom can cook so much food in such a short amount of time,” her daughter said. “It really is a gift.”

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Left to right, Kevin, Ivan and Alan Ramirez during Austin's February snow and ice storm.
Left to right, Kevin, Ivan and Alan Ramirez during Austin's February snow and ice storm.

A family made it their mission to find shelter for the homeless

The Ramirez family has been serving the community for than a decade – Ivan Ramirez bringing his two sons, Kevin and Alan, along to food drives and out-of-town missions as they grew up. When the pandemic began, the trio partnered with organizations helping homeless people — an area of need that has surged in Austin and throughout the country.

When the storm hit, their immediate concern was for the people who had just a tarp separating them from the elements, Alan Ramirez said. At the time, the shelters weren’t open yet, and once they were, they’d immediately become full.

“We agreed we needed to do something immediate to get these people somewhere safe and warm,” he said.

Ivan Ramirez and a close friend pulled from their personal funds to pay for 10 hotel rooms — costing about $1,600 — but they knew the need was greater.

Alan Ramirez started a GoFundMe campaign – which raised over $5,000 within five days.

They were able to put 48 people in rooms for four nights, in addition to giving them such supplies as sleeping bags and propane tanks.

All of this was made possible by “Austinites taking care of Austinites,” Alan Ramirez said.

“This winter storm made us stronger,” he said.

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Andrew Rincon, owner of CraigO's Pizza and Pastaria in Lakeway on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Rincon opened the pizza shop up after the storm to cook with a full staff and volunteers to feed more than 750 people over three days. "Our staff was amazing and we're getting a lot of credit, but it was the community that was phenomenal," said Rincon.
Andrew Rincon, owner of CraigO's Pizza and Pastaria in Lakeway on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Rincon opened the pizza shop up after the storm to cook with a full staff and volunteers to feed more than 750 people over three days. "Our staff was amazing and we're getting a lot of credit, but it was the community that was phenomenal," said Rincon.

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Andrew Rincon, owner of CraigO’s Lakeway, had to close his pizza parlor down when the storm hit, with the roads too icy to ask his employees to come in.

He got a call from a friend in need of food, and Rincon realized he had a walk-in freezer full of inventory that’d go to waste if it weren’t cooked. After firing up the ovens, he was able to give pizzas to friends and neighbors who were without electricity.

The next night, he reached out to his neighborhood hospital — Baylor Scott & White Medical Center-Lakeway — and donated pizzas to feed 120 workers. Many had been forced to stay at work, unable to make the trek home.

Meanwhile, Tank Lopez, co-founder of a neighborhood Facebook group called 12:31, was fielding posts from people who needed a ride, using his Jeep to get them to safer conditions. One of his riders from that first day shared Lopez's Venmo account online. He woke up with $3,600 and within 10 hours, there was $36,000, he said.

He, along with a friend who helps run the Facebook page, quickly went to work figuring out to help as many people in the best ways. They found more people to provide rides, they filled a church parking lot with nonperishable items, they delivered firewood and they focused on feeding people a hot meal — and that's when two efforts to help those in need became one.

On Thursday, “a complete stranger” picked Rincon up from his home to deliver him to his restaurant, and unexpectedly returned that night to make sure he had a ride home. Throughout the next two days, more than 15 volunteers would show to help prepare pies — feeding an estimated 750 people.

Eli Robinson preps boxes at CraigO's Pizza and Pastaria in Lakeway on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Owner Andrew Rincon opened up the pizza shop after the storm to cook with a full staff and volunteers to feed more than 750 people over three days. "Our staff was amazing and we're getting a lot of credit, but it was the community that was phenomenal," said Rincon.
Eli Robinson preps boxes at CraigO's Pizza and Pastaria in Lakeway on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Owner Andrew Rincon opened up the pizza shop after the storm to cook with a full staff and volunteers to feed more than 750 people over three days. "Our staff was amazing and we're getting a lot of credit, but it was the community that was phenomenal," said Rincon.

The money sent to Lopez paid for the food and helped to support a business that had already endured a trying year.

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'I just felt like God was speaking to me': Rapper opens his heart and his wallet

Rapper Dominican Jay used to rock stages with the ATX super crew League of Extraordinary Gz. These days, he’s based out of Florida, but when the Austin native saw the winter storm hobbling his hometown, he knew he had to help.

“I just felt like God was speaking to me. And He was just like, you know, 'the tools are there, just get up and let's make it happen,'” said Jay, who declined to give his legal name.

Amber Bradshaw poses for a portrait Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Bradshaw was part of a team of drivers who delivered supplies to neighbors who were stuck at home during the winter storm.
Amber Bradshaw poses for a portrait Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Bradshaw was part of a team of drivers who delivered supplies to neighbors who were stuck at home during the winter storm.

In a Feb. 16 Facebook post, Jay offered to cover costs for anyone with four-wheel-drive vehicles willing to deliver essentials to Austinites trapped by the storm. Within a few hours, he had assembled a team of roughly half a dozen drivers.

For the next week, he worked around the clock, fielding hundreds of messages from desperate families stuck in their homes with no power or water and dwindling stocks of baby formula and diapers. Friends and strangers reached out, begging for wellness checks and food deliveries to elderly relatives. His runners scoured stores around the city for essential supplies and then fanned out to fill the orders Jay was compiling.

“I’m willing to empty out my whole account to help those in (need). No babies going hungry while I exist,” he wrote Feb. 17 on Facebook. As his operation expanded, a few donors stepped in to share the financial burden, but Jay wasn’t thinking about money.

“It was life or death for some people,” he said.

One woman reached out to him in relief after his team was able to procure the sensitive-stomach baby formula she needed and her son, who had been crying incessantly, finally calmed.

“I can't imagine the fear that (families) were feeling, you know, making that last bottle,” Amber Bradshaw said. A mother herself, she saw Jay’s post and joined the effort early on. For days, she worked from her South Austin home to dispatch drivers. When no other drivers were available, she made runs herself.

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A coalition of nonprofits, activists and individuals joined forces

“In all of my time of being a so-called activist, like, I have never seen people come together and get work done the way these people have,” Nakevia Miller said.

By “these people” she was referring to a massive coalition of nonprofit organizations, grassroots organizers, city leaders and ordinary Austinites brought together by Community Resilience Trust ATX, or CRT. Together, they worked tirelessly to shelter Austinites experiencing homelessness and to provide food and water to families in need amid a brutal combination of freezing temperatures and widespread power and water outages.

Nakevia Miller stands outside of the Millennium Entertainment Center food distribution site in East Austin on Thursday, where she and her team have been working for the last week to dispense food, water and hygiene products to people in need. “Mostly right now I feel proud. What happened in this moment, is an example of what Community Resilience Trust stands for; we are about helping elevate these grassroots efforts," said Miller.
Nakevia Miller stands outside of the Millennium Entertainment Center food distribution site in East Austin on Thursday, where she and her team have been working for the last week to dispense food, water and hygiene products to people in need. “Mostly right now I feel proud. What happened in this moment, is an example of what Community Resilience Trust stands for; we are about helping elevate these grassroots efforts," said Miller.

On Feb. 12, members of Austin’s Urban League said they were running a supply drive for people living under an overpass, but with a prolonged period of frigid temperatures in the forecast, organizers quickly realized “that there was going to have to be more action than just passing out blankets and coats and gloves,” Miller said.

CRT called an emergency meeting the next day to connect organizations working to find shelter for Austinites without homes.

For the next week and a half, CRT held an ongoing Zoom call daily from 8 a.m. to midnight with breakout rooms where groups working on specific relief efforts could connect and strategize. Together, they moved hundreds of people off the street and into hotels and shelters and set up a kitchen to provide meals.

As “the unthinkable happened” and outages threw the city into crisis, the CRT effort expanded. Miller, a graphic designer by trade, and web developer Angelica Erazo set up austincold.com, a website with news, safety information and intake forms for people looking for help and people who wanted to volunteer.

Tasked by the city, CRT set up two drive-thru food and water distribution sites. It also arranged food and water deliveries to people stranded in apartment complexes. The groups activated their collective networks to source food and supplies.

Workers help to dispense food, water and hygiene products to people in need at the Millennium Entertainment Center food distribution site in East Austin on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.
Workers help to dispense food, water and hygiene products to people in need at the Millennium Entertainment Center food distribution site in East Austin on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

CRT founder Rubén Cantu said his organization became “the connective tissue between (the city’s Emergency Operations Center) and the city and our community.”

At the end of the week, she felt inspired by her group’s efforts, but she recognized that their work will be ongoing.

“The pandemic was already highlighting the economic and social disparities in Austin, and then layering the storm on top of it has done a whole, whole lot of damage. And so we're going to have to keep volunteering and keep investing time in order to actually help reduce the need,” she said.

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'Reese's Pieces': Wielding the power of social media for mutual aid

After losing power, struggling to find a hotel room and then seeing the way people were scrounging for basic supplies in Austin, Ashanté Reese said it hit her.

"I just kept thinking about how maybe we all underestimated how crazy things were going to be,” said Reese, who works as an assistant professor in the University of Texas Department of African and African Diaspora Studies.

Seeing the suffering wrought by the winter storms, Reese and a few of her colleagues at the university — Ashley Farmer, Aaron Sandel and Bedour Alagraa — created an online spreadsheet to gather information about the needs people have, and then used their social media platforms to promote the spreadsheet. After that, they started divvying up the tasks and putting out the call for volunteers and donations, eventually raising more than $33,000 for Austin relief and rallying 40 volunteers.

As of Sunday morning, the group (which should be called “Reese’s Pieces,” one member joked) has helped more than 200 households with food, transportation, medicine, shelter and other needs.

It showed Reese and her colleagues the importance and power of social media.

“I think it was a really good example of how we were able to mobilize our networks and our names,” she said. “I think it's given us a lot to think about in terms of using these platforms to do things like we did last week."

'It was what I was supposed to do': Constable springs into action

When winter storms buried the town of Taylor in snow and ice, stranding many citizens without heat or water for days, Constable Paul Leal climbed into his wife’s resilient 2015 Dodge truck and got to work.

Constable Paul Leal of Williamson County Precinct 4 discusses his efforts to serve his counties north of Austin during the winter storm that engulfed the area causing water and power outages and below freezing temperatures. Leal is seen here outside his office building on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.
Constable Paul Leal of Williamson County Precinct 4 discusses his efforts to serve his counties north of Austin during the winter storm that engulfed the area causing water and power outages and below freezing temperatures. Leal is seen here outside his office building on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

Over the next few days, working more than 12 hours a day, he used Facebook to communicate with the community. By his count, he took 23 people to safe locations, took more than 600 pounds of food and water to 16 homes and 46 apartment units, put seven vehicles back on the road and conducted roughly 25 home checks. And he only slid off the road a “few times."

By any measurement, those efforts could be seen as going above and beyond. But Leal also brought 23 people into his and his wife’s home.

“It was what I was supposed to do,” he said, reflecting in his office a week later. “I never had a second thought about it.”

Leal is full of stories from the winter storm. There was the time when hundreds of people were standing in lines at the Taylor H-E-B grocery store without access to bathrooms, so Leal used his wife’s truck to drag a portable commode from a nearby job site to the store.

Another time, he helped get 500 gallons of nondrinkable water to H-E-B to allow the store’s freezers to continue running. And there were countless cases of people thanking him for taking them to warm houses or bringing them food.

“A girl gave me a hug,” he recalled. “She was like, ‘To hell with COVID,’ and gave me a hug.” Seeing the tears and smiles kept him going, he added.

Leal was only a month and a few days into his term when the storm blindsided his precinct, along with the rest of Texas.

He quickly found out that the snow chains in his office’s storage were for the office’s old vehicles and wouldn’t fit his new fleet. So, he and other deputies used personal vehicles to respond to the community’s needs.

“If another winter storm comes through, we’ll do exactly what we did but we’ll do it better because we’ll be better equipped,” he said, adding that his office is in the process of buying a type of snow chain for the office’s fleet of vehicles. “I think everyone involved will learn from it and be better prepared the next time.”

Guerrilla plumbers look to unclog the repairs pipeline

Seeing the desperate need for emergency plumbing repairs across Austin, five friends who met one another through the city’s small but tight-knit dance community hatched an unorthodox plan.

And so the Austin Guerrilla Plumber Corps was born.

Michael Kunitzky and Colby Adams of the Austin Guerrilla Plumber Corps pose for a portrait Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in Austin, Texas. The corps of five friends, is working to repair underprivileged residents’ plumbing problems caused by the winter storm.
Michael Kunitzky and Colby Adams of the Austin Guerrilla Plumber Corps pose for a portrait Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in Austin, Texas. The corps of five friends, is working to repair underprivileged residents’ plumbing problems caused by the winter storm.

The friends — Michael Kunitzky, Ryan Gossen, Coleman Kelly, J. Colby Adams and David Rose — created a spreadsheet for people in need of plumbing repairs who didn’t have access to a professional plumber and went to work.

In three days, they repaired the plumbing for 20 properties, including the refugee house Casa Marianella, as well as Florence’s Comfort House, which provides food, clothing, school supplies and a safe place to study and play to children in the Montopolis neighborhood. They’re doing the repairs at no cost to owners, although they’ve started a GoFundMe that’s raised more than $5,000 for plumbing parts.

The goal isn’t to compete with plumbers, said Kunitzky, a 46-year-old angel investor and real estate owner with time on his hands; the goal is to do “triage” for a community in need.

Michael Kunitzky and Coleman Kelly of the Austin Guerrilla Plumber Corps work to replace a water heater Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in Austin, Texas. The corps of five friends, is working to repair underprivileged residents’ plumbing problems caused by the winter storm.
Michael Kunitzky and Coleman Kelly of the Austin Guerrilla Plumber Corps work to replace a water heater Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in Austin, Texas. The corps of five friends, is working to repair underprivileged residents’ plumbing problems caused by the winter storm.

As of Thursday, the Austin Guerrilla Plumber Corps had more than 50 requests for plumbing help in its pipeline, Kunitzky said.

“There’s an intrinsic reward that comes from helping other people that cannot be defined,” he said. “It recharges my heart and recharges my soul.”

Follow reporters Krista Johnson, Ryan Poe and Deborah Sengupta Stith on Twitter: @KristaJ1993, @ryanpoe, @deborific

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This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Strangers who became heroes: How Austinites helped weather the storm