Tim Hennessy remembers a “collective groan” on Tuesday as the lights went out in his local grocery store in Texas. He and his wife quickly grabbed their last items and pulled up to a checkout line 20 carts deep.

Around him were a couple hundred shoppers, some with only credit cards, trying to stock up during a statewide emergency. The power had been going on and off in this Austin suburb as cold weather overwhelmed the Texas grid. But no one told shoppers to put their items back if they couldn’t pay cash.

When Hennessy got to the cashier, he said, she just waved him on, thanked him and told him to drive home safely.

And it hit us — like, wow, they’re just letting us walk out the door,” the 60-year-old man recounted. Ahead of him, shoppers were pushing carts piled high with diapers, milk, jumbo boxes of crackers — all free. He began to tear up.

The show of kindness this week at the H-E-B grocery store in Leander, Tex., has gone viral, a bright spot in a crushing week for Americans weathering a deadly winter storm that left people scrambling for food and clean water after mass power outages. Hennessy’s Facebook post about the episode exploded, and a Friday op-ed in the Houston Chronicle contrasted the generosity in Leander with authorities’ failures: “Why H-E-B comes through in a crisis when Texas government doesn’t,” the headline read.

Hennessy attributes his post’s unexpected resonance to a hunger for good news at a time when Americans are bombarded with the bad. By Tuesday, the snowstorm pummeling much of the country had left more than a dozen dead, and power outages in Texas had peaked, plunging several million homes into darkness.

The country’s been through a lot in this last year and a half or so, right? Since last March, I guess, really. A lot of division, a lot of stuff going on, and on top of this, in Texas here, we’ve got this weather … They’re not ready for this,” Hennessy told The Washington Post.

But it wasn’t all terrible, and here was proof.

People are really good, and you see it in the tougher times,” he said.

He was going to title his Facebook post “the America I know,” he said, until his wife suggested just “The Heart of America.”

Out in the H-E-B parking lot on Tuesday, he could tell that other shoppers were touched, too. Carts were getting stuck in the ice and snow. Groceries were tumbling out. But people started holding on to other people’s bags, Hennessy said.

Watching an elderly woman nervously struggle to get her car moving — the wheels were spinning on ice — Hennessy says he and a couple other men pushed the vehicle ahead.

“Everybody started helping each other,” he said.

Hennessy, who works in information technology, said he called H-E-B on Friday to ask if they had preferred charities. He wanted to pass on the good deed by donating whatever he would have paid for his milk, produce and power bars.

H-E-B did not respond to The Post’s inquiries Friday evening, and a man who answered the phone at its Leander location said staff there could not comment. But the company confirmed shoppers’ accounts on Twitter: “yes, this is a true story,” it commented below pictures of Hennessy’s post.

Others customers were also moved. Shelby Lasker told the Austin American-Statesman that she was anxious to get supplies and in the checkout line when the power stopped, taking out the store’s payment terminals. She still left with staples and Lunchables for her four-year-old son.

“I think they could tell how upset people were,” she told the American-Statesman.

Power is returning to Austin after days of freezing temperatures, but supermarket shelves are empty and basic supplies are hard to come by. (Lindsey Sitz, Alex Penrose/The Washington Post)

Texas’s situation was dire and would only escalate for Hennessy, who said his home lost running water the next day. He says the water is back now, but the storms have wreaked costly havoc on public infrastructure, and much of the state is still under advisories to boil their water before drinking — if they can even get it from the tap.

But Tuesday afternoon at H-E-B, Hennessy felt hopeful and even cracked some jokes on his way out of the store.

“I could use one right now,” he recalled telling an employee who asked if he had any alcoholic drinks.

“Wait a minute, I forgot the filet mignon,” he told staff later before heading out the door.

No one told him exactly why they were doing it. But the message to him was clear.

The mind-set, he said, seemed to be: “You’re our customers. You probably need this stuff. Go ahead and have a nice day.”

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