Central Texas leaders reflect on lessons learned from Feb. 2021 ice storm

Published: Feb. 16, 2022 at 6:48 PM CST
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - It’s safe to say, no one wants to relive the same trials of the massive 2021 winter storm when the area spent 205 straight hours of subfreezing temperatures.

People were stuck in the dark for days, hungry and freezing inside their homes, dealing with restrictions after the water city’s plants lost power, and the damage from freezing or bursting pipes.

Central Texans either didn’t prepare or didn’t prepare enough.

One thing is for certain: we all learned valuable lessons during that time.

For the Central Texas cities, that meant making sure they can survive alone, without outside help.

Waco Assistant City Manager Ryan Holt described the importance of independence.

”Typically, when you have a tornado, there are resources that are coming from the outside. In the February event, everybody was in the same boat and so there was no help coming. The residents of Waco and the employees of the City of Waco were going to have to solve it ourselves.”

Following significant events, most cities conduct what’s called an “after action review” which evaluates emergency response.

The report noted what actions worked well, what was sufficient and, most importantly, what improvements should happen to make operations smoother during the next similar event. Holt was tasked with that project, which he says was compiled over a six-month period.

Some 42,000 customers in McLennan County lost power. That included Waco’s water-treatment plants which, Holt said, hemorrhaged hundreds of millions of gallons of water.

He said there were both big and small water leaks in the utility lines under the street and in buildings that burst, causing water to pour out and into the roads.

Holt said at one point, crews from the police, fire, and public works departments were tasked with patrolling the area to look for water pouring out of businesses.

”When you get to that point you, stress systems out, our backup systems fail, we had water crews literally fixing water breaks in the middle of the street, in the middle of the night, standing in waist-deep sub-freezing water. Just horrible conditions.”

So, one big ticket improvement item for Waco is backup generators for facilities that can serve as warming centers for the public, shelters that house animals, and plants that treat water.

Another item to address is fuel, getting it and protecting it.

According to the AAR, the City of Waco needs to “maintain appropriate supplies of fuel additives necessary to prevent fuel gelling” because many city vehicles and even some generators run on diesel fuel, which in freezing temperatures turns into gel, rendering the equipment inoperable.

Just up the road in Hewitt, mobility was one of the bigger challenges for this smaller community.

“Pulling people out of ditches and off the streets. We had to look at this a little different. It wasn’t traditional law enforcement and the tools that we had necessarily weren’t always the best tools. So, some of our marked units were unable to navigate the streets. But we did have units that were capable of getting around,” said Hewitt Police Chief Jim Devlin.

Some staff used their personal vehicles. For example, they used trucks with 4-wheel drive to get around on the snow and ice all to get residents the items they desperately needed: food, water, baby food, and firewood.

”We kind of had to MacGyver everything because it was just nontraditional weather,” Devlin said.

He said his department has made some improvements like taking a look at the vehicle he purchases in the future.

He said the city had some 4-wheel vehicles but the ones that did not were parked because it just couldn’t get around.

He added, more automakers are turning to “all-wheel drive” as the strand for enforcement vehicles.

Making sure the city has enough of those around in case of another disaster.

However, these purchases would happen over time.

The fire department plans to operate the same way, making sure enough staff is on hand, maybe even camping out at work, making sure there are enough chains for the trucks’ wheels, and using trucks that could navigate the icy roads better than others.

During the storm, the fire department moved some equipment from one truck to other that got better traction on the ice.

But even the smallest change could make a big difference, and that’s making sure there’s a plan to clear the driveway in front of the truck bays.

At one point there were several inches of snow and ice in front of the doors.

“We probably could have plowed through it if we wanted to but it’s better to just get it out of the way. That way, if the sun did come out, there wasn’t a layer of ice to melt. It was already gone so it kind of helped dry the concrete out,” said Hewitt Fire Chief Lance Bracco.

Down in Temple, the fire department reported an increase of calls during the storm.

According to its “After Action Report,” it responded to 838 calls. Three hundred and fifty-four of those were rescue and emergency medical calls.

Sixteen calls were fires, and that’s where crews encountered a new problem.

Chief Mitch Randoles said his department’s trucks sustained water line breaks while extinguishing a fire on a frigid minus-15 degree wind-chill night.

The fire apparatuses froze.

”Of course, you get wet fighting fire and so your coats and your gear freeze. You know icicles hanging off your helmets, and all of that so obviously, extraordinarily challenging. It did damage some of our trucks because of the freeze and the water from the responses.”

To prepare for the future, Temple Fire is looking for a better sheltering plan, possibly additional 4-wheel drive vehicles capable of performing and the ice and snow.

Randoles said the city had a couple of spreader trucks break down that forced city workers to use dump trucks to go out and hand-shovel gravel, salt, and sand on the roads.

Meantime, Temple Emergency Management Specialist Jennifer Henager said they are making sure there are enough chains for city vehicles, and taking stock of their 4-wheel drive vehicles.

Redundancy in communications is always a big help in disaster situations such as the 2021 winter storm.

“I think some of the long-term things that we’re working toward is making sure that the public has the phone number to call in advance if you need assistance. ‘Here is the number to call.’ Having a clear identified list of shelters. Getting that out, may be opening them up just a little bit earlier, and getting that information out, but also promoting self-preparedness,” Henager said.

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