Mineral Wells Index, Mineral Wells, TX

December 22, 2013

Local officials view ice storm emergency response as positive


Mineral Wells Index

— By CLINT FOSTER

Two weeks removed from the record-breaking ice blast that blanketed North Texas from Dec. 5 through 9, the City of Mineral Wells and Palo Pinto County officials had overall positive views of their response to what many on social media called the “Icepocalypse.”

In typical Texas weather fashion, a 73-degree high on Wednesday was followed by a temperature free-fall to a low of 23 degrees and sleet on Thursday night. Mineral Wells was incased in .77 inches of ice and weekend temperatures as low as 16 degrees.

Many people across North Texas grew increasingly critical of the official response to the inclement weather, with memories resurfacing of the last bad ice storm in 2011 that seemed to catch everyone off-guard right before the first ever Super Bowl in Dallas-Fort Worth. But despite local residents being stuck in their homes, businesses either closed or under-stocked and Mineral Wells ISD closed from Dec. 6 through Dec. 10, the prevailing opinion is that the City of Mineral Wells, Palo Pinto County and state officials handled things quite well.

City Manager Lance Howerton told the Index that city crews and the Texas Department of Transportation split road-clearing duties in Mineral Wells with TXDOT focusing primarily on U.S. Highways 180 and 281.

However, he added limited equipment and budget cuts at the state level meant TxDOT had to focus primarily on more heavily travelled roadways, shifting additional burden on local Public Works crews.

But Howerton said the City responded to the best of its ability.

“All in all, I think we were prepared,” he said. “This was pretty much the same as what we’ve encountered before. (This storm) was a little more lengthy and involved than what we typically see, but, all in all, it merited a pretty routine response.

“We didn’t have some of the really serious problems they had to east of us. We were very fortunate that it was not any worse than it was.”

Mineral Wells Director of Public Works Kelly Jones said city crews mainly spent the weekend sanding roads around town to provide drivers with some traction on the slick ice. Later, city crews also cleared some streets with blades.

But one of the biggest helps to the city, according to Howerton, was that people for the most part stayed indoors and didn’t try to venture out in their cars. This drastically limited the number of wrecks the Mineral Wells Police Department had to respond to, helping expedite the process of clearing roads.

“I think everyone recognized this was kind of an unusual circumstance and tried to stay in and use good judgement, which always helps too,” Howerton said. “People were aware of how severe the conditions were.”

Mineral Wells was also fortunate to not have to deal with many power outage issues over that weekend. Oncor Electric Area Manager Ken Harris told the Index the bulk of the region’s electrical issues were in the Metroplex and that Mineral Wells was “very lucky” to avoid any blackouts.

Harris said one of the biggest factors that allowed the company to avoid power issues in Mineral Wells was all the tree trimming that was done during the last freeze between Nov. 22 and 25.

After that early icing, Harris explained to the Index that when trees limbs get weighed down by ice, they can effect power lines, leading Oncor to employ extra crews specifically for tree trimming.

“Any [tree trimming] we did previously definitely helped this time,” he said. “All in all, we were very lucky.”

At the county level, Palo Pinto County Fire Marshal and Director of Emergency Management Buddy Harwell said their response effort was good, but complicated by issues with TxDOT.

“Really, the only bad thing was we just couldn’t get around,” he said. “On most of our roads, to get anywhere you have to go up or down a major hill. TxDOT wasn’t able to get out here to get the bridges and some of these hills (cleared). So, those were obstacles that we had to overcome.”

Harwell said he spent most of the weekend helping people that were stuck along Interstate 20. He said the National Weather Service’s under-estimation of how bad the storm would be, coupled with TxDOT’s failure to pre-treat and sand major highways before the ice came meant his office had to fight an uphill battle.  Harwell said they struggled to get stranded people to safety and transport emergency medical calls to and from the hospital.

“We just had stuck people down on the highway that couldn’t go anywhere,” he said. “Some of them were running low on fuel so they didn’t feel comfortable staying out in their car all night. There were motor vehicles on the road that either had young children or elderly who ran out of gas or supplies and things like that. So, that’s really what cut us up.”

Harwell opened shelters at First Baptist Churches in Santo and Gordon to help get those stranded off of the highways and into a place of warmth and safety. He also had plans with the Red Cross to open shelters in Mineral Wells in the event of power outages, but, he added, they were fortunate not to worry about that.

Although he said the county’s Emergency Management responded as best it could, Harwell said he has many ideas of how things might be done different next time something like this happens, including possibly setting up a command post as a base of operations.

“One of the things we’ve talked about for the future is possibly getting the shelters opened sooner,” he said. “We need to get the word out so we can try to get people off the highway and into the shelters so we don’t have to go out later in the night when its colder.

“Hopefully next time, (TxDOT) will be out prior and pre-treat and sand the roads so we don’t have the same problems.”