WACO, TX (KWTX) – A year ago, central Texas was beginning to experience the start of what would ultimately be more than 200 hours of freezing temperatures, and people tasked with keeping people safe were struggling to respond to emergencies.
Not only were emergency officials trying to deal with a global pandemic, but they were tasked with keeping people safe in sub-freezing temperatures for days during the February 2021 Arctic explosion.
They were constantly responding to calls for service on slippery roads, then coping with power outages – every health district in the region attempted to administer the newly released COVID-19 vaccines.
“To be honest, I don’t think any of us were as prepared as we could have been. Not just, you know, our level here, but across the state,” Elizabeth said. Thomas, emergency management coordinator for Waco-McLennan County.
Thomas remembered the ice all around, which didn’t go away for days.
Temple City Fire Emergency Management Specialist Jennifer Henager recalls that even with advance warning, many still struggled during the storm. “Unfortunately, with things like that, everyone tends to think, ‘oh that’s not going to happen to us.’ Mainly because it doesn’t always happen here,” Henager said.
As the freezing rain turned to snow, the focus shifted from dealing with COVID to dealing with the cold. Thomas said the realization came quickly. “That Sunday I was like, this is going to be a lot worse than we think it’s going to be,” she said.
Chains were on the tires and sand was strewn on the roads. Still, it was too smooth to move. Calls to help others have not ceased.
Temple Fire Department Chief Mitch Randles said the number of calls they responded to this week was typically what they see in a month. “Remember that you are not in your normal response mode. These are not normal days. It’s a unique situation,” he said.
Then came the power cuts.
“It really made it worse,” Henager said. “It added a level of complication that we didn’t expect.”
The power outages not only affected homes, but also the town of Killeen’s water system, said Peter Perez, director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Officials had to move the part of town that had water pressure. This complicated the response to a massive fire in Hilton Garden Inn in Killeen on February 19.
“We called them and said, ‘We need water in this area. We have to be able to open the hydrants and we have to be able to get the pressure out,” Perez said.
This added to the workload of first responders and added overtime to the clock as many were unable to return home. Additional firefighters brought in to help respond were stranded at their posts.
“We brought beds to our stations because we needed more beds,” Perez said. “And it was the same for our officers who slept in their cards or slept in the PD.”
At this point there is ice everywhere and many people are in the dark.
Local authorities opened warming stations, but the main concern was not to bring too many people close together as COVID cases continued to rise.
“We knew then that we were going to have to kind of modify our response to COVID, to this winter weather,” Perez said.
Masked and spread out, many people took advantage of warming stations to stay out of their cold homes.
Looking back, Thomas said she never thought she would have to lead a community through a global pandemic and severe freeze.
“I was promoted to Emergency Management Coordinator in November 2019, so my first disaster was COVID-19,” Thomas said. “And then there was this winter storm, so I can only think it will get better from here, hopefully.”
So now it’s up to everyone to prepare.
“Because it will happen again here,” Randles said.
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