Winter Storm Uri is in the past, but for some Aransas County residents, the pain it caused remains real.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, local government leaders, families, and individuals could drive a few miles south, west, or north and pick up water, food, or gasoline. However, since Winter Storm Uri affected the entire state, supply issues (for electricity, food, water, gasoline, etc.) became a major problem. There were no places one could go where the conditions were much different.
After Harvey, AEP Texas crews and electric companies from across the country descended on Aransas County to repair damaged and destroyed power lines, transformers, and entire substations. A decimated electrical infrastructure was replaced and/or repaired within two weeks. With Winter Storm Uri, the means of transmission weren’t destroyed, but the statewide supply of electricity was rationed via directives from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), in order to protect the state’s power grid.
Since the entire state faced similar issues, the demand for electricity overwhelmed the supply, and power generation sources, in many cases, simply froze.
Governor Greg Abbott said the state legislature will address ERCOT, and electricity supply issues as emergency items during the current legislative session. He is also asking the Legislature to mandate the winterization of Texas’ power system and for the Legislature to ensure the necessary funding for winterization.
A large percentage of Aransas County residents and business owners were without power, and faced several days and nights in bitter cold temperatures.
Warming stations were opened at the Fulton and Lamar volunteer fire departments Tuesday evening. The Fulton Community Church also opened its doors and provided warmth and food to many individuals and families.
Only one person utilized the warming station at the Lamar VFD, according to Aransas County Emergency Management Coordinator Rick McLester.
People who had generators, unless backed with enough fuel, found them to be a short-lived convenience. Generators fueled by natural gas, in some cases, automatically shut down when the pressure (psi) in the City of Rockport’s natural gas system dropped to dangerously low levels. That was caused by a restricted supply to the city’s natural gas utility.
AEP reported Monday that its crews continued to restore electric service for customers without power, but that 99% of electric customers, who lost power, had been restored as of Friday.
When temperatures rose above freezing Tuesday, Feb. 16, another problem reared its ugly head – busted pipes.
As frozen pipes thawed, breaks in thousands of lines were exposed.
At the same time, the San Patricio Municipal Water District (SPMWD) cut its supply of water to Rockport by more than half.
Water was bleeding from the Rockport water utility, much faster than it was being received.
Water service was cut off Tuesday night to maintain the integrity of the water system.
The City turned the water on between approximately 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. starting Thursday, Feb. 18 in order to identify sources of water leaks. The city did the same thing in the aftermath of Harvey. Shutting off water at night provided the time needed to fill elevated and ground water storage tanks to safe operational levels.
Rockport Public Works Director Mike Donoho said city employees canvassed the system for three-plus days looking for leaks and turning off the water supply to individual properties at the meter.
Full water service returned Sunday, Feb. 21, but a water boil notice was still in affect.
“We started to get confidence Saturday that the system could retain enough water pressure to remain on,” said Donoho.
He said the city tested the water early Monday morning. Results of that testing were expected by noon Tuesday.
“If all tests come back good, we’ll rescind the boil water notice,” said Donoho Monday evening.
“It (water supply) has to be safe and sanitary. Anytime the pressure drops below 35 psi we have to issue a boil notice.”
With the drop in the supply of water to Rockport, and the thousands of leaks caused by busted pipes, Donoho said, “We simply couldn’t maintain water pressure and we couldn’t fill our water storage tanks.”
(Note: the city has two elevated water storage tanks, and four ground water storage tanks. Water pressure is maintained via gravity from the elevated tanks, and pumps.)
The city’s sanitary sewer system was also affected by the storm.
“We had some minor sanitary sewer overflows (which were reported to TCEQ, as required by law),” said Donoho. “We used vacuum trucks to remove waste from lift stations and delivered it to the treatment plant.”
Donoho said he understands the frustration experienced by customers, but noted, “We abide by all state guidelines, and have well-trained employees. We’re responsible for the health, safety, and welfare or our residents.”
He said Rockport and all of Aransas County is unique in that many homes aren’t occupied by permanent residents, there are many elevated homes and manufactured homes that aren’t on foundations, and numerous fish cleaning tables have exposed water pipes.
Donoho encourages property owners to turn off the water supply to their property when they know they won’t be in town for a week or more, especially during hurricane season, or during the winter.
“This was another one of those unprecedented events. We never expected it to be below freezing for so long,” he said.
Donoho said in after action review, the city will find things it can do better, just as it did after Harvey.
For example, he said some residents, who work 8-to-5 jobs, have asked if water can be turned on during the day for some period before 8 a.m. or after 5 p.m., so they can take advantage of the water supply when it’s on.
“Those are things we can look at,” said Donoho.
The city’s Stage 4 Water Restriction is still in place. A separate announcement will be made when it is rescinded. This means no landscape watering, filling of pools, car or exterior washing, and other uses that are not imperative for day-to-day living.
Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills announced Friday, Feb. 19 a burn ban is in effect until further notice.
Town of Fulton Sewer and Streets Supervisor Matt Olenick said the town’s three lift stations were down for three days.
The town’s two generators, one at town hall, and the other one at the main lift station, were lost, as well.
“Other than the generators, we had no major infrastructure issues,” said Olenick.
Emergency Operations Center
McLester said he was in contact with Texas Department of Emergency Management (TDEM) officials, as well as National Weather Service-Corpus Christi officials throughout the winter storm.
He said there were similarities, as well as differences between the responses leading up to, and after Hurricane Harvey, and during Winter Storm Uri.
“We had no water or power (at times), just like after Harvey,” he said. “With Harvey, however, 60% of the county evacuated.
“(After Harvey hit) we didn’t have 200-plus inmates in our jail, and there were no people in our nursing homes.
“Unlike after Harvey, the cavalry wasn’t available. The entire state was in just as bad of shape (or worse).
“After we thawed out, others were still facing freezing temperatures.”
McLester said requests for supplies couldn’t be addressed until “things thawed out.”
He noted the Fulton and Lamar volunteer fire departments provided warming stations, beginning Tuesday, and Fulton Community Church provided similar services starting the day before.
Close to 40 people went to Fulton Community Church, and another 60-65 went to the Fulton VFD.
McLester said many of the people utilizing the warming centers came from RV and trailer parks.
“Nobody got turned away,” he said.
McLester said the City of Rockport provided emergency potable water for the local dialysis centers so that those services could be rendered.
The Emergency Operations Center (in the Public Safety Center) and the Aransas County Detention Center never lost power, but loss of water was an issue, according to McLester.
He noted L&F Distributors out of Corpus Christi provided a lot of drinking water for the warming centers, and then provided an additional 200 cases that were distributed at the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce Sunday afternoon.
McLester also said the City of Portland provided a 1,500-gallon water tank Sunday afternoon. That water was available at the Fulton Convention Center two different times that day.
He noted the biggest issue the county has right now is shelters, if there is no water or power.
“One of the things on our wish list (after Harvey) was large generators that could provide power (for designated shelters),” said McLester. “The requests were made (for funding), but not fulfilled.”
The call volume for Allegiance Mobile Health (local ambulance service) increased four-fold at the onset of the winter storm.
Allegiance Division Chief Stephanie Newsom said they received 46 calls Monday, when on average the call volume is about 10 per day. Throughout the storm the daily call volume remained twice the normal rate.
“Most of the calls were from people who said they were cold, couldn’t breath, and/or were running out of oxygen,” said Newsom.
The local ambulance service has four mobile intensive care units stationed here. Two additional units were made available for use.
Corpus Christi Medical Center’s (CCMC) ER 24/7 Rockport, which opened in January, occupying Code3ER’s former location, had to close due to electricity and water issues.
Newsom said patients had to be transported to CCMC’s emergency room in Portland after ER 24/7 Rockport closed. She said patients couldn’t be transported to Corpus Christi hospitals starting on Sunday.
“We were finally able to go across (the Corpus Christi Causeway) for brief periods of time Wednesday and Thursday,” she said.
The generator at Allegiance’s facility on Enterprise Boulevard automatically shut down when the natural gas pressure got too low. When it turned back on, a belt broke.
Newsom strongly encouraged patients requiring oxygen to make sure they have additional oxygen tanks available at all times.
Aransas County Medical Services, Inc. Executive Director Patricia Arnold said the ER 24/7 Rockport staff transferred to CCMC’s Portland location after the local ER was forced for close. It reopened Saturday.