Tyler Mayor Don Warren vividly remembers a call the city of Tyler received during February’s winter storm from a retirement facility employee saying, “our people are freezing” and they’re “going to die.”
“And you realize there’s no power and you think, ‘What do you do?’ This is one of those things that’s just kind of beyond your control,” Warren said, noting the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ rolling blackouts that struck the entire state.
After that phone call, Warren said City Manager Ed Broussard, elected officials and government officials received a generator from Brookshire’s and took the equipment out to the center.
“So it had a good ending to the story, but the whole ERCOT (effort to maintain the power grid with blackouts) it could have been a lot worse,” he said. “I don’t make light of how it was, but it could have been a lot worse. Some of this is just beyond our control. I mean what do you do with Oncor?”
The snow-filled third week of February was trying to say the least as thousands were without power and water — or both — and the roads were icy and often unsafe for travel.
Desperation in the voices of Oncor
Statewide electrical issues struck the city of Tyler water system when rolling blackouts at the Lake Palestine Raw Water Pump Station led to the Lake Palestine Water Treatment Plant going offline.
Because of a reduction of water pressure, all city of Tyler water customers were required to boil water before consumption.
Broussard recalled the generator at that pump station breaking during the storm, and crews working to return power to get safe water pressure.
“The generator for the plant itself, we actually didn’t get enough voltage out there so we had to switch to a generator for pretty much the entirety of the winter event,” he said. “That one was fine, but the pump station was where it froze up, the carburetor had issues.”
He noted that a number of equipment runs on diesel and others use natural gas, and crews had to make sure the treatment plant maintained fuel during the storm and that no one confiscated the fuel.
City officials noticed the power at the pump station continued to decline, but Oncor was under the impression power was coming to the facility, Broussard said. Ultimately, he said Oncor discovered the power line meant for the pump station was feeding into a nearby neighborhood.
“They ended up cutting off the neighborhoods in order to feed into the pump station, which ultimately became the thing that ended up working,” Broussard said.
He said conversations with Oncor continued throughout the storm’s duration.
“Moving into it, that was the conversation making sure for our essential necessities you are going to be able to feed us power,” Broussard said. “Once Oncor finally got power restored, we were able to then get back everything into condition and water flowing into towers.”
He remembered the desperation in the voices of Oncor representatives and the electric company officials saying they’re being demanded to take more power to cut the power load.
“It was very frightening for Oncor and for ourselves how much load can you take off when I already have half of the city that’s without power and other essentially facilities that are demanding power,” he said.
Golden Road Water Treatment Plant and the pump station at Lake Tyler remained operational with no issues, Broussard added.
On Feb. 26 — about a week after the storm’s end — the city reported 110 water main breaks with 68 repaired and 42 pending at that time. By March 9, the 110 water main breaks from the snowstorm had been repaired.
According to the city, the industry standard of repairing 6-inch water main breaks at a 5-feet depth is four hours. When the temperatures hit below freezing and as the frost line deepened, increased pressure on the water lines led to likely pipe fracture as low temperatures made the metal pipe more brittle.
Forty-four TWU employees worked 3,000 hours of overtime during the storm making repairs and trying to maintain water, LouAnn Campbell, public information officer with the city of Tyler, said following the storm.
Broussard said the line breaks are most likely to occur during severe weather, including extreme winter cold or summer heat.
Warren noted under the extreme weather conditions breaks are sometimes impossible to prevent.
“There’s some things about the world you can’t control and when it’s -6 degrees and you’ve got pipes with water in them, you can’t run heaters underground,” Warren said. “It’s one of those things beyond your control.”
Within the first two months of this year, TWU crews repaired 140 water main leaks. In comparison, workers repaired 232 water main leaks last year, 281 leaks in 2019, 329 in 2018 and 348 in 2017.
Due to water and electrical issues, the city collaborated with local churches that had power to serve as warming shelters throughout Tyler and worked with NDMJ Transportation to take people to the sites.
“We started reaching out to specific churches that we knew we wanted to have strategically placed and thankfully had power and were able to open doors. Other churches jumped in to say we’ll do the same,” Broussard said.
A turning point in the storm response occurred when the city realized there was a need to improve communications with the public, Broussard said.
“We have to be brutally honest with them and we have to tell them what’s going on. Use our social media channels to the ultimate effect we can (and) work with our media as far as local media to get that story out there,” he said. “Because it’s only through brutal honesty to let people understand the situation can they then start to kind of relax a little bit to know it’s not just me. Everybody’s going through this, and they can then figure out how to prepare.”
As transparency increased, he said people found ways to help each other and continued efforts to rally together, including delivering supplies to those in need and assisting stuck vehicles in the roads.
“Once we started really being more transparent to the public, they were able to figure out how to pioneer through this in order to survive,” Broussard said. “The community really rallied.”
Throughout the winter storm, Texas Department of Transportation crews focused primarily on the bridges and overpasses and the hospital area.
“Our major highways and arterials that we need for traffic to flow where we need to go, the hospital especially, we can keep the lanes open with sanding and essentially pushing the snow aside,” Broussard said.
Workers laid 450 tons of sanding material (crushed aggregate mixed with deicer), sodium chloride and magnesium chloride flake mixed with a corrosion inhibitor.
Three sanding trucks and one snow plow were available, and Smith County provided two graders and operators.
TxDOT laid a significant amount of sanding material on state highways that run through Tyler city limits. The city’s street department was responsible for cleaning all streets within the city limits.
Broussard noted the city officials stressed the importance of staying home during the storm unless there was an emergency.
“Because as Texans we could plow the snow off, but East Texans still don’t know how to drive on ice,” he said.
From Feb. 14 to 21, Tyler police officers responded to 1,162 calls, including 207 alarms (weather related), 78 crashes and 37 assists to help the fire or EMS crews.
No fatality crashes were reported during that time and the city did not receive reports of any weather-related fatalities of citizens that the police responded to. Officers also continued their regular functions in addition to the storm response.
Warren added there’s not enough equipment to clear all city secondary streets.
“It’s not practical to buy equipment in Tyler that’s sufficient enough to clear streets to where people (can drive safely on every street) … in that kind of event people just need to stay home,” Warren said.
The Tyler Fire Department also reported zero fatalities between Feb. 14 and 20; however, there were 13 building fires in the city, which was a 1200% increase. The department also responded to 270 calls regarding pipe leak problems.
Cederick Granberry, president of the NAACP, noted the effects of the winter storm did not hurt one part of Tyler more than the other. No matter what area of the city or region, thousands were hit with power and water loss.
“We can’t negate that there aren’t racial issues and racial disparities. But how we tackle them, how we handle them, how we address them, is important so that the message doesn’t get lost. That’s what’s important for us as the NAACP because when people hear the name, they think trouble, they think of redress, but at the same time, we want to be proactive and not reactive all of the time,” he said.
With respect to racial disparities, Granberry said, “Tyler is one Tyler.”
“We have allowed for a separation in this city to permeate and have negative connotations. When you say north Tyler, people will automatically assume there is something negative associated. When there’s south Tyler, there’s positivity associated. We’ve got to get away from that,” Granberry said.
He said if one quadrant of Tyler is suffering, the other quadrant of Tyler is suffering as well.
“When we don’t look at it that way, we’re just continuing to go down the same path and I think that’s really important. Legal segregation in this city; how we address north Tyler, south Tyler, the line of demarcation being Front Street, Fifth Street. People are saying these things and we got to correct that rhetoric as best we can,” Granberry said.
(John Anderson and Ana Conejo contributed to this report)