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December 14, 2013

Beleaguered officials say they did all they could to open roads after ice storm

Despite criticism, state and local officials are satisfied with the response of highway crews during Icemageddon.

The icicles had barely formed when the criticism began — on television newscasts as well as social media.

The region was encrusted in a 4-inch-thick layer of ice, and North Texans wanted to know why city and state leaders weren’t doing more to clear the roads.

“This state needs to invest in more plows,” one woman wrote on Facebook. “So disappointed in how my tax dollars are spent.”

“Why the hell wasn’t this done yesterday?” another woman wrote from her Mansfield home.

But what more could have been done?

As it turns out, Dallas-Fort Worth residents might have dodged a bullet by enduring an Arctic blast that knocked out power for only about a quarter-million customers.

In the hours before the storm hit, some forecasters worried behind the scenes that the region could be ground zero for a power outage that would affect 1 million people.

Still, the storm was one of the fiercest to hit the region in years, shutting down much of daily life. With roads buried in ice slick enough for figure skating, schools shut down, shopping malls became ghost towns, and grocery stores were emptied of bread and other perishables.

At least $2 million in public highway money was spent clearing ice off roads statewide, and the insurance industry has estimated property losses at $30 million.

Now that much of the ice has thawed and things have returned to normal for most North Texans, officials from agencies responsible for the roads are fighting for their reputations.

Instead of once again taking the heat (pardon the pun) for their inability to manage weather-related traffic jams — including the February 2011 double shot of winter weather that froze traffic as the region hosted Super Bowl week — this time they’re letting the public know that they did all they could.

“I think everybody can see, in spite of our uninformed friends in the media, that beginning Thursday evening [Dec. 5] there was a team 24/7 addressing every need the city possibly could have had,” Fort Worth City Manager Tom Higgins told City Council members last week.

Officials from Tarrant County, cities such as Fort Worth and Arlington, and the Texas Department of Transportation say that when all is said and done, they will have laid out several million dollars’ worth of resources — from the cost of sand and de-icing pellets to the money spent on labor to deploy them.

Despite the complaints, they say they were aggressive in fighting the storm, even though they didn’t fully understand what they were up against until just hours before the sleet began to fall.

Officials from the National Weather Service and even cities such as Denver — where poking fun at Texas’ lack of a snowcapped mountain is a treasured pastime — are backing them up. Denver, for example, spends about $6.1 million a year on snow removal, and that city has roughly 22 winter-weather events a year to justify the cost.

“What TxDOT is facing is not a simple process,” said Tom Bradshaw, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service’s Fort Worth office. “I feel for them. It’s not clear-cut.”

Loss of power, or roads?

What complicated matters during preparations was uncertainty over whether the storm would become a disaster marked by the widespread loss of electricity or of traffic mobility, Bradshaw said.

Initially, meteorologists feared that freezing rain would blanket the Metroplex with at least a half-inch of frozen precipitation, resulting in massive power outages.

“We were uncertain how deep the cold air was going to be, and that’s the determining factor on whether you have freezing rain or sleet,” Bradshaw said “Given the amount of liquid in the storm, we were really worried we were going to have an awful lot of ice. We thought there was the possibility of more than half an inch.”

The weather service was feeling gun-shy, he said, after forecasting an ice event the week before that failed to materialize.

“People get desensitized to forecasts, particularly if you whiff. You have got to hit these things, so we wanted to be very careful,” he said.

So, beginning three days before the bad weather arrived, Bradshaw pulled together 10 to 15 fellow meteorologists for a wide-ranging group discussion on issuing a forecast. During that week, the Metroplex was basking in daytime highs near 80, but everyone was certain that an Arctic blast was imminent.

“We really drilled down on things to reach a better consensus on where we were going,” he said. “The two hardest things to predict in weather are winter precipitation types and how much precipitation you are going to have. How much liquid equivalent is going to fall is something we struggle with year-round.”

The winter issue is what form the liquid will take: rain, freezing rain, snow or sleet.

“The problem is, our observations and our models aren’t accurate enough to give us that ironclad distinction between one or the other,” Bradshaw said. “We continue to have a heck of a time nailing those. Is it going to be sleet or freezing rain?”

Ultimately, it was sleet, not freezing rain. And that quickly overwhelmed local and state road crews.

“Sleet makes a deeper accumulation than freezing rain. That really compounded the problem for road crews who thought we were going to get a half-inch of ice, but we had as much as 4 inches of sleet,” Bradshaw said.

“When that compacts, that stuff, especially combined with freezing rain, is extremely difficult to remove,” he said. “Once you drive on it, it just polishes down to a layer that grabs onto asphalt. It’s tough to crack off.”

Graders, not plows

The morning of Dec. 5, a Thursday, when it became clear that either sleet or freezing rain would arrive that evening, the Transportation Department put its crews on standby.

The agency can position employees from other areas of the state in North Texas to help drive trucks and spread sand, salt and magnesium chloride to get rid of frozen precipitation.

But two things were tricky. For starters, the storm stretched from El Paso to East Texas, making it difficult to pull employees from elsewhere to the Metroplex.

Also, the precipitation was falling as sleet, which is dense and sticks to roads like glue, so it typically can’t be removed solely with snowplows. Instead, the agency put into service as many road graders as it could get its hands on.

The graders must make multiple passes on a sleet-covered bridge because sleet is far denser than fluffy snow.

As the ice melted and refroze, potholes formed within the thick layers of ice — creating an extraordinarily rocky driving condition that became widely known as “ cobblestone ice.”

In all, the Transportation Department had roughly 1,700 employees working bad-weather duty in 12-hour shifts statewide from Dec. 5 through Wednesday. About 500 of those were in Dallas-Fort Worth, and they operated roughly 1,100 pieces of equipment, spokeswoman Jodi Hodges said.

The total cost was at least $2 million in state transportation funds, spokesman Bob Kaufman said.

Most of the problem was on bridges, and the Transportation Department is responsible for roughly 8,000 of those structures, large and small, in North Texas.

There were communication problems, one official said, including an incident in which a Fort Worth police official tweeted Dec. 7 that all highways in the city would be shut down for de-icing the next morning.

The tweet was quickly clarified to explain that the roads would be shut down one at a time, in a rolling ice-scraping mission, not all at once — to the relief of the Twitterverse.

“The department did about as good as can be expected. Obviously, there are some issues that happened like the one [tweet] in Fort Worth,” said Texas Transportation Commission member Victor Vandergriff of Arlington. “We could point fingers, but the point is irrelevant.

“This was apparently the worst ice storm in 30 years, even worse than the Super Bowl one,” Vandergriff said.

Weather tweets

Fort Worth opened its emergency operations center, and, using camera images and reports from the field, it began attacking miles and miles of icy roads.

City officials praised the use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media to get word directly to residents. Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns said he heard compliments from residents who believed they were getting better information from the city’s Twitter accounts than from traditional media.

“By following the Fort Worth Police Department tweets about traffic, they were able to plan their way better than by what they could get by watching TV or other means,” Burns said.

The city had spent at least $200,000 as of Tuesday morning. Crews worked 5,650 hours, dumping more than 2,000 tons of sand and 110 tons of salt.

An additional $500,000 was spent battling the ice in areas outside Fort Worth, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said. Crews worked at least 2,000 hours of overtime, he said.

‘Snow Warriors’

Those costs pale in comparison to what other cities with more frequent winter weather pay to keep their streets operable.

Columbus, Ohio, spent $3.4 million on a traffic management center, where workers can monitor weather-related congestion and change 750 traffic signals remotely. Snowplows in the city’s “Snow Warriors” program feature GPS devices, so their whereabouts can be easily tracked.

In Denver, the $6.1 million yearly budget covers equipment and labor costs for about 90 employees, who work in 12-hour shifts.

But in Columbus and Denver, the culprit is usually snow — not packed ice.

“I’ve been with Public Works seven years, and I’ve never experienced freezing rain,” Denver Public Works spokeswoman Christine Downs said.

What did we learn?

There’s always room for improvement.

Officials from various agencies that responded to the storm will debrief one another and will probably learn how to handle weather emergencies better in the future, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

Heck, they might get another crack at it sooner rather than later. Winter officially arrives this week, and the Metroplex’s iciest time of the year is typically January, February and even early March.

And there may be an economic justification for the state to devote more resources to opening roads as quickly as possible after an ice storm.

Businesses that deal in perishable products or just-in-time inventory simply can’t get their goods to market when their trucks are parked alongside ice-covered highways for days.

Also, residents with hourly jobs may lose wages because they can’t get to work — dollars that may never be made up.

“Nobody was starving, but the whole cycle of transportation was goofed up, and it will probably take a week for it to get back up,” said Roger Meiners, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

For transportation planners, the weather service has to do a better job communicating with its emergency partners, Bradshaw said.

“We need to give them some better alternate scenarios,” he said. “The challenge for them, if I tell them there’s a 25 percent chance of sleet, they have to decide the cost benefit” of bringing in equipment for an event that might not happen.

The alternative is to save the money and deal with the public relations consequences if weather shuts down the region.

“People want to hear a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ” Bradshaw said. “The weather just confounds that. It doesn’t fall into a neat category.”

Staff writer Steve Campbell contributed to this report.

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