Ask the right questions about ice response

If there’s a consensus about the Texas Department of Transportation response to the Dec. 5-6 storm that coated North Texas roads with ice as thick as a skating rink, it’s that everybody pretty much did what they could.

Good answer. Wrong question.

The department says it had about 500 people out working bad-weather duty after the storm, using about 1,100 pieces of equipment. Still, freeways initially were impassable and didn’t get much better for days.

There’s no question that these dedicated people worked hard and did the best they could. But is there more the Transportation Department could do for a better response next time?

“The department did about as good as can be expected,” said Texas Transportation Commission member Victor Vandergriff of Arlington. “This was apparently the worst ice storm in 30 years, even worse than the Super Bowl one [in 2011].”

One lesson learned: Road graders turned out to be the best tool for removing the deep ice. Still, initially it took them several passes to remove the frozen stuff.

The storm hit on Thursday, Dec. 5, and moved out the next day. It wasn’t until Sunday, Dec. 8, that temperatures rose above freezing for a few hours and road graders were able to get a better grip on the ice.

Was there time lost during and immediately after the storm when graders could have cleared freeway ice before it was compacted by traffic?

Does the Transportation Department have enough graders, or can it get them quickly from other parts of the state or from local contractors, in order to hit the freeways in force when the next storm hits?

Often the response is that it’s too expensive to buy a lot of equipment to prepare for a rare event. But with crippling storms in 2011 and 2013 and a lot of winter ahead, can we still call them rare?

The Transportation Department’s task in preparing for and dealing with a storm like this is difficult, said Tom Bradshaw, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service’s Fort Worth office. “I feel for them.”

We all do. But we have to ask the tough questions to be ready for the next storm.