Two weeks ago, Texas experienced a crisis characterized by a lack of power, water and warmth. Although the snow and ice have since melted away, the financial and emotional fallout from the storm continues to affect UTA and the surrounding community.
The extreme cold temperatures took their toll on energy grids as power outages affected homes and businesses. By early Feb. 15, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s electrical grid, initiated rotating outages to avoid massive power outages.
The same day, UTA closed campus, canceled all classes and halted employee remote work through the middle of the week. The campus also experienced power outages.
The power outages and rolling blackouts became more frequent and lasted longer, leaving about 3 million Texas households and businesses without power. Students, like Texans across the state, had to cope with dire circumstances.
“It ended up affecting us more than we thought it would,” nursing freshman Jena Frazier said. “Later on, we were like, ‘OK, this is getting worse.’”
A playground of snow
Early on, cold temperatures and precipitation created hazards like icy roads, but the extent of the storm’s severity was unclear.
For a winter event like this to have occurred, all of the right conditions had to come together, said Jason Dunn, a National Weather Service meteorologist. These conditions allowed cold air to spill southward through the plains and stay cold, he said.
There was also a big pressure system off the West Coast, Dunn said; this amplified the pattern that builds up in western Canada and allowed really cold polar air to spill southward. This pattern remained in place for the better part of a week and allowed several big fronts of cold air to come through.
UTA closed on-campus operations Feb. 11 because of hazardous travel conditions, but opened again Feb. 12.
The same day, the National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for the Metroplex for the weekend, with ice accumulation and up to half a foot of snow expected.
By Sunday, the Metroplex was covered in a blanket of snow, a sight not seen in the area in years. Students on-campus took the snow as an opportunity to bring out their winter gear, build snowmen and sled down parking garages.
Frazier and her friends used this time to sled and enjoy the snow. Frazier said she knew how rare it is to see snow like that in Texas and wanted to make the best of it.
“A lot of my friends had never seen snow before,” she said. “I was really excited for them to get to experience it.”
The group attempted to sled down the Park South parking garage ramp with makeshift sleds and a belt to pull each other.
Frazier said on Sunday that they weren’t concerned about the amount of snow and ice on the road because they lived on-campus and could just stay inside.
“That definitely changed,” she said.
Fort Worth resident Cindy Jones said she lost power in her home throughout the week but was unwilling to leave her pets behind, so she and her family stuck it out through the 30 degree temperatures.
“I couldn’t just leave my home,” she said.
By Feb. 16, Tarrant County and the city of Arlington issued declarations of disaster, and UTA extended class and campus closures for the remainder of that week.
A number of Arlington facilities closed throughout the week, including City Hall, Municipal Office Tower, Municipal Court, libraries, recreation centers and the mass COVID-19 vaccination site at Esports Stadium Arlington and Expo Center.
The university provided the Commons and University Center as warming facilities and gave out cots in the Bluebonnet Ballroom to students, faculty and staff who were affected by the outages. About one hundred students filled the Commons.
While Dunn said we see this kind of pattern pretty much every winter, he explained that the exceptionally cold air that came down from across northern Canada caused this weather event.
“What made this unique was that it was so cold; it’s kind of the coldest that we’ve been in around 30 years,” Dunn said. “That’s kind of really what made it a big event.”
Snowfall was not overly heavy. The Metroplex typically sees around 3 to 5 inches of snow. The exceptional cold was what was really problematic, Dunn said.
Amid the crisis, a possible water main break resulted in a water boil notice because of potential bacteria contamination.
This problem rippled across the state, leaving nearly 12 million households with disrupted water services.
For several days, Frazier’s water would only come out as a drip, making her restroom and shower unusable.
She and her roommates couldn’t shower, and after driving around to find water at stores, many of which were out of stock, they had to get water from the Market at UTA.
On Feb. 18, after four days of rolling blackouts, ERCOT stopped controlled power outages throughout the state.
On that day more than 18,000 Tarrant County residents were still affected by outages, and the city of Arlington advised businesses and restaurants to close until the boil water notice lifted.
On Feb. 20, the city lifted the boil water notice.
When UTA opened its on-campus operations Feb. 22, electricity and water had been restored to the majority of campus residents, and roads had reached drivable conditions. But the effects of the storm haven’t been resolved.
Frazier said getting back to classes after the winter storm has been a struggle, and she still feels behind.
“The following week was pretty rough, too,” she said. “I feel like all the professors are just trying to cram everything in that we missed, so it’s pretty stressful.”
Jones works at a nursing home but suffered an injury during the winter storm. She slipped on ice and broke her wrist and has since been unable to work. She has received workers comp, but it’s not her usual wage.
The storm has led to a myriad of building damages, wage losses and medical expenses.
Estimates of the total economic damages range from about $40 billion to about $200 billion.
UTA suffered damages because of the storm. Water damage from burst pipes and leaks in some resident halls, apartments and other locations on campus occurred because of the storm, university spokesperson Jeff Carlton said in an email.
In many cases, repairs have either begun or have been completed. Meanwhile, UTA’s facility campus operations team continues to assess the infrastructure.
Craig Cummings, Arlington Water Utilities director, said the damages to the city’s water infrastructure were not unusual considering past winter-related repairs.
“Our biggest issue was responding to the internal plumbing failures,” he said.
These failures included anything from small damages, such as a pipe freezing under a kitchen sink, to frozen firelines, which can cause large amounts of water loss, he said.
About 25 water mains broke due to the impact of freezing temperatures on older or less flexible pipe materials, Cummings said. However, the cost of repairs wasn’t out of the ordinary.
“We budget for a certain number of breaks every year, so it’s not a budget buster or anything that would cause us financial concerns,” he said.
He said the city will be conducting an analysis of pipe materials to determine which ones are outdated or unsuitable for future weather events.
When considering financial losses on a larger scale, people should expect damages to homes caused by burst pipes to be more costly. As an example, Cummings said a pipe failure on the top floor of a three-story apartment would lead to tremendous costs if the water were to leak down to the other floors.
“We’ve seen a lot of that misery being in some of the apartment complexes that do have hundreds of units, and they had these pipe failures, and a lot of the apartments were flooded,” Cummings said. “Drywall coming off, ceilings falling down, things of that nature. [The cost is] certainly going to be in the millions of dollars.”
Although the city is still recovering, Cummings expects analyses and preliminary plans to take shape within a month or so to determine the state of Arlington’s infrastructure and look into preventing future weather-related system failures.
Dunn believes we will see conditions like this again eventually, but it’s hard to say when.
“It’ll happen again sometime in the future, whether it’s one year, five years, ten years. It’s tough to say,” Dunn said. “We’ll see things like that happen again.”