Waco: City to improve infrastructure, emergency plan to fill gaps historic snowstorm revealed

Published: Aug. 24, 2021 at 10:00 PM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - Six months after one of the worst snowstorms in Texas history, Waco city leaders have assessed the damage and are making plans to be even more prepared.

“I’m excited about the future, I think we’re going to respond better,” said Dillon Meek, City of Waco Mayor. “I still think that we have to acknowledge that Waco fared much better than other cities, and that wasn’t by accident.”

It was by design, Meek said, calling the response during Winter Storm Uri a “triumphant moment” for the city.

“There’s a little fight in there, and not with each other, with the real enemy, which in this case was the storm,” said Meek. “This is the Waco way, this is the identity of the city, and I think it was embodied so well in this moment.”

From city staffers sleeping in their offices to churches and other organizations opening up impromptu warming centers, city officials praised the overall response during Uri.

However, the snowstorm also revealed places where improvements needed to be made.

On Aug. 17, city staff presented council members with a draft ‘action plan’ report which outlined the city’s storm response, areas where the city fell short, and recommendations on how to fill those gaps and make improvements.

“It’s so detailed from ‘how do we protect our decorative fountains’ to ‘how do we keep warm the puppies and kittens that are in our care’, ‘how do we make sure that we have the chemicals on hand to make sure padlocks open to access supplies,’” said Kelly Palmer, councilwoman for district four.

Assistant City Manager Ryan Holt gave the presentation.

“For nine consecutive days this February, Waco saw record low daily temperatures resulting in 205 straight hours of sub-freezing temperatures,” said Holt.

He said, during the height of the storm, more than 42,000 electrical customers in McLennan County lost service.

“We all know the majority of 76704 was without power for days,” said Andrea Barefield, councilwoman for district one. “So we can’t have strategically placed community locations throughout our city without making sure that they’re online and identified with all the things and equipment that they need.”

Plus, the storm created hundreds of big and small leaks.

Waco water customers were using 38 million gallons a day compared to normal winter usage of between 18-20 million gallons a day, city officials reported.

“I’m very excited to see that we’re talking about doing some backup generators at our water plants,” said Hector Sabido, councilman for district two. “I never want to go through that fear again of possibly losing water.”

Holt said they came close to service shutdowns, but the city avoided them.

“The sheer grit, determination, ingenuity and generosity of city employees, community organizations and residents carried the city through the emergency,” said Holt.

During the emergency, councilwoman Palmer said she was concerned about language barriers.

“I heard often from my residents a frustration with lack of access to information in Spanish,” said Palmer. “During an emergency, we have to have translators and interpreters that can be pushing those graphics.”

The storm also exposed buildings which weren’t properly emergency equipped, like the Waco Multi-Purpose Center in East Waco.

“We had intended to use the multi-purpose center in this emergency and it never had power, so a quick and steep lesson for us,” said Holt.

Lessons learned which hopefully won’t be repeated as the city is now working to find funding to better prepare infrastructure in specific geographic regions of the city for any future freezes...or more likely...heat waves.

“We’ve been identifying facilities that we want to utilize for both kinds of emergencies going forward,” said Holt.

Those facilities include the Waco Multi-Purpose Center, the South Waco Community Center, and the Dewey Recreation Center.

However, providing things like backup power at water facilities and community centers isn’t cheap, so the city is using an outside consulting firm to determine potential FEMA reimbursement, among other funding sources.

City Manager Bradley Ford estimates creating backup generators at Riverside Water Plant alone would cost between $8 million and $10 million.

“Nothing is off the table as far as funding goes,” said Bradley Ford, Waco City Manager. “We don’t want to be at the mercy of electric power sources that don’t make decisions for us, right, they make decisions to protect the grid across the entire state, so if we want to manage ourselves differently, it’s going to cost us significant amounts of resources.”

A final version of the ‘action plan’ will be produced with concrete recommendations on improvements the city will pursue.

According to the Dept. of State Health Services, 57 lives were lost in the storm, two of which were in nearby Hill County.