The Cold Hard Facts of the Texas Freeze

HOUSTON – (By Dale King, Realty News Report) – CoreLogic, the property research and analytics company, gathered together five researchers on a warm, March day to answer a question that’s been on the lips of most Texans since those lips were shivering and those teeth were chattering a month or so ago.

What happened in mid-February that caused the Lone Star State to get so damn cold – for so long – and with so much damage?

The word “shock” was repeated frequently during a webinar Tuesday recalling the destructive chill.

Meteorological Phenomenon = Fahrenheit Fall

A senior professional from CoreLogic said the shot of super-icy air that brought Texas to a shivering halt was actually set off by a meteorological phenomenon that saw temperatures around the polar vortex at the top of the world literally rise an incredible 100 degrees – from -110 to -10 degrees.

Curtis McDonald said that blast of chilly heat caused the vortex that regularly spins with stability around the North Pole to “wobble” and eventually split into pieces. At least one piece “spilled” downward to the U.S.-Canada border, and little by little, trickled down to the South Texas border, creating “the coldest air that Texas has seen in 30 years.” It also spread a snowpack from the Dakotas through the Plains to the Rio Grande, keeping the land masses even chillier.

Widespread Storm Damage Throws Houston Realty Into Chaos
Water pipes burst in the Texas winter storm in February 2021. Photo credit: Ralph Bivins, Realty News Report, copyright 2021.

As more pieces of cold air dropped, the frosty period lasted days and day, bringing millions of dollars in damage to a section of the country that was in no way prepared for such a Fahrenheit fall. Power-producing equipment like propeller vanes that turn wind to electricity – apparatus more attuned to summer cooling than winter demands – froze up.

Unfortunately, what happened last month, the webinar panel said, could happen again. “Research has found that extreme weather is becoming a more frequent occurrence across the world,” said Maiclaire Bolton Smith, senior leader of research and content at CoreLogic.

“According to scientists, climate change will continue to increase the likelihood of extreme events like this,” she warned. “It’s important for the industry to understand what happened during this event to help better prepare for the future.”

The super chill impacted Texas in many ways, the panel said, but all seem related to variations in building code and design from state to state. Most Lone State buildings aren’t prepared for days and days of frigid temperatures, causing pipes filled with standing water to freeze and break.

No “R” in ERCOT

A contemporaneous loss of electric power throughout the area served by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) stopped water pumps from pushing the life-sustaining H2O through the pipes. Home heating systems also failed for lack of power and houses, businesses, even churches, had to deal with an unabated flood of frozen water inside super-frosty structures.

Many Texas have pointed to ERCOT for not being as reliable as its name implies. But Tom Larsen, a principal for industry solutions at CoreLogic, said that since the power agency is an independent body without connections, “it can’t draw [power] from other sources.”

Natural gas pipelines that formerly were powered by combustion engines are now energized with electricity. And when the power failed, so did they.

Apparently, weather prognosticators were aware as early as December 2020 and January 2021 that something was going awry with the polar vortex. What happened in Texas, many concluded, was “a surprise,” otherwise known as a temperature anomaly.

Storm Target: 8 Million Texans

Larsen told a tale of numbers, mentioning that initially, it appeared the eye of the cold was focused “on 23 million housing units – 1 in 6 around the county,” mainly located from the Canadian border due south to Texas, which ended up being ground zero.

As the chill progressed, meteorologists revised tallies in the target area to eight million – most in Texas — and “two million lost power. Most of the [financial] loss was due to pipe breakage.” Insurance claims are arriving in larger numbers, he said, with losses “easily reaching into the tens of millions.”

Austin Hoder, a field operations director for ServiceMaster Restore, talked at some length about the difficulty of bringing restoration resources into an area that was not only suffering through an unexpected freeze, but was also in the midst of a severe COVID-19 pandemic.

And since the area of extreme cold extended east, west and north from Texas, the restoration firm had to turn to its equipment sites and worker reserves as far west as California, as far east as Florida.

But they gave it their all, said Hoder. “We were able to restore an arena that was scheduled to give 2,000 COVID shots. We provided them with a clear environment” and the shots were administered.

He said many of the ServiceMaster workers had never seen such terrible conditions since they worked in warmer climes. Equipment had to be specially rigged to endure the oppressive cold.

Response: 700 Workers and 17,000 Pieces of Equipment

“We brought in 700 individuals – technicians, supervisors, managers – and 17,000 pieces of equipment,” he said. “That’s a significant number of resources.”

Another woe was water. Thousands of pipes burst and the power to pump it was gone. “We had to bring drinkable water and we had to bring enough COVID protective equipment to last weeks.”

The ServiceMaster boss said most crews are still working in Texas to this day.

As he concluded, he said the “loss concentration” was focused on the “Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston metros.”  He added: “Texas was by far the most impacted area.”

He added one more item to the icy predicament. “There was no evacuation during the freeze. When a hurricane comes, people usually have to time to get away and then come back over time.  From the period of Feb. 15 to Feb. 28, most people were at home.”

Also speaking at the webinar was Kim Miller, national catastrophe claims leader for Swyfft Insurance. She urged home and business owners to file documents as quickly as possible, take pictures of damage and during repairs and be “as patient as you can.”

BREAKING NEWS: Texas Utility Official Resigned Last Night at Governor’s Request

Breaking News: Tuesday night, Arthur D’Andrea, the last remaining commissioner on the Texas Public Utility Commission, resigned at the governor’s request.

“Tonight, I asked for and accepted the resignation of PUC Commissioner Arthur D’Andrea,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement

Chapter 11

On Monday, Griddy Energy, an electricity retailer, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It was the third power company to file Chapter 11 in the wake of huge bills from the winter storm.

March 17, 2021 Realty News Report Copyright 2021

File: The Cold Hard Facts

Photos by Ralph Bivins, Realty News Report Copyright 2021

For more about  Houston, check out the book Houston 2020: America’s Boom Town – An Extreme Close Up  by Ralph Bivins. Available on Amazon

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