‘There was no template’ to prepare for 2021 outages. Texans and leaders are filling in the blanks.

Preparations for future extreme weather in North Texas started as soon as the lights came back on last February. Homeowners stocked up on disaster-prep tools and city officials retooled their communication strategies.

By Kailey BroussardFebruary 17, 2022 11:34 am, , ,

From KERA:

Days after power returned to their Arlington home in February 2021, Donna Darovich and her husband, O.K. Carter, rounded up firewood. They seldom used the fireplace because previous outages did not last long enough for their house to get chilly.

“In fact, several times, we’d start to cook breakfast in the fireplace and be disappointed because (the power) came back on,” Darovich said.

During the winter freeze, however, she and Carter were effectively stranded in their south Arlington neighborhood — their neighbors and nearby hotels lost power too and friends in Fort Worth and Mansfield were too far away on unsafe roads. On the way from their dark house to the truck, they flipped on their front door light; the bulb would be their best indication that things had returned to normal.

“We watched that light with the intensity of the sun,” Darovich said.

Darovich and Carter have since purchased a battery-powered radio to keep abreast of emergency updates as well as fire starters. The duo asked the workers who chopped down their dead pine tree to leave the downed trunk behind for fuel.

Though they’ve prepared more than in previous years, Darovich said she and Carter couldn’t shake the worry when they lost power for five hours in early February, as this year’s first cold snap hit a region on high alert.

“When it went off, I woke up and my heart just started pounding,” Darovich said. “Even though I knew I could get in the truck again, I was still scared.”

Getting the word out

The unexpected outages and multiple disasters within several freezing February days changed the way major cities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area get information out during crises.

Fort Worth’s municipal government had five disasters to weather, said Kristen O’Hare, a fire department public information assistant: the deadly pileup on Interstate 35 that killed six people, the freeze itself, widespread outages, water issues and bursting, thawing pipes.

“There was no template,” O’Hare said, for communicating with people during the two-week span. “There was no way of knowing what was going to happen, so we really had to organically create these messages in real time as the disaster unfolded.”

Fort Worth’s departments coalesce during crises at the city’s Joint Emergency Operations Center to work on disaster response and communication. During the freeze, the city saw a need for more responders to handle nonstop updates and improve remote work capabilities for people stuck at home due to icy roads.

The freeze also compelled communication staff to plan further ahead, including hashtags where city social media accounts can centralize information.

“That’s a very 2022 answer to give, that we pre-planned a hashtag, but it came in handy where all of the messaging was in one stream,” O’Hare said.

The city is also focusing on spreading the word about Fort Worth Texas Alerts, the citywide emergency notification system. The city previously used the emergency notification system Nixle, which sent alerts to 60,000 residents, according to CBS DFW. Those who were signed up for Nixle must opt into the new alert system, which launched in early 2020.

O’Hare said the city did not have much time to promote the system as COVID-19 gained foothold in Texas.

“Pushing out, ‘Hey this is how you register for these alerts’ kind of fell to the wayside,” O’Hare said.

The winter storm in 2021 pushed city officials in Arlington to launch its emergency notification service weeks ahead of schedule. Over 172,000 calls and messages went out to residents through the notifications service CodeRed as the city went under a boil water advisory.

Ryan Hunt, managing editor for the city’s communication department, said the freeze was one of several events that pushed the city to expand its communications team. The city hired a bilingual reporter and launched a Facebook page in Spanish to keep residents informed after the freeze.

“I think COVID-19 did this too throughout the process, and so did the census, but I would throw the winter storm as kind of the third rung of being able to make sure that we have a multilingual communications approach,” Hunt said.

Closer to neighbors, closer to safety

Tiffany Landry and her wife, Lisa Landry, hope they’ll be more connected to neighbors, internet service and the city after moving to Arlington from Midlothian.

The Landrys and their five pets lived in rural Ellis County during the February 2021 freeze. Though they had cellphone service and could access social media, they were unable to run their therapy service and had to cancel at least two dozen appointments because they went without internet service for a week.

“Now their power’s out, and they can’t get access to their therapist,” Tiffany Landry said. “It really just was a bad storm.”

The couple had a fireplace, but not enough wood. When they burned through their supply, they started using two-by-four planks and plywood. Throughout the outages, they felt isolated from the rest of the city and their neighbors, all of whom were without power.

Tiffany Landry said she feels safer in north Arlington, where they’re closer to neighbors and city services. They bought a generator and made sure their internet connection was steady. They also have a gas-burning fireplace and spare refrigerator.

“If we were living in this house when that freeze happened, I wouldn’t feel like I was living in a remote corner of the Metroplex being ignored. That’s kind of how it felt,” Landry said.

All the while, they’re hoping living in a less rural city means less internet service disruptions.

“Having electricity in the house is one thing—not dying, that’s good— but the online access that’s got to be a key part of it, too,” Landry said.

Got a tip? Email Kailey Broussard at kbroussard@kera.org. You can follow Kailey on Twitter @KaileyBroussard.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and KERA. Thanks for donating today.