Preparation, planning pays off

Looking back at the ‘Icepocalypse’ of 2013 in The Colony

Alexander Graham Bell is famous for many things but among them is coining the phrase, “Before everything else, preparation is the key to success.”

Faced with a host of challenges during the ice storm that blanketed North Texas the weekend of Dec. 6-9, it was indeed preparation that ensured the city of The Colony truly weathered the storm.

Of primary concern were road conditions. Public Services Director Leo Lavender said crews starting watching the weather on Wednesday, Dec. 4, in order to stay informed of the developing conditions and severity of the oncoming storm. The staff met Thursday, Dec. 5, to conduct a strategy meeting that addressed developing crew rotation, tasks to be performed and sanding locations targeting major thoroughfares and intersections.

Plowing through snow is one thing but these roads were covered in ice, which is much more dangerous and difficult to mitigate.

“Snowy roads are not as slippery as ice and don’t take as much material to keep traffic moving,” Lavender said. “With snow we can usually get by with using just sand or chat rock. Icy roads, however, require sand or chat rock mixed with ice melt, and we have to sand more often.”

Eighteen workers put in 230 hours in shifts Friday through Sunday, utilizing three sanding trucks and one backhoe to distribute 10 pallets of ice melt totaling 25,000 pounds, 40 yards of concrete sand and 40 yards of chat rock.

Aside from maintaining the roads, crews also helped residents with vehicles that were stuck due to the conditions, cleared fallen trees and branches from roadways, set out temporary stop signs due to power outages, and helped to maintain city buildings in need of emergency ice removal.

A field of ice and slush marks the spot where Holiday in the Park would've been held if not for cancellation resulting from the ice storm.

A field of ice and slush marks the spot where Holiday in the Park would’ve been held if not for cancellation resulting from the ice storm.

The Colony Police Department stayed busy as well. Assistant Police Chief Chris Chandler said six accidents were reported during the storm, and a total of 27 vehicles were reported stuck. In preparation for those incidents, PD received training from the city’s Fleet Services Department on installing cables on police vehicles for use on icy roads. The cables remained installed throughout the inclement weather.  The department’s new Ford SUVs, however, are all-wheel drive, so they were utilized also and “performed spectacularly,” Chandler said.

In addition to motor vehicle incidents, the police responded to the roof collapse at Hidden Cove marina and the pole damage at TopGolf, as well as numerous calls related to trees falling and other ice-related emergencies.

“Thank God that many individuals stayed home and did not venture out during the time it was at its worst,” Chandler said, adding that officers did an outstanding job overcoming the icy conditions to make it to work and serve the community. Some officers even stayed overnight in local hotels to minimize their commute, Police Chief Joe Clark said.

Fire Chief Scott Thompson echoed Chandler’s gratitude for residents staying home, and said his crews responded to an average amount of calls during the storm. In preparation for worse, the fire department put chains on its vehicles, brought its reserve ambulance into service, and utilized its SUV normally reserved for the city’s trail system as an alternative to larger, less ice-friendly vehicles.

And also like the police, firefighters and paramedics made sure they got to work on time or ahead of schedule. This proved particularly useful during the fire at Comfort Suites on Monday morning as extra crews were available to respond.

“That was a huge benefit, the guys getting there early,” Thompson said. “It was a key to success for that operation as the icy conditions slowed down the response of mutual aid from other community’s departments.”

More than road conditions, power outages throughout the city proved to be much more of a problem, and city facilities were not immune. Environmental/Facilities Maintenance Manager Terry Gilman said they did everything they could to prepare for the storm, more than in previous years in fact.

But when the power went out at city hall early Friday morning, there was a snowball effect of problems, from waste water issues to failing generators. Gilman characterized the weekend as a never-ending series of phone calls during which he was coordinating the work of his staff as well as serving as liaison with the city’s trash and recycling vendor.

Ice build-up on the roof of city hall transformed into water leaks by late Friday, requiring 12 staffers from public works in addition to facilities maintenance crews to chip the ice and take some of the weight off the building. But that wasn’t all. For example, employee Don Godfrey worked a 14-hour day putting down ice melt down around the police department headquarters and the fire stations. He brought heaters to the animal shelter, monitored the doors at city hall, and discovered the water leaks.

Heavy accumulations of ice on the roof of city hall lead to water leaks and, eventually, a forced power outage.

Heavy accumulations of ice on the roof of city hall lead to water leaks and, eventually, a forced power outage.

By Monday, the weight of the ice had generated enough pressure to break seals on the roof resulting in additional water leaks in the electrical room of city hall, requiring power be shut down manually.

Gilman credited his crews for working around the clock during the storm.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better response from my guys,” he said. “They were here all the time, out there working and doing what they could. Everybody put out maximum effort.”

Supporting all of these operations was the efforts of the communications staff. As the weather predictions became more ominous, the Communications Department shifted into high gear.

“It is critical during inclement weather or any major incident that we do the best in our capabilities of notifying the public of how the city is handling the situation,” Communications Director Diane Baxter said.

Not everyone uses the same mode of gathering information so there are many paths that communications staff must take. Their first step is to be at the table during pre-meetings to absorb the plans in place for the “what-ifs.” It is there that strategy is confirmed regarding how to handle informing not only the public but also employees as to the status of the city.

Between two staff members, communications monitors local news, tweets, Facebook posts and email not only for our city but for the entire North Texas area. Every television station is notified for closings or delayed openings. Media and staff are notified, and posts are made to the city’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. Email blasts are sent to those who have signed up, but keeping in mind that if/when power goes out at city hall, servers may not be functioning, which prevents sending out emails or even updating the website, as was the case at times during the storm.

From wherever they may be during these types of events, the Communications Department diligently monitors the situation and works to disseminate important information as necessary.

“Technology, especially social media, has become such a valuable tool in assisting us to reach so many people,” Baxter said. “We encourage our residents to follow us on our city Facebook and Twitter sites for faster, up-to-date information.”

One of the unfortunate casualties of the storm was Saturday’s Parade of Lights and Holiday in the Park events. Like Gilman and Baxter, Recreation Manager David Swain spent much of the weekend on the phone coordinating the Parks and Recreation Department’s decision-making regarding the festivities.

It was a day-by-day process for Swain and his staff, and it wasn’t just about special events but also the usual Parks and Recreation facilities such as Kids Colony 2 and Five Star Park, as well as programs and classes going on. Swain said they created a “phone tree” in order to make sure everyone who needed to know about postponements and cancellations got the word.

A thick layer of ice and accompanying icicles on this pavilion at Kids Colony 2 were among the reasons why the park was temporarily closed during the ice storm.

A thick layer of ice and accompanying icicles on this pavilion at Kids Colony 2 were among the reasons why the park was temporarily closed during the ice storm.

For the Christmas events, that included everyone who signed up to be in the parade, contest participants, the grand marshal, the entertainment, vendors for the activities planned at the park, and, of course, Santa Claus.

Swain said the hectic nature of the weekend kept him from feeling too emotional about having to cancel the events.

“It’s definitely disappointing but since we’re the ones planning the event it’s less of an emotional thing for us than for the participants, like those who put in so much work on their parade entries,” he said. “For us, it’s more of a logistical thing. The Christmas event is one of our smaller events. But there’s a lot of moving parts, and a lot of different people involved. It was just about getting the notifications out and hoping that you reached everybody. It was pretty obvious to everyone that no one was going to be going out for a parade.”

Swain also pointed out that much of the coordination was being done remotely, as was the case for many staffers in all departments, which added extra challenges.

“A lot of us live in various places. It’s hard to know exactly what the conditions were in The Colony if you don’t live here. [Special Events Coordinator] Lindsey Stansell lives here so she was our eyes on the scene,” he said. “But most everyone is at home dealing with heater issues, pipes freezing, things like that while also trying to manage this event. Between juggling kids and everything else, everybody’s lives were disrupted. It was a crazy few days.”

Elsewhere in city operations, customer service staff put out signs in city hall and set up voicemail messages alerting residents to closures. Utility billing and overdue payments were extended. The city’s Information Technology staff members were busy keeping up with issues related to the power outages. Every time the power went off then back on, a variety of systems would require resetting.

Not long after the ice began to melt away, the city established a drop-off location for large tree limbs and branches at Hawaiian Falls.

Not long after the ice began to melt away, the city established a drop-off location for large tree limbs and branches at Hawaiian Falls.

The Finance Department worked on the city’s payroll and accounts payable in advance of the storm. Now they’re in the process of reviewing overtime costs and waiting for estimates on repairs.

Overseeing all these operations is City Manager Troy Powell, who also serves as the liaison between the administration and the city council. The council, in turn, funnels direct feedback from residents back to the administration regarding areas of concern city staff might not have seen.

But for the most part, there were very few areas in which the city was not already prepared.

“I was proud of how the team performed and reacted to the situation,” Powell said. “There’s only so much you can do but it was a pleasure to see all the preparation and planning being put to the test and performing extremely well.”

Story, photos by Blaine Crimmins, communications specialist for the city of The Colony.