In times of crisis, coordination and communication are crucial.
Central Texans discovered the importance of both last week as an unprecedented winter storm paralyzed the area with snow, ice and subfreezing temperatures.
The combination of record cold and icy roads shut down schools, closed businesses and made routine travel virtually impossible.
The historic cold spell also strained the state’s power grid, resulting in blackouts that cut electricity to nearly 20,000 Killeen homes — and as of Friday afternoon, at least 6,000 homes in Killeen, Harker Heights and Copperas Cove were still not back online.
As if the cold wasn’t bad enough, thousands of Killeen residents were without water last week as frozen pipes burst. Widespread leaks across the area both taxed the city’s water supply and resulted in a mandatory water-boil order that remained in effect Saturday in several area cities.
Area grocery stores cut their hours sharply as the week wore on, as icy roads made it difficult for trucks to make deliveries, leaving many shelves bare and others severely depleted. Power outages and water supply issues added to the disruption at several stores across the region.
As a result, hundreds of local residents were stranded in their homes with no heat, no light, and with no way to get out to buy the food, water and medicine they needed.
In the midst of these multiple crises — not to mention the interruption of COVID-19 testing and vaccinations across the area —thousands of Central Texas residents were desperate for information.
Over the course of the week, the Herald fielded dozens of calls from residents seeking the latest updates on power outages, water cutoffs, road conditions and the availabilty of shelters in the area. Herald staffers were glad to share what they knew, but the information the newspaper was receiving was far too limited, given the scope of the crisis unfolding across the area.
For the most part, communication from the city of Killeen was limited to notifications about water restrictions and boil-water notices, as well as the relocation of the city’s warming center. The Killeen Independent School District offered little more than daily updates on how long in-person education would be canceled. Oncor, the region’s electricity provider, tried to explain the problems challenging the state’s electric grid, but could offer no timeline for how or when thousands of impacted residents could expect their power to be restored.
On Friday afternoon, the worst of the crisis had passed. The sun was shining, the temperatures were in the 40s, and the ice had largely melted from area roads.
Only then did officials of several area cities and the Killeen school district hold a news conference to provide some answers.
The biggest news came from Killeen ISD Superintendent John Craft, who announced there would be no school Monday because of storm-related damage at more than two dozen district facilities. The full extent of the damage is not yet known, but Craft apparently knew earlier this week that pipes had burst in several buildings. In the interest of transparency, those campuses should have been identified publicly at the time. Parents whose students attend those schools for in-person instruction deserved no less.
Also at Friday’s Zoom conference, Killeen City Manager Kent Cagle reported that Water Control and Improvement District No. 1’s water plant had a power outage last week that reduced the amount of water supplied to the city.
That would have been good information to have when residents started expressing concerns about low water pressure — or no water at all.
Certainly, the historic winter storm that blasted the state last week would have wreaked havoc on our area, no matter what efforts our state and local officials had undertaken in advance.
Yet, better proactive planning and coordination by state and local officials could have eased the crisis somewhat.
From the state electric grid manager’s failure to enact safeguards to prevent a near collapse of the system to local officials’ lack of coordination in securing backup shelter locations, it’s apparent that serious after-action reviews must be undertaken at every level of government.
It’s frustrating to know that the area has a well-coordinated action plan on how to provide accommodations for hurricane evacuees from other parts of the state, yet has no multi-tiered shelter protocols in place for a severe weather event in our own city.
Still, many of our local elected officials deserve credit for stepping up in the midst of the crisis.
Killeen Mayor Jose Segarra provided several residents with rides to the city’s warming shelter. Killeen City Councilwoman Mellisa Brown and Councilman Ken Wilkerson reached out to several area churches to find more space for residents needing shelter as the city’s designated shelter location neared capacity. Councilwoman Debbie Nash-King helped to deliver food and water across the community, collected needed items for a local youth group and volunteered at the Killeen Food Care Center.
And first responders across the area aided residents in need, responding to a massive number of calls for help, all while dealing with treacherous roads and dangerously cold temperatures.
Shelter volunteers across the area provided a welcome, valuable service as well.
No doubt, Central Texans will recover from this traumatic week, but it may take some time to erase the physical damage, difficult memories and anxiety that it produced.
Next time — and there likely will be a next time — we must be better prepared, at all levels of government.
We must acknowledge where we failed, devise sound strategies to address the problems, and share that information with the public in a timely manner.
Planning, coordination and communication — it’s really that simple.