City employees who drive as part of their jobsare taught to act as eyes and ears for other departments as they are driving around the community.
On Tuesday morning, Feb. 16, that practice saved a home and likely somelives.
Street Superintendent Matt Fitzgerald, responsible for overseeing the sanding of roads during the storm, was taking three employees home from a grueling shift 12-hour shift–temperatures dipped to 4 degrees that morning, the lowest of the storm – when they saw smoke coming from a home as they were headed down North Red Bud Lane.
Fitzgerald and homeowner Angela Stone describe the sequence of events:
Pictured, from left, are: Matt Fitzgerald, Ronnie Mueller, Johnathan Martinez and Greg Altamirano.
City officials made the decision at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16, to open a Warming Center at the Baca Center. When employees arrived shortly thereafter to get it ready, they discovered burst pipes and major water leak – you can read that Storm Story here – before it opened later that afternoon.
The Warming Center story is as much about the community coming together with city workers to respond to the needs of residents hardest hit by the winter weather and power outages. The Warming Center was just that – not a temporary shelter with bedding and food, but a place to warm up and recharge electronic devices. Still, one of our custodians heard that one of the first families to arrive didn’t have any food, so she brought some with her when she reported to work.
The Parks and Recreation staff, along with Police and Fire personnel, did their best to make folks feel welcome. They printed out pages from coloring books to give kids an activity and played cartoons on the TVin the Baca music room. Police officers carried in an elderly woman who had broken her foot.
All the while, Thornton said they did their best to adhere to the facility’s COVID-19 protocols to keep guests safe as well as warm.
Doing whatever it takes is part of the culture Director Rick Atkins has built at Parks and Recreation, Thornton said. There was no shortage of employees willing to come in – even though many were dealing with lost power and broken pipes at their homes (including Thornton) – and help out in any way possible. Thornton recalled seeing Atkins using a squeegee to get water out of the dining room, which reflected thedo-whatever-it-takes message that he preaches at monthly team meetings. Thornton shares about walking the talk:
Thornton was quick to acknowledge the great attitude of other City employees as well, in particular Michael “Red” Andrews of the General Services team.
As power outages dragged on, City officials made the decisionlate Tuesday morning, Feb. 16, to open a Warming Center at the Baca Center that afternoon.
That’s a Parks and Recreation facility, so Director Rick Atkins’ crew mobilized to begin preparations, assisted by the General Services staff, which handles facility maintenance. The teams arrived to a wet surprise. General Services Director Chad McDowell explains:
At 4 p.m., on schedule, the Warming Center opened. It ultimately served 41 residents over the next two days.
Round Rock Police received a call at 7 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, from a father worried about his daughter, whom he could not reach. She has a disability, he told dispatchers, and uses a scooter to get to work in the La Frontera shopping center from her apartment nearby. It’s normally a 10-minute trip.
Officers knew the store where she worked was closed, but Sgt. Shelby Ingles went looking for her. Ingles found her in front of the store, stuck on the ice on her scooter. Her phone had slipped out of her hand and dropped out of reach on the pavement. Ingles recalls the scene:
She wasn’t wearing gloves or a heavy coat, and Ingles estimates if they got there 30 minutes later she would have needed care at a hospital. She said her hands “were hurting really bad,” Ingles recalled.
Welfare check calls aren’t unusual for RRPD – the woman’s parents were in Florida, so couldn’t check on her themselves – but the multiple days of sub-freezing temperatures and widespread power outages certainly changed the dynamic.
For Ingles and the other officers involved – Sgt. Kris Mayo and Officer Adam Rankin – weather conditions don’t change the department’s basic mission: Take care of the community.Ingles likens it to the Golden Rule:
“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”
― Leonard Bernstein, composer and conductor
A lot went wrong, with a lot of agencies and services across Texas, during the recent winter storm. One thing that went right was water service in the City of Round Rock. No major outages, no boil water notices for its customers.
The ability to deliver water over the course of the worst winter storm in Central Texas history happened because the City prepares for the worst.Planning is key. But you also need a serious can-do attitude when brutal conditions make yourworst-case scenarios look like a strollthrough Old Settlers Park. Utilities Director Michael Thane explains:
Planning, teamwork and relentless determination prevailed, but it was close. Really close. Here’s the story of one pivotal moment that kept the City’s water running.
When the power went out at the City’s pumps at Lake Georgetownthe backup generator kicked online and the emergency plan was activated. However, the plan anticipates the generator running for less than four hours, because in a typical outage that’s adequate time for the Pedernales Electric Cooperative (PEC) to restore service.
Obviously, last week’s outage was anything but normal.
By Tuesday, Feb. 16, it was clearrefilling the 500–gallon diesel tank kept onsiteby hauling 100 gallons at a time wasn’t going to keep up with the much-higher-than-anticipated needs of the generators. So we had to get a 1,000–gallon tank out there, and it needed to be full. But how do you do that when the roads are iced over and temperatures are in the single digits?
Thane, the utility director, contacted General Services Director Chad McDowell, who’s responsible for facilities and vehicles. McDowell’s team located a 1,000 gallon diesel tank – at the Brush Recycle Center, which is operated by Parks and Recreation. Then they needed a truck with right kind of hitch and the towing capacity to handle the 8,000-pound tank – enter the Fire Department. To ensure a successful trip to the pump station – located at the bottom of a hill by the lake – the Transportation Department was tasked to deploy a sanding truck to lead the way. It’s a plan, but with significant risk, according to McDowell:
The plan was finalized Wednesday morning, and in less than two hours the caravan made its way out of Round Rock, down the interstate to Georgetown and then wound its way to the lake – an 11-mile trek on iced-over roads, around a jack-knifed 18-wheeler and finally uphill and downhill to the lake. Here’s Street Superintendent Matt Fitzgerald, who was in the last vehicle in the caravan, describing the journey:
The caravan arrived a little after noon. Within two minutes, the generator ran out of fuel. The generator was refilled, then primed – hold your breath – andfired back up. The pumps begin pushing water, again, to the City’s treatment plant.
For the moment.
While all this drama is unfolding, Thane, the Utility Director, was working the phones with the PEC. The generator can only power two pumps, which, in turn, move around 17million gallons of water a day (MGD) into the system –as the week progressed, water demand rose to 20 MGD. So the City had to get a third pump up and running. The PEC agreed to flow electricity to the pump station– about six hours after the delivery of the big diesel tank.
Naturally, the PEC experienced a hitch getting its equipment up and running in the sub-freezing conditions.Three hours later, Thane got word electricity wasflowing again. It was yet another crisis averted, as Thane explains:
The curveballs kept coming as the Utilities Department encountered several other challenges:
Diesel in Central Texas does not include an additive to keep it from freezing. How the City found enough diesel additive is a whole other story of minor miracles and making your own luck.
Utility crews had to manually take readings across the distribution system that are usually provided by an electronic monitoring systemthat encountered technical issues due to the freezing temperatures.
An employee suited up inself-contained breathing apparatus to stop a chlorine leak in a line that had frozen at the water plant. No chlorine means no drinking water.
Employees slept at the water plant on cots and worked 16-plus hour days to keep water moving through the pipes.
And on and on, often working in the bitter cold, while many had the same problems at home that you suffered through – no power, busted water pipes, etc.Fitzgerald and Thane describe the attitude of those City employees who stepped up to get the job done:
Ultimately, if those two pumps at Lake Georgetown had been out of service for too long, or that third pump wasn’t brought online, then the water distribution system would have lost pressure.
And losing pressure is a trigger for a boil water notice.
Which never happened, thanks to effective planning, a lot of grit, and a little good fortune along the way.
Even if they weren’t on the job during the winter storm event, many City employees still reached out to help their neighbors. Parks and Recreation Director Rick Atkins received the email below about Davetta Edwards, an administrative assistant at the main Parks office.
“My neighbor, Mrs. Davetta Edwards and her husband, were absolutely a blessing to my family and me during the snow storm. The day began with a delivery of donuts, and then assistance in finding us a hotel room for the next couple of nights. She knew of my young children and baby, and really helped ease my panic.
“The next days have been filled with text check-ins and a visit from their magnificent son offering us and my other neighbor firewood. My other neighbor was hungry, so they offered the LAST of their food to help feed them.
“Before that day, we hadn’t even exchanged phone numbers, and now, I feel like we’ve made friends for life! Their assistance has been a Godsend, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I literally felt like we were living next to angels.”