I was not a resident of El Campo on Sept. 11, 1961 when Hurricane Carla hit the Texas coast near Port O’Connor, but from what I’ve been told, last week’s Arctic blast resulted in more damage and discomfort to local residents and property than that powerful storm.

Thankfully some local residents (served by AEP) did not lose power (I’d like to find out how that happened), while others lost power for a reported 66 hours (or longer) which led to property damage (frozen pipes, water wells and swimming pools, loss of food in freezers and refrigerators, for example) and some severe health problems for some residents.

Unfortunately, despite many attempts daily by City Manager Courtney Sladek, answers to why some neighborhoods and some cities had power and others didn’t was not forthcoming from AEP. Nor was she able to get power turned back on for our water wells!

When AEP turned the power off, two of the city’s four water wells became incapacitated and froze. The city’s two remaining wells did their best, but with leaks all over town and normal consumption, they could not keep up.

We lost pressure (the hospital ran out of water) and eventually a boil water notice was issued. First time that has happened that I can remember in the 53 years I’ve lived in El Campo.

I happen to be a member of Wharton County Electric Cooperative. Thank God! WCEC implemented rolling blackouts which were tolerable. I’d guess I was without power maybe a total of 20 hours during a four-day period.

Moving on, I want to publicly thank everyone who kept vital services going. When the wind turned bitterly cold and the overpasses froze, El Campo’s fire, EMS and police were doing what they do. Great job! And great job, too, by our WCEC and AEP line crews who were out in sub-freezing weather making repairs to lines and transformers.

But folks, you need to know what your city employees did. And yes, it’s their job. And yes, there was some overtime paid.

But how would you like to be out in those conditions for many hours making sure we had water and that we could flush our toilets?

And to those who kept our roads and bridges sanded to make driving safer, thank you. We even had police officers turning off water at the meter where lines had busted to help preserve precious water. Thank you City of El Campo! Great job!

I was sure the Wednesday, Feb. 17 edition of the El Campo Leader-News would not hit the street because of the power situation. I was wrong. Publisher Shannon Crabtree and her team came through in an impressive way. The newspaper is printed in Rosenberg so they also had icy overpasses to deal with, but the newspaper came out!

And what about KULP? Clint “Clinto” Robinson and Russell Hill spent several nights sleeping on the floor at KULP, and with the help of a donated generator and good folks taking food to the station for them, they continued to provide a link to the outside world.

And now that we’ve thawed out … pray for our plumbers and those who must work as hard and as fast as possible to make repairs so that everyone can get their water turned back on.

During the storm your city leadership team met to discuss what went wrong, what went right and what the city can do in the future to be better prepared. After all, it seems “once in a lifetime” events are happening more often.

As mayor I plan to appoint a committee soon to look at how the civic center can be utilized during emergencies. We needed it during Hurricane Harvey as an evacuation center, and we could have used it last week as a “warming” center.

There were calls for it to be opened, but you can’t just unlock the doors to a city facility and let the public in. It takes advance planning and manpower. The civic center would need to be manned with a combination of city employees and volunteers from the public, 24/7.

I have asked the city manager to find a way to immediately buy 300 cots, and she said staff has recommended buying portable generators for buildings such as the civic center and aquatic center (which sustained freeze damage).

During the coming weeks and months your city team will be proactive and focus on being better prepared for the next emergency. It will cost us some money, but I’m sure most will agree anything that will improve the lives of our citizens during an emergency will be money well spent.

With the help of the media and social media we’ll keep you posted on our progress.

 

– Chris Barbee is mayor of El Campo and a former publisher of the El Campo Leader-News.

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