Ice storm leaves Far West Texas cold and dark, temperature in 20s
(staff photo by SARAH M. VASQUEZ) The Hotel Paisano fountain always freezes in cold weather.
By JOHN DANIEL GARCIA
FAR WEST TEXAS – The cold and icy weather had been predicted by weather prognosticators and anticipated by many in the region, as some had posted screencaps of cell phone weather applications on social media websites and talk of the freezing temperatures made its way around the Big Bend, the ensuing blackout, which left about 5,800 people without power at its peak, took the area by surprise.
The winter weather episode began Friday night and by Saturday morning the area power grid began falling apart. Most of the area’s power was restored by Tuesday morning.
According to AEP spokesman Fred Hernandez, though there has yet to be an official count, a helicopter fly-over estimates the icy conditions caused between 50 – 60 utility poles to break, as the added weight of the ice proved too much for the structural integrity of the wood.
“There was between two and three inches of ice in the higher places causing the problems,” he explained. “Every time we would pick something up, something else would break. It was a constant struggle to keep up.”
The struggle with the failing poles was fought by a force of more than 100 AEP employees and private contractors, some of who drove through dangerous, icy roads from as far away as Oklahoma to fix the lines in the treacherous weather conditions that kept cities in the tri-county area in the dark.
Fort Davis, Hernandez said, was the community hit hardest by the weather, which affected the city’s AEP customers for almost 70 hours. Marathon’s power, he said, was out for nearly 60 hours, and Marfa went without electricity for 26 hours, beginning at 2pm Sunday to 4pm Monday. Valentine was without power as well.
Alpine and Presidio were largely untouched by outages, save for a handful of customers, mostly in the more rural areas near those communities who were experiencing the power outage. Juice remained out to the Sunny Glen area of west Alpine on Wednesday and parts of the Double Diamond and Loma del Norte.
Presidio’s AEP customers had the advantage of a back-up battery in the city, as well as help from Ojinaga, which supplied some energy to its sister city. The power used from the battery was rotated through customers who were in the failed system. About 80 percent of Presidio’s customers, Hernandez said, never lost power.
Though most of the system has been operational, several lines in the region are still down, with AEP’s website reporting 582 customers without power as of press time.
The winter storm blanketed the area with solid sheets of ice.
A call to Presidio County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that there were no fatalities in the county due to the blackout.
Calls to the sheriff’s offices in Jeff Davis and Brewster counties were not returned.
According to the Texas Department of Safety, there were 22 car accidents in the tri-county area as a result of the storm, none of which caused any fatalities or severe injuries.
While Marfa was without power from Sunday afternoon to Monday afternoon, borrowed generators from Presidio County kept the water flowing.
Public school was canceled on Monday and Tuesday in Marfa, Fort Davis, Marathon, and Valentine, while Alpine schools started at 10am on Monday. Presidio schools weren’t affected by the heavy weather. The Thanksgiving Day holiday begins today in the public schools, and classes resume on Monday.
The only media to weather the storm – pun intended – almost unscathed was Alpine radio KVLF AM-1240, broadcasting since the late 1940s. Except for about two hours early Sunday morning, Alpine broadcasters Ray Hendryx and Jerry Sotello kept area residents informed of changing weather conditions and power repair updates.
Marfa Public Radio didn’t lose power like the rest of the city of Marfa, well, not immediately. With the help of a generator, the radio station was still on air for another 20 minutes after the town lost power Sunday afternoon.
However, once the power came back in Marfa on Monday afternoon, the radio broadcast wasn’t back on the air. The power at the studio was on, and the power at the tower is on, but according to General Manager Tom Michael, the antenna iced over.
Operations Engineer & Traffic Manager Michael Camacho went to the tower Tuesday morning to try to solve the problem, which hadn’t been resolved by Tuesday afterenoon.
While Marfa Public Radio isn’t currently airing over the airwaves, it can be streamed online at marfapublicradio.org.
KVLF’s sister station, KALP FM-92.7 went down early Saturday morning and with it, Marfa Public Radio’s presence in Alpine. Both remain off the air.
Of the area’s three weekly print publications, the Alpine Avalanche was affected the least, like the city of Alpine, while the Jeff Davis County Mountain-Dispatch, The Big Bend Sentinel, and The Presidio International couldn’t begin production until Tuesday morning, on a short publication week: all weeklies will be on the newsstands today, one day early on account of the Thanksgiving Day holiday.
(Reporters Robert Halpern and Sarah M. Vasquez contributed to this report.)