The Impact of February’s Winter Storm

March 09, 2021
Carla Hulsey Pate

Winter Storm Uri started affecting the Texas Medical Center area early on Monday, Feb. 15, leaving dangerous amounts of ice and snow accumulations in its wake, and crippling the power grid.

Acting on plans in the event the storm affected safety at MD Anderson and UTHealth, by 5 p.m. on Saturday, Feb.13, the University of Texas Police at Houston ride-out teams in Smithville and Bastrop were activated. In Houston, between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 14 ride-out teams were also activated along with the department’s Special Operations Center, which serves any needs or to prevent potential challenges ahead of an emergency.

Uri panned out for the worse. Several days of freezing temperature affected roads, power and water supply in the area and beyond. By Monday, Capt. Michael Redmond and Lt. Kevin Gray were reporting icy and snowy road conditions and street light outages. Portions of Old Spanish Trail, Holcombe Blvd. and Bertner Ave. were impassable due to slick conditions. Similar challenges were faced at Smithville and Bastrop campuses, where small snow drifts accumulated across the campus.

UT Police’s ride-out teams worked around the clock to support institution-wide security and storm recovery efforts. Many UT Police team members volunteered for ride-out duty, dedicating several days to the emergency response and despite the impact of the winter storm on their own families and homes.  

Regardless of the problems Uri caused, police operations continued with increased patrol in areas without power and routine virtual building checks. Patrol officers also helped identify and document numerous water leaks and reported back on the conditions they were witnessing, like street road conditions and power outages.

In Houston, during one incident at UT Housing, UT Police officers helped the Houston Police Department pursue and apprehend a suspect wanted on a felony charge.  

And while on patrol one frigid day, Sgt. Gabriel Wisneski responded to a homeless person flagging him down for help. Wisneksi transported the man to the warming center nearest to the Texas Medical Center: the George R. Brown Convention Center.  

In other instances, UT Police helped institutional departments maintain service delivery. For example, when MD Anderson Materials Management required a police escort, UT Police stepped in to help.  

A UT Police marked vehicle escorted two food service trucks to their destination across town in the Greenspoint area to collect food supplies which were needed to continue food service at MD Anderson. The escorts navigated risky highways to ensure the food service trucks arrived safely to the warehouse and returned without incident to Texas Medical Center.  

When water supply issues began to affect MD Anderson and UTHealth, UT Police adopted a demobilization plan to reduce the number of people at MD Anderson’s Main Building and across UT System facilities south of Holcombe Blvd.  

When vendors responsible for delivering portable toilets were unreachable or unresponsive, Facilities Management Incident Command permitted UT Police to retrieve toilets from the Pawnee St. warehouse and deliver them to ride-out teams in the South Campus area. Sgt. Scott Barnwell, Lt. Justin Taylor and Lt. Kevin Gray took part in delivering portable toilets to buildings in the South Campus.

Across Texas, Uri damaged an unknown number of homes and buildings as pipes froze and burst in homes with residents unprepared to weather such extreme cold conditions.  

The storm forced both MD Anderson and UTHealth to close their campuses and to pause operations - including vaccination clinics - until the City of Houston could restore power and rescind boil water notices.  

MD Anderson ended its ride-out by 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18, although the institution remained at a Level 4 operational status due to water conservation efforts.   

UTHealth remained on controlled access from Feb. 15-19, the longest stretch since Hurricane Harvey in 2017. By Monday, Feb. 22, UTHealth was open and operational.  

By Saturday, Feb. 20, UT Police ended its ride-out status and resumed normal operations. 

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