Houston paralyzed by ice storm

Winter storm all but shut down the nation’s fourth-largest city

BY JOHN PAPE | HOUSTON, TX | February 4, 2011

Police closed this Houston freeway Friday due to icy conditions.
Credit: DNN/John Pape

This sand truck was no match for the icy conditions.
Credit: DNN/John Pape

The storm system that has been wreaking havoc with much of the nation all week on Friday all but shut down Houston, paralyzing the nation’s fourth-largest city under a coat of ice.

The ice essentially shut down the Houston metropolitan area, forcing the closure of the freeway system in the metropolitan area of 5 million people. Schools and businesses closed for the day as local officials urged people to stay home and off the street.

Houston, which rarely sees snow or freezing weather, was expecting snow Thursday night; however, temperatures initially stayed warmer than expected and the anticipated precipitation instead fell as rain. Then, as the city dropped below the freezing mark, the coating of moisture quickly turned into a sheet of ice.

County Judge Ed Emmett, who is the chief elected officer in Harris County, called that scenario “the worst of all possible situations.” He said the icy conditions even kept sand trucks and emergency vehicles from doing their jobs.

Emmett said the county had staged sand trucks at spots throughout the county, ready to respond to problem areas. When the entire freeway system became coated with ice, there was little that could be done, he said.

Eduardo Villarreal spent several hours out in the freezing conditions Friday morning after his pickup truck spun out and struck the center divider on the Southwest Freeway. He said he had only gotten a short distance before hitting a patch of black ice.

“When I looked outside, I figured it was all OK; there’s no snow, no frost, nothing. The streets were a little slippery, but as soon as I got (on the freeway), the truck started sliding,” Villarreal said. “There was nothing I could do but go along for the ride. Now I’m just stuck here because all the wreckers are already taken and my truck’s too torn up to drive.”

At least Villarreal did not have to wait alone; three other vehicles crashed in the same area before authorities could shut the freeway down. Luckily, the accidents were mostly minor and no one was injured.

Firefighter/Paramedic Mark Hunter had a similar experience on the Katy Freeway when his pickup was hit by another vehicle while Hunter was on his way to work. Instead of reporting to his fire station, Hunter instead ended up treating the driver of the other car.

“The driver had a pretty mean-looking gash on his head. Luckily, I had my trauma bag with me and was able to get a compress on it until (an ambulance) got here,” Hunter said.

At least Hunter did not have to wait for a tow truck. Some of his fellow firefighters helped him push his dented truck to a safe spot.

“It really wasn’t hard. The ice was so slick we just gave it a little shove and it slid off the road,” he said. “Then I drove it across the grass divider into a parking lot.”

Hunter also left the driving for others for the rest of the day. He grabbed a ride on the fire truck that responded to his collision.

Villarreal and Hunter were among literally hundreds of motorists that that had accidents on the freeway system Friday morning. Since the vast area involved included numerous police jurisdictions, no complete count on the number of crashes was available.

Sgt. Herb Martinez of the Harris County Precinct 5 Constable’s Office said his agency handled more than 100 collisions in a four-hour period, in addition to assisting scores of stranded motorists. Along Highway 290 on the city’s northwest side, more than a dozen vehicles were involved in a chain-reaction accident that police called “a domino effect crash.”

Despite the hundreds of crashes, only one fatality was reported. A man was crushed to death after he was pinned between his wrecked car and a guardrail on the Baytown-East Freeway just before 7 a.m.

According to police reports, the 30-year-old man, whose name was not immediately released, crashed his car on a freeway overpass after losing control on ice. The motorist then got out and was sitting on a freeway guardrail when two pickup trucks collided nearby and then smashed into the first motorist’s disabled Nissan. The impact pinned the motorist between his car and the guardrail.

The driver of one of the pickup trucks fled the scene before police arrived. The collision remains under investigation.

At roughly the same time on Houston’s south side, a man rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital crashed on the ice-covered Nolan Ryan Expressway.

Paramedics then tried to rush the expectant mother to the hospital, but the baby had different ideas. Even as medic Ryan Machacek struggled to negotiate the ambulance over the icy roads, the baby got tired of waiting. Machacek and his partner had to handle the delivery themselves.

“We were sliding all over the place and I was just hoping I wouldn’t hit anything,” Machacek said. “My partner in back was telling me to stop the ambulance and come help because the baby was coming. I told him I was trying to stop but the ambulance kept sliding along.”

Machacek was finally able to bring the ambulance to a safe stop and helped bring “ice baby” into the world. By the end of the day, baby and mother were both reported resting comfortably at Ben Taub Hospital.

As is tradition in the Houston Fire Department, whenever a medic delivers a baby, the fire station where the medic is assigned holds a birthday party. Ironically, it was Machacek who had to provide the treats. Even more ironically, the frosty firefighters celebrated with ice cream.

Freeways were not the only transportation systems hit hard by the icy weather. Both of Houston’s major commercial airports Bush Intercontinental and Hobby International were shut down for several hours.

Friday afternoon saw temperatures briefly rise above the freezing mark, but another hard freeze was expected overnight ahead of a warming spell on Saturday.

While Houston was shivering under a sheet of ice, 250 miles to the north in Dallas, organizers of this weekend’s Super Bowl XLV continued to struggle with after-effects of the storm. Five people were injured around noon Friday when sheets of ice left by the storm fell from the roof of Cowboys Stadium.

According to Super Bowl safety committee spokesman Arnie Valdez, one of the five was critically injured. He declined to give further details or provide the names of the injured.

Stadium personnel immediately barricaded the area. Officials do not expect the problems to affect Sunday’s game.

Additionally, airlines continued to have problems getting Super Bowl-bound passengers into Dallas. Both Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and Love Field have seen extensive flight cancellations due to the weather.

At last count, more than 1,250 flights into the Dallas-Fort Worth area had been cancelled this week.

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