This layered on our already stressed woody plants from Mother Nature’s onslaught over these past two years and brought them to their breaking point. Long-timers in this area were in total agreement of never having experienced such widespread destruction.
Texas, long used to hurricanes and tornados, experienced broad assault from this cold front, Winter Storm Mara, with up to 1.5” of ice on roads. Trees tumbling and being stripped of large branches downed power poles and lines, and blocked roads. Darkness ensued. Life was jolted back for many to 1880, although those hardy settlers were better prepared for those conditions.
Although several customers were still struggling Feb. 10 in those no-power areas where extensive repairs were needed, Austin Energy finally restored power to all remaining customers Saturday, minus those who needed electrical home repairs.
On Jan. 31, Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell issued a local disaster declaration for our county. Later, the governor issued a disaster declaration for Texas. What does that mean for us citizens? Almost nothing.
First, damage estimates and costs to address the disaster must pass thresholds for the county, then the state. While the county has passed its threshold, the state is near $48 million for its threshold of $51.5 million, which could mean funds for disaster response work and costs incurred, and possibly some assistance for qualifying residents with property damage, not debris pickup.
All involved need to generate and maintain careful records and receipts: costs for fuel, overtime, salaries, damages to buildings and equipment or any other related costs. Our Williamson County auditor is ensuring county employees are reporting all possible eligible reimbursements. Other entities such as independent school districts, emergency service districts and cities must do the same.
Note: We did all this for the tornados in 2022 and didn’t reach the necessary damage thresholds for county or state and received no FEMA reimbursements for expenses incurred by the county. Much of the damage was within Round Rock. Individual property owners who applied received financial assistance for damage to their homes, outbuildings such as barns and sheds, and businesses. The FEMA-determined threshold for Wilco is $2.7 million based on $4.14/person from the 2020 census of 609,017 residents. Reimbursement of expenses does not exceed 90% of costs incurred. If we’re lucky, reimbursements for the ice storm could start within six months.
Further, local disaster declarations are good for seven days. To continue this declaration, the Commissioners Court must authorize and specify the duration. On Feb. 7, we authorized the extension to be 30 more days.
Our Road and Bridge Department’s role was to reopen the county roadways. By Feb. 1, many roads were impassable from downed trees, limbs, and power lines. The chopping of fallen tree trunks and limbs into manageable chunks, then stacking them on the county’s right-of-way to haul off later was necessary as clearing the roads was a safety priority, and crews needed to quickly move to the next blocked road.
Costs incurred for roadway clearance so far is estimated to exceed $6 million. Where power lines were also down, Oncor, PEC or Austin Energy were notified. Feb. 2 granted us some sunshine and warming but that night, a second, wet, cold front pushed across the county bringing more freezing temperatures; many of us were awakened by the depressing sounds of more crashing trees and limbs. Armageddon greeted us with the rising sun on Feb. 3. Now what?
The county engineer estimates that cleanup of only the debris cleared from the roads would take up to a year so we must contract with a larger organization to do the job. Some counties that suffered from this icing disaster offer locations for residents to bring their debris, including Travis and Bastrop counties. None yet are offering to tackle the enormous cost of house-to-house pickup.
Landscape material such as trees and shrubs are personal property under Texas law. Most residents knew or assumed that. Williamson County is working on a variety of cleanup options, and we hope to be reviewing them shortly in Commissioners Court. Cities, with their larger budgets, are offering options for brush pickup or drop-off for their residents. We have negotiated a flat fee of $10 per covered load on a pickup at the county landfill outside of Hutto north of Chandler Road until Feb. 19. You must unload what you bring into the landfill and wear a safety vest or purchase one there. Waste Management is not requiring hard hats. A separate area has been set aside for ease in unloading.
Financial assistance for removal of woody debris that fell on the ground is not considered damages by the state or federal relief programs and is ineligible for reimbursement to property owners for its removal. If it fell on your roof, maybe; if it went through your roof, removed the roof, or further damaged the home or outbuilding, yes. Those reimbursements are done through different, individual processes.
No truck — no problem. Think about renting a smallish U-Haul moving truck and load it to the ceiling. The fee would be higher, but you could probably do it in one trip, no tarp needed. Take a broom to sweep out the truck after emptying, and you’re good-to-go for returning the truck.
This story doesn’t have an ending yet, but it is one to tell your grandchildren … about that time in February of 2023.