Amid the freezing temperatures of the winter storm which lasted from Sunday, Feb. 14 to Thursday, Feb. 17, residents were urged by state, county and city officials to stay home and avoid driving on icy roads.
Most residents in the City of Gonzales were spared from the rolling blackouts, but outside the city, many were left without water or natural gas or electrical power to heat their homes for several hours at a time.
Citing the absence of a need, Gonzales County officials did not officially designate any emergency shelters amid the freezing temperatures and power outages.
Some business owners, however, chose to provide warming resources and lodging to residents in need.
No Shelters Needed
Emergency Management Coordinator Jimmy Harless and County Judge Patrick C. Davis said that it was determined that there wasn’t a need for an emergency shelter to be provided to the community.
“I don’t know that the county had the need to open a shelter like that,” Harless said.
Davis said that no one contacted the Office of Emergency Management to find an emergency shelter option.
“In the past we've utilized some of the schools and churches and other places,” Davis said. “During that storm, we never had any locally, never had any request for any type of shelter.”
While a shelter might not have been requested of the county, Gonzales Mayor Connie Kacir said that hotels in the area quickly reached capacity, filling with county residents who had lost electricity and water.
Kacir said the city does not currently have a facility designated as an emergency shelter, and could not offer one during the storm, but was exploring its options for future instances. She said that as the city’s electric utilities were not on the list of those subject to rolling brownouts by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, its citizens may have been less likely to need an emergency shelter than those living in areas on the list.
For clarity, the Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative was on the list of energy providers subject to brownouts. GVEC serves many in the county, and there are also smaller independent energy providers in the county’s Southern region.
“Everybody that we know had power or water,” Gonzales City Manager Tim Patek said.
Kacir credited recent capital improvements to electrical resources in the city for keeping electric utilities from failing due to severe conditions, in conjunction with the hydroelectric plant off of Hwy 183.
Without a designated shelter, local lodging partners offered warm rooms to guests.
Tourism Director Ashley Simper said the Hotel Occupancy Rate, which is used to calculate taxes on hotel occupancy, had significantly increased during the week of the winter storm, when hotels in the area were booked up.
At 1631 Water St., the La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham had all 62 of its rooms booked up. General Manager Cathy Venegas said some of these rooms have double beds, or are suites, and can hold four to five people.
Being at capacity isn’t unusual for the La Quinta, Venegas said. Between rodeo and other large events, it’s something she’s experienced with. However, with COVID-19 still in play, keeping guests socially distant during its complimentary breakfast area was a challenge.
“With the COVID issue, that was the only thing, trying to keep everybody staying distanced from each other,” Venegas said. “It was good. It wasn't really bad. The breakfast area part was the one part that was a little bit challenging.”
Room at the inn
At the Alcalde Hotel, Manager Don Page opened his Texian Heritage Conference Center as a warming center, with food, water and Wi-Fi available to those who needed it.
“It’s kind of like December 24 in Gonzales, there’s no room at the inn, and I’m not the only one who’s got that situation going on” Page said in a Facebook Live when he offered up the warming shelter.
‘State of Emergency Shelter’
Off of Highway 90 A, Mike Hanson also opened his Inndependence Motel.
Hanson said he housed 112 people at the peak of the freeze.
“This was a humanitarian effort, we weren’t affiliated with any official shelter,” Hanson said.
Members of the community and two local churches – Two Rivers Bible Church and Eastside Baptist Church – made donations to Hanson to help with the effort at the Inndependence Motel, which included cash, food, towels, and linens.
Hanson said he housed many people for up to a week at the motel. Hanson said he spent $6,000, with an additional $5,000 in storm-related repairs made after the freeze ended.
Hanson referred to the Inndependence Motel as a “State Shelter” in posts to his Facebook page. On his Facebook page, Hanson also made reference to the motel being both a state and private shelter in separate instances.
For example, Hanson shared a post on Feb. 17, asking plumbers, “what’s more important then [sic] a state shelter.”
The Inquirer received comments expressing concern about the nature of this shelter and whether or not it was operating in an official capacity.
Hanson later clarified with The Inquirer that it was “State of Emergency Shelter” and not serving an official capacity with any government agency, adding that he was referencing the state of emergency that had been issued by Governor Greg Abbott.
State Emergency Shelters can be designated by state officials, mayors, county officials, or a county’s judge.
Mayor Kacir said Hanson had approached her before the storm, offering his motel as a source of shelter for those in need who couldn’t pay, or who could only pay very little.
Harless said that his office was aware of Hanson’s offering of shelter, but that it was not affiliated in any way with the county. Harless had said he had no other comment about the Inndependence Motel during the freeze.
The City of Gonzales provided resources such as a water station for several days during the storm and after to allow county residents whose pipes were frozen or otherwise did not have access to water. City crews also worked tirelessly to keep power on, as well as repairing lines.
In the course of six days, the February winter storm became the costliest natural disaster in the state of Texas.
Davis said it is unclear how much damage the storm did to properties in the county, but that the extent may become better known later in the year, as more insurance claims are filed and repairs made.
“I think damages that have been discovered today from the ice storm are because of slightly cracked pipes and stuff,” Davis said. “I haven't seen any type of anything that has come out on the damage. I was in McCoys the other day, people are still in there trying to find fittings and such. I don't know how devastating it is in the county.”
Davis said the do-it-yourself attitude of county residents may be why he hasn’t heard much about any damages to property in the county.
“In fact, I haven't had anybody that's actually made any comment to emergency management or my cell phone,” Judge Davis said. “most of the people here have taken care of all their stuff themselves.”
Patek said that the clearest picture of how much damage was incurred by city property would be ascertained during a debriefing of city departments, which would occur at a later date.
Gonzales is no stranger to damage in natural disasters. Previously, the October 1998 flood caused the Guadalupe river to reach a depth of 51.8 feet, well above the 30-foot threshold associated with floods. Some areas of the county saw between 13 and 20 inches of rain. 350 to 400 people were displaced by flooding, with between 80 and 100 water rescues performed.
Hurricane Harvey also left many homes with flood damage near sources of water, and damaged roofing, although it’s not clear what cost is associated with these damages.