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2007-01-25

Volunteers carved the ice storm down to manageable event

By Stephanie Day

From Bandera County’s volunteer Emergency Management Director Ralph Dresser to EMTs and firefighters, volunteers held out survival lines across the ice that held the county captive for nearly three days.

Dresser, in fact, spent three days and three nights at the Emergency Operation Center (EOC) during the ice storm emergency, returning home only twice and only long enough to shower and change clothes. Dresser, 76, said it took him a few days to recover from the hectic schedule. He praised volunteers and the “independent people” of Bandera County for making his job easier.

Since Bandera County depends on volunteers during emergencies, Dresser added, residents can show consideration for those volunteers by being prepared. As he has done so often in the past, Dresser stressed the importance of stocking and keeping an emergency kit complete with needed medications, baby food and supplies, pet food and supplies, water, non-perishable foods and other life-sustaining items. He related incidents of families calling in need of baby food, milk and bread and medicine. “We did what we could,” he said. “But like the 2002 Flood, we were essentially isolated. A helicopter won’t fly in ice storm conditions and four-wheel drive vehicles are no good on ice.”

Thankfully, there were no serious injuries or ice-related deaths. Medina Volunteer Fire Department Chief Shane Keese and other firefighters did help with a rescue on SH 16 north between Medina and Kerrville. Three cars became stranded on ice. “We had a decision to make,” Dresser related. “Should we leave the occupants there to freeze or to die from breathing carbon monoxide (from keeping the vehicles running so they could use the heater), or should we let them risk injury by trying to walk out and sliding down on the ice?

“We had one adult male from the Valley, one adult male from Bandera and a young mother with a two and six-year-old. All of them were attempting to bypass the closure of I-10 west.

“The firemen took a hand line up and tied it off and brought them down. We had an ambulance waiting to check them out and bring them to the emergency command center.”

After that, more kindness from volunteers helped melt the ice for both the rescued and the rescuers. Bandera Saloon provided a buffet. The American Red Cross stepped in to provide lodging for the mother and children. Bandera’s Helping Hand was standing ready to fill in the gap and provided warm outer garments for the mother.

The rescue, Dresser noted, was only part of the ice story. It took a coordinated effort between Kerrville and Bandera DPS units to install barricades at either end of SH 16 between Medina and Kerrville to keep more vehicles from attempting the dangerous road, which would have resulted either in additional accidents, rescues or damage to the vehicles that were already stranded.

Coordination highlighted Bandera’s real-life emergency drill. Sheriff Weldon Tucker praised Dresser’s handling of the emergency, along with other volunteers and his own deputies. “We had good help from all those people,” he said. “There will be an EOC in the new justice center. That will be good for the whole county.”

Tucker also praised Chief Deputy Don Berger for his handling of the emergency. “We had no serious accidents or injuries. We lost one patrol car when it slid off the road and another vehicle slid into it-but the deputy was not in the vehicle at the time. Some people were without electricity, but no one was evacuated.”

Bandera Electric Cooperative said members north and south of Boerne were the hardest hit by electrical outages caused by the ice storm. Electricity was also lost in some areas of Bandera, Pipe Creek and Medina Lake. “Almost every outage was caused by ice-covered trees that struck our lines when they fell,” Robert (Bobby) Waid said. “Ice covered roads and equipment, hampering restoration efforts.”

Bandera Electric Cooperative asked customers living south of Boerne to conserve electricity by lowering their thermostats and turning off any unnecessary lights. Additionally, they also temporarily shifted some of the electrical load to another substation.

Nearly all roads into Bandera from every direction, as well as local roads like Bump Gate, were closed at least briefly during the three-day ice event. FM 2828 was closed for most of the time; PR 37 from FM 1283 to SH 16 was closed; Tarpley Pass and Seco Pass beyond Tarpley were closed; FM 337 was open most of the time but treacherous; SH 16 north of Medina was closed.

“The problem,” Dresser explained, “is that TxDOT was in charge of keeping the major highways open. They ran out of de-icer and had to prioritize and keep the major routes open to the hospitals-173 to Kerrville and 16 to San Antonio. We had one ambulance run over Bandera Pass at 10 miles-per-hour. Highway 16 was pretty good except for Cedar Hill.

“The Medina County Sheriff closed all the roads from Bandera to Medina County. Our main problem was with people going around the barricades.”

Dresser related one incident that ended in an arrest. An ambulance attempted a run on PR 37 toward Medina County and became stuck. Three other cars went around the barricade and slid into the ambulance. The driver of the car caught in the middle of the pile-up broke the window out of his vehicle and then broke out the ambulance window on the driver’s side because he said he needed to get something out of his car.

Seven vehicles came to a stop on SH 46 at Red Bluff Creek. An 18-wheeler stopped in the middle of the road, preventing a crash there. Elm Pass, Freedom Springs and Timber Creek were other trouble spots.

Dresser said he is thankful for the good coordination between Medina and Bandera school district superintendents. He said avoiding the added traffic hazards of Bandera’s 77 school buses and Medina’s 15 had helped safely slide the county out of the winter mix of ice and frozen precipitation.

During the ice event, volunteers took food and medicine to stranded residents and provided meals to strangers. Local restaurants, including Texarita’s brought food to the EOC. County Judge Richard Evans put in time at the EOC. EMT Director Cindy Martin worked tirelessly, helping to answer the 10 calls a minute while Dresser manned the radio. Carey Poe filled in on the last day of the storm and answered numerous calls about SH 46.

“I never knew so many people lived off 46,” Dresser remarked. “It was pandemonium. But the main thing is that no one works for me during an emergency. I hope everyone works with me.

“This was a good drill. If we don’t learn from our short-comings during a time like this, then we’ve missed a great opportunity. This county relies on about 200 volunteers in time of emergency, mostly firefighters and EMTs-first responders. To help those folks out, other residents need to do what they are told: stay at home if they are asked to stay at home, have a survival kit ready and let emergency management know about any strange or unusual events. This is your county. Be a participant in it.”