EVEN MAJOR WEATHER EVENTS ARE BIGGER IN TEXAS and TxDOT routinely reaches out to AGC members to help absorb whatever punch Mother Nature delivers. As Winter Storm Uri made its way to Texas in mid-February, it didn’t take long for TxDOT to start reaching out to members for help. Highway contractors and their crews responded to the call with a sense of responsibility and gratitude.
The historic storm, which affected all 254 counties and knocked out power for millions of Texans, brought a combination of snow and ice resulting in dangerous driving conditions on Texas roads, bridges, and highways. TxDOT used more than 500 pieces of equipment and contractor vehicles to deal with the paralyzing storm and issued approximately $5.6 million in contract work.
Answering the Call
Before the storm hit, Bill Cheek of Jagoe-Public received a call from TxDOT’s Fort Worth Director of Construction Gregory Cedillo looking for willing contractors to help road clearing in the district. While the severity of the storm was not yet known, Cheek pledged assistance although he knew it would be difficult to organize.
“But highway folks know how to adapt,” he said.
And that’s what Cheek found himself doing while under a blanket next to his wife on the sofa near a warm fireplace. Like many Texans, he experienced rolling power outages that left him without access to his “fancy computer programs.” Cheek was forced to rely on memory to develop cost estimates for crew and equipment and Company President Doug Walterscheid offered guidance as he had more experience dealing with weather events.
Company supervisors deemed it too dangerous to put motor graders on haul trucks, so crew members drove them 40-50 miles—a two-hour journey in those conditions. More than 60 Jagoe employees, including mechanics and those in support vehicles, worked the storm for six days clearing roads and bridges in Tarrant and Denton counties.
Getting to Work
Ed Bell Construction Project Manager Stan Allen also got a call from TxDOT’s Cedillo asking if the company could provide crew members to operate equipment leased by the department.
Allen consulted with company officials about logistics and hourly wages to charge TxDOT.
Allen told Cedillo they would charge an hourly rate of $1. “They’re our industry partner. They are our lifeline,” Allen said. Although grateful, Cedillo said TxDOT could not accept the generous offer.
“So, we gave them the cheapest fair market rate we thought they could get and went to work. It was never about the money. It was about stepping up and doing our job and answering the call,” Allen said.
Eagle Barricade employees knew the storm would test their “safety first” priority while helping TxDOT crews. “This was a must on everyone’s part as we performed in a stressful and dangerous situation,” Eagle Barricade Field Supervisor Brandon Benson said. “With our combined efforts, being prepared and more than capable, we were able to complete the necessary task of returning the streets of North Texas back to safe traveling.”
Antwan Mitchell, a lead technician for Eagle Barricade, described the winter storm as one of the best experiences he’s had when it comes to truck mounted attenuator operations.
“The TxDOT team was very welcoming as well as informative when it came to explaining the job that needed to be executed,” Mitchell said. “I honestly feel that any company that works with them will learn from their process and be able to implement some of their techniques and culture to improve workflow and camaraderie.”
In Central Texas, Dean Word III climbed into a company motor grader to help scrape ice and snow off roads. Word, a partner in the company his great grandfather founded 120 years ago, had not operated a motor grader in a few years.
“I occasionally have the opportunity to operate one in a pinch that may be on a project,” Word said of his recent grading experience. “I can usually make something constructive happen, but it doesn’t always look very professional,” he joked. TxDOT’s New Braunfels Area Engineer Will Lockett asked Word to clear approximately 70 lane miles.
“I don’t think I gouged or damaged any of the new hot-mix, or chip seal surfaces I covered, or peeled very many reflective buttons off either,” Word said, laughing. “In this business, nothing is ever calm for very long,” Dean Word III noted. “You never know what the next mini or major crisis will be. You just have to adapt and keep moving ahead.”
Over in the eastern part of the state, Chad Thomas of A.L. Helmcamp, Inc. got a TxDOT alert on Sunday to assemble crews and equipment to take care of roads and bridges in the Huntsville area. They came up with four motor graders and four shadow vehicles to follow. They ran non-stop for five days.
“There were definitely some challenges. The weather was bad. We were out at night on the interstate,” Thomas said. “Several times we were running blades, and they just died in the middle of the road. The fuel had frozen up, jelled up in the line before it got to the engine. So, we had mechanical challenges on top of the logistical challenges. We were scrambling.”
Highway contractors along with TxDOT maintenance crews were able to keep I-45 from Navarro county to Walker County open the entire time. Up to forty Helmcamp employees aided in the effort.
“The district engineer in Bryan was very satisfied with what he got. It was an unprecedented effort to keep the roadways clear in a part of Texas that was not prepared for it,” Thomas said.
We have the resources and talent; we have a civic responsibility to step in and help where we can. We have the blade operators, and we had the mechanics and the management,” Thomas said. “I said, we did it to help taxpayers and to help - because TxDOT wasn’t able to get it done. They knew they couldn’t. It would take road contractors. We got compensated for it, but it was more than that. We wanted to help.”
As San Angelo got clobbered with 9 inches of snow, TxDOT Area Engineer Chris Henry called Caleb Kattner of Reece Albert desperate for help.
Kattner immediately sent two grader operators who bladed 200 lane miles running through the night and sent a day crew to keep grading San Angelo area roads.
“TxDOT didn’t have the labor, or the equipment needed to do as many roadways as needed help,” Kattner said. “Texans as a whole don’t know how to drive in the snow and ice. We don’t like cold weather. We’re down here for a reason.”
The four Reece Albert graders cleared between 500 and 600 lane miles across the northern part of the San Angelo district. They shared the motor graders to avoid having to start cold equipment.
“When everybody is bundled up and they don’t have power, it’s hard to get guys out for the night,” Kattner said. “I had those four guys who rose to the occasion and did it very, very well. They really helped the state get out of a bind.”
“We’re here to help whenever they need us. We’re one phone call away,” echoed Abraham Valenzuela, a superintendent with Reece Albert, Inc. “As long as we’re able to, we’ll get out there.”
Farther west, Rob McNew of Reece Albert and crews thought they had properly winterized their equipment ahead of the storm. But they learned otherwise after TxDOT called for help in the Midland-Odessa area.
“The diesel exhaust fluid froze up on almost everything. Our mechanic couldn’t even get his truck started,” McNew said. “We didn’t winterize quite well enough. I don’t think anybody was quite prepared for the severity or the duration.”
The area experienced nine days of sub-freezing weather. They got the equipment up and running again by mid-week when a second storm wave hit, and TxDOT needed help in the Monahans area.
Reece Albert crews worked up to 36 hours clearing roads.
Doing the Right Thing
Beaumont and the Gulf Coast region steels itself for hurricanes – not snow and ice.
Snow is easier to move than water from hurricanes, noted Gary Ray, a Gulf Coast veteran with 40 years of industry experience: “The snow is solid. The water from hurricanes you can’t really do anything with it until it recedes and then you have to clean debris off the roads.”
Lorenzo Colston, a crew member for Gulf Coast, a CHR company, doesn’t mind new experiences--but grading snow and ice definitely took him out of his comfort zone.
“The blade would veer off to the right or left. When you are doing something new and you have never done it before you get a little anxiety, but it wears off,” he said.
Steve Helton, public works construction manager for Gulf Coast, spent 30 years with TxDOT. One of the most challenging elements in the storm was 14-degree temperatures. That was the coldest he can remember Beaumont experiencing during his 60 years in the area.
“It’s a good feeling when you get to go out and clear the roads for the traveling public. It makes you feel better,” Wesley West, who scraped ice and snow for the first time in his 30 years working in the industry, said.
“I was surprised by how thick the ice was on the bridges. The blade just slid over the ice. I just kept going,” said Pete Taylor, a Gulf Coast crew member.
Aldo Lopez lost power in his home for 10 hours. It was in the back of his mind while operating a Gulf Coast motor grader.
“We had to act with extreme caution and get comfortable with it and get more confident,” Lopez said of his grading work. “At the same time, I kept thinking about my family as well.”
But he did not hesitate to leave home because “we had to do the right thing for TxDOT.”
Beaumont District Engineer Chad Bohne later complimented Gulf Coast for helping keep major roads open throughout the storm.
“Your rapid response on I-10 in Orange and Jefferson Counties was invaluable to TxDOT during the worst winter weather event we have seen in this part of the country in many years. The support your staff provided with blading and traffic control allowed us to open roadways more quickly and ensured the safety of the traveling public,” Bohne said in the letter to Kincaid, who also serves as president of AGC of Texas.
Bohne emphasized the importance of TxDOT’s family culture and how that helps rally employees around each other in times of need. That family culture extends to the department’s partners, he added: “Without your efforts this past week, we could not have accomplished what we did.”
A Job Well Done
At a TxDOT Commission meeting following the storm, Commissioner Alvin New said his family went three days without electricity and eight days without water. He complimented crews in similar situations who ventured out to “make sure roads are safe for other people. That is a higher calling – to serve others.”
The commissioner also marveled at the road graders “out there pushing ice with the blue and yellow lights across all lanes … It was a pretty impressive show of road care. It’s appreciated and it was impressive.”
“We are so proud of our statewide crews and staff who weathered this storm to make sure Texas roads were as safe as they could be during such a harsh storm,” said TxDOT Chief Engineer Bill Hale. “We were able to execute plans in place for such an event with our employees and assistance from our partners of the AGC community.”