Newschannel 6 Exclusive: Christmas Blizzard '09

Several weeks have passed since Christmas Blizzard '09.  The snow has melted, the roads have been cleared - and yet there are perhaps more than a month's worth of questions left unanswered about how Texoma responded to the worst snow storm in decades.

We've been investigating the facts and seeking answers from those who made the decisions about how--and why--the blizzard's response was on ice for so long.

At 10:52 pm on December 23rd, the National Weather Service issued a Winter Storm Warning for Texoma counties, urging residents to take caution and prepare for four to eight inches of blowing snow, high winds and blizzard-like conditions.

What transpired over the next 48 hours, however, was unfathomable, even to those who have experienced a winter blast.

Officially Wichita Falls received 8.1 inches of snow in an eight hour period, crippling roadways and stranding thousands of drivers and leaving families waiting frantically for their loved ones.

An emergency, yes, but according to the city, not dangerous enough to call a "Code Red."

You wanted to know why and so did we. In a Newschannel 6 exclusive, we got answers from the city's top brass - and obtained a document that you will only see here, outlining the emergency response - who called the shots and what should have been done differently.

To native Texomans like Kathy Bullard, the images of the blizzard mirror another horrific event three decades ago.
"The only thing probably would be the '79 Tornado," she said. "The helplessness, the fact that people were unable to do for themselves and then not knowing what was happening with their loved ones.

In Kathy's case, it was one of her loved ones. Her son, Wesley, was stuck on US Highway 287 for 21 hours on his trip home from Dallas for Christmas.  

"Imagine the biggest traffic jam you've ever had, but with no hope of moving for the foreseeable future," Wesley explained. "The place was a parking lot on ice. That's what it was.  It was a parking lot on ice."

It was also difficult for his sister, Gena, who sat at home waiting.

"He was out there and there was nothing we could do about it," she remembered.  "I guess because I knew he was coming here and it was really heartbreaking because there was nothing we could do.  Just worrying. Worrying the whole time.  And never was there anyone to say anything, any type of help given--no information given. There was nothing."

We spoke to thousands of people like the Bullards during Christmas Blizzard '09, who waited anxiously through a storm of uncertainty and a deafening silence from their city officials.  

Eight to twelve inches of snow, 154 extra man hours and 2,136 calls for service was seemingly not enough for the Police Chief, Fire Chief, or the Wichita Falls Emergency Preparedness Division to implement the Code Red, Wichita Falls' high-tech emergency communication system.

"It tells you run or don't run," explained Charles Elmore, Wichita Falls City Councilor. "Sure we could've called everybody in town and said, 'Hey it's snowing outside.'  Every news media that was here said, 'don't go out.'"

Councilor Elmore will be the first to tell you that the Christmas Blizzard wreaked havoc on his city, but argues calling the Code Red would not have served it's purpose.

"That's not what the Code Red is for--not to me," he said.  "Code Red is for emergency circumstances where we need to notify somebody that they're in serious trouble - and they may not know it. The aftermath created some emergencies and I think they were well handled, I really do.  Nobody died."

Councilor Elmore, however, was not the man with the power to make the call, nor was he a part of the Emergency Preparedness Division.

The city installed the Code Red system with the support of the EPD, who cited the major floods of 2007 as proof the program would greatly enhance communication between the city and its residents during times of imminent danger.

The police chief, fire chief, public health chief and even the mayor can call a Code Red, and send out a voice and text message to all Wichita Falls residents instantaneously.

"It's still kind of in its infant state on what we perceive and how we utilize it," said John Henderson, Wichita Falls' Emergency Preparedness Coordinator.  "We're learning from it  Every time we use that tool in the toolbox of our emergency preparedness, we learn something and we try to adjust it."

Henderson told Newschannel 6 the Code Red was called during the 2008 floods, water main breaks, and twice for a possible gunman in a residential area.

He too, agreed with Elmore on the Code Red's role.

"I wouldn't believe in sending one out for road closures," he said.  "There are other means for that.  2-1-1 is a great example to get that information, or from the Texas Department of Transportation."

Of course, though, Code Red is just one part of the city's emergency plans - and like the Code Red, the city chose to *not* stand up the Emergency Operations Center.  When asked why, though, Henderson was less than willing to elaborate.

"I'm not really going to get into much of that.  That doesn't really deal with what code red is for right now.  so i really don't want to get into the operations side of the blizzard," he explained.  "That's not what we're here to talk about, was it? The blizzard is totally different.  That's in the past.  We go on from that and I'm not looking at that now."

By the time Newschannel 6 aired its noon broadcast on Christmas Eve, we measured nearly seven inches of snow on the ground.

By this time, though, not one street department plow had been deployed to start clearing the streets.

The Emergency Preparedness Division's After Action Report, obtained exclusively by Newschannel 6, offered three reasons why they did not set up the Emergency Operations Command (EOC).  

1)    We did not see where the EOC would have given us any additional ability to assist citizens that what was already occurring.
2)    Because of the conditions, it would have been practically impossible for most of those who are required to staff the EOC to get from their homes.  
3)    We would have needed to support it in various ways, such as food for those working.  This would have been extremely difficult to accomplish.

And yet, at the end of the report, the same division admits its mistake and even has a suggestion for the next time..

"We could have activated the EOC immediately upon the issuance of a blizzard warning," the report explained.  "And in this case it would've been extremely difficult, but at least it gives the citizens the impression we are doing something...always evaluate whether or not we should use the Code Red system to warn people of conditions and/or to stay in their homes."

To the city's credit, the Street Department exhausted their 10 dump trucks and three blades to spread some 100 tons of ice chat.  A total of 30 public works personnel worked an average of 28 hours through the Christmas Blizzard.

"We had every truck that we have out on the roads sanding, scraping, pulling people out - and a lot of them got stuck," said Elmore.  "Could we have done better?  Sure.  Should we have done better?  Maybe.  If exactly the same circumstances happened in 25 years, would we do better?  Who knows?"

To say that Wes Bullard appreciates his two hour journey from Dallas home a little more - is an understatement.  But now a month later, he and his family choose not to lament on those cold, frightful hours of worry.  Instead he said the only people he really wanted to hear from was his family.

"No matter what they declare or don't declare, I know I've always got my friends and family to keep my spirits up and keep me informed to the best of my knowledge," he said.  "I found out who a lot of my friends were and I definitely love and respect my family for that."

Before last week's ice storm, the Texas Department of Transportation and the city of Wichita Falls rolled out its fleet of trucks and blades almost two days in advance. The precipitation was light, but the city was ready.

If another blizzard comes our way, we know we have had our learning experience.

Jonah Kaplan, Newschannel 6