Road travel turns deadly, Central Texas schools shuttered amid freeze that could strain power grid

Kelsey Bradshaw
Austin American-Statesman
Emergency crews respond to a 26-vehicle pileup on Texas 45 near Briarwick Drive in Northwest Austin on Thursday.

A blast of arctic air and sheets of freezing rain that pelted much of North and Central Texas left icy accumulations that made road travel deadly, downed power lines, canceled school activities and was expected to strain the state's electrical grid.

Icy and slick roads across the state caused multiple fender-benders and at least two massive highway crashes. In Fort Worth, five people were killed in a 70-vehicle pileup. In Austin, just outside Cedar Park, five people were hospitalized after a 26-vehicle pileup on Texas 45.

Before Thursday's rain, Texas Department of Transportation officials on Wednesday had treated major highways in the area with brine or a granular treatment of magnesium chloride, TxDOT spokesman Brad Wheelis said.

The granular treatment is mostly used on overpasses and bridges, which tend to ice over first because they are exposed to colder air.

Interstate 35 through Travis, Williamson and Hays counties, Texas 71, U.S. 290 and Texas 130 were among the major highways treated on Wednesday. 

"Those treatments are working," Wheelis said Thursday afternoon. "We would caution people to keep in mind that there are not miracle treatments or solutions. They help prevent ice from forming, and they do their job very well."

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Wheelis said the ramp where the 26-vehicle pileup occurred had been pretreated Wednesday.

"We were called after the crash and retreated when the area was cleared of vehicles," he said. "Our crews cleaned up some debris left behind after tow trucks left."

The ramp was treated a third time Thursday and was reopened.

"We do proper treatment and they work well, but they do not dry out the surfaces," he said. 

The department has crews on standby 24/7 to continue treating roads, he said. Often, law enforcement will report to the department where a crash has happened or if a road is slick, and crews will be sent out to treat the road or possibly help clean up crash debris. 

The icy roads throughout the Hill Country prompted the Burnet and Llano school districts to cancel all classes Thursday. Williamson County shuttered its offices, and the Georgetown school district closed schools.

The Austin school district canceled all afterschool activities Thursday and planned to have 100% virtual classes Friday.

Meanwhile, more than 20,000 utility customers across Central Texas — including about 17,600 Austin Energy customers in 70 separate outages as of 3 p.m. — were without electricity Thursday afternoon in Northwest Austin as freezing rain continued.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state's power grid, said Thursday the agency was expecting record electric use because of the extreme cold.

“This statewide weather system is expected to bring Texas the coldest weather we’ve experienced in decades,” ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness said.

The grid operator has asked power generators across the state to review fuel supplies and transmission operators to minimize transmission outages that could affect ability of the system to serve the increased demand.

ERCOT could set a new all-time winter peak demand record Monday, when even colder temperatures are forecast. The current demand record is 65,915 megawatts set Jan. 17, 2018. Temperatures sank as low as 18 degrees that day in Austin. The forecast low for Monday is 10 degrees.

Texans across the state likely looked at the weather forecast for Thursday and the next several days and let out a resounding "Ugh." 

Cold air was already in place Thursday morning in Austin before rain moved into Central Texas from the south, National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Platt said. Temperatures were below freezing early Thursday across most of Austin and Travis County, he said.

More rain was expected before midnight, leaving the potential for up to a quarter-inch of ice to accumulate in some areas, Platt said.

Austin activated its cold weather shelters for people experiencing homelessness on  Thursday night as temperatures were expected to be freezing. With temperatures forecast to plunge even lower Friday, shelters are likely be activated again.

Those seeking shelter will be screened for COVID-19 during registration and temperatures will be checked. For more information on the shelters, call the city's hotline at: 512-305-4233.

Five people were hospitalized after icy road conditions Thursday caused a 26-car accident on Texas 45 in Northwest Austin near Cedar Park.

Only a handful of delays were reported Thursday at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and they were mostly related to lightning, airport spokesman Bryce Dubee said.

"With the expected drop (in temperatures), we are advising passengers to stay in touch with their airlines for any potential changes to their flights, and to keep a close eye on the road conditions when heading to the airport," Dubee said.

A winter storm warning for Travis, Williamson, Llano, Burnet, Blanco and Gillespie counties was set to expire by Friday morning, the weather service said. 

At Camp Mabry, Austin's main weather station, temperatures Thursday remained within a few degrees of freezing, but the National Weather Service expects lows in the 20s and the teens this weekend. 

Friday should be dry but blustery with chilly winds of up to 15 mph adding bite to temperatures hovering in the 30s, forecasters said.

As Saturday rolls around, Platt said Austin has another chance at getting wintry precipitation, possibly a mix of freezing rain and sleet that becomes snow Sunday night into Monday.

Temperatures will drop into the 20s on Monday, with a low of 10 degrees.

Austin's airport is bracing for the winter weather by loading trucks with deicing chemicals to be used on parking lots, outdoor walkways and roads into the terminal. Sand also will be used. Airlines deice their own planes, Dubee said.

Airport employee shifts are being modified to allow for overlapping on Sunday and Monday to help keep staff off the roads. A sleep area for staff is being set up in the airport in case road conditions are too dangerous to travel home, Dubee said. 

Wheelis said transportation officials also plan to use Friday's window of drier conditions to treat the roads again. He said people should stay off the roads if they can.

"Treat every road as though it has ice on it. That's the best piece of advice I can give," he said.