Record winter storm wreaks havoc on Southern states

Feb. 21, 2021

An extreme winter storm that has plunged temperatures into the deep freeze, dumped up to 8 in. of snow and sleet, and caused massive power outages, burst pipes and water issues has resulted in dire circumstances, primarily for those in Texas, but also in other Southern states such as Oklahoma.

Just getting to his rental operation has been a challenge, says Terry Norris, vice president/CEO, Safe Way Rental Equipment Co., Austin, Texas.

“In Austin, we started out Friday with maybe 6 to 8 in. of snow. Normally, if we get snow, it is no more than 4 in., so this is unprecedented for us. The city of Austin doesn’t have any snowplows. The city gave up the roads to the Texas Department of Transportation, or TxDOT. Only since Wednesday (Feb. 17) — after we received another snow and sleet storm — did TxDOT start putting sand trucks out and trying to make the major roads passable. They have done a pretty good job of it. Another issue with our roads is that on the white lines in between lanes of traffic, there are round reflectors, which bump when you are changing lanes. With those things, you can’t use a snowplow to get all the way down to the asphalt because the reflectors are about every 4 ft. That never occurred to anyone because we don’t have situations like this, so today the motor graders are having to keep their blades up above those reflectors so it doesn’t damage their equipment. There is still about a 1½-in. layer of ice on the roads. Plus, the temperature on Wednesday was 9 degrees,” he says.

Norris’ Austin operation has not lost power. “Our operation has had power the entire time, but they shut off the water on Wednesday. It came back Thursday morning at the shop. I am still without water at home. In the Austin metroplex, around 42 percent of people were without power. They started to slowly restore power, but there are still so many without power. ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said that they have to turn the power back on in very small amounts as they don’t want to crash the state’s entire grid,” he says.

That has resulted in “all our generators out on rent, everything from our small portable generators to our large towables. We have been renting them to homeowners and the government agencies,” he says.

“Because kerosene is not available and, even if it was, is so expensive, we converted our space heaters to diesel,” Norris says. “Unfortunately, they haven’t been renting because no one wants the diesel smell in their businesses.”

An interesting rental occurred after a customer had lost his car keys. “This gentleman got out of his car and slipped on the ice. His car and house keys went flying in the snow. With all the snow we have gotten, he couldn’t easily find them, so he borrowed his wife’s car and came to us to rent a metal detector to find his keys. I never expected that type of rental when we are in the middle of this,” Norris says.

Norris wasn’t alone. “Most of Texas had some loss of power (either directly or because of rolling blackouts). We had 100-year record lows and most of the state of Texas had some snow, which is very unusual. In addition to the power outages, some of the water plants lost power and caused boil-water edicts to come out,” says Bryce Puckett, general manager of rentals, Kirby-Smith Machinery, Fort Worth, Texas, and ARA Region Four director.

“It was like a ghost town coming into work. It reminded me of the first day of the pandemic when only those who were considered essential workers were out,” he says.

Being at work had its challenges too. “Our Fort Worth facility didn’t have power for 3½ days. We also didn’t have backup generator power at this location either, so we were running out of our cars. We did have some welders that had generator capacity that we ran for the all-important coffee and all that other stuff,” he adds.

While most construction and day-to-day operations ceased because of the extreme weather conditions, his business remained quite busy “trying to supplement those trucking as well as state and local government entities by supplying them additional equipment and service capacity when it was needed. It doesn’t make sense for a municipality to own several snowplows because we usually don’t have this type of weather. This is definitely the coldest we have seen for three days straight in 100 years,” Puckett says.

Kirby-Smith Machinery has been renting out everything from skid-steer loaders and big wheel loaders for loading salt into the back of trucks to motor graders to scrape the roads. “All of our equipment in these categories for our territories is out on rent. Because of the extreme temps, we also have seen a rise in mini excavators and backhoes because of the frozen waterlines in the ground,” Puckett says.

Keith Kitchens, CERP, vice president, Tomball Rental, Tomball, Texas, and Texas Rental Association secretary and treasurer, experienced a similar situation.

“We were closed Monday and Tuesday, which is extremely unusual for us. We have been here 44 years and we have almost never been closed for more than one day. Because of the ice storm, the lack of power and water, this has been a trying event. With hurricanes, it happens and is gone. This has lasted for days,” he says.

When the business reopened Wednesday, “we didn’t have power. We were able to operate our essential equipment on generator power, but everything else — heat and lights — has been off. Even with that, we were able to keep the business running,” he says.

It wasn’t just the business that has lacked power. “I was without power for more than two days at home. As of Thursday, the power was still cycling on and off. At least with the cycling, we could warm the house back up. In addition, we don’t have any water. We are surviving on bottled water. Some of our employees also had burst pipes in their homes, so they have had to deal with that, too,” he says.

Kitchens’ customers were glad when the business was able to reopen. “Our propane sales have been incredible. We had a line of cars all the way down the street with people who wanted to get propane,” he says. “We also have been renting generators and patio heaters. Customers have been using the patio heaters to try to warm their water wells to keep them working. We also had a lot of dehumidifiers and carpet water extraction equipment go out to those with burst pipes.”

It is not just Texas that has been impacted. “We’ve had really cold temps and received about 5 in. of snow, but it has been very dry and fluffy. It hasn’t been windy either. The last time we had this long of a cold snap was between 1983 and 1984, when we had a month of temps not going above freezing. We have not lost power, though, so we have been lucky,” says Bobby Southard, president, D.J.’s Rental & Sales, Elk City, Okla.

Customers have been flocking to his rental operation for space heaters. “All of ours are out. In this weather. We do kerosene. Kerosene is high-priced. If you go down to buy it, it is $60 for a 5-gal. bucket. I have been telling customers to go to our small airport to get jet fuel (Jet A) as it is nothing but kerosene. The airport has been selling it for $2.65 a gal.,” he says.

“We also have had a few generators going out. I had one customer who is a farmer/rancher who has a solar-powered water well. He rented a light tower from us and used it for a generator to run the water well for his cattle,” Southard adds.

The frigid temps also have resulted in a lot of frozen pipes. “We even had a pipe burst in our wash bay. I had run just one of our two heaters over the weekend in that area. I thought that would be enough, but when I came in Monday morning, the temperature in the wash bay was 23 degrees. As soon as we thawed that line, it burst. We had a mess,” Southard says.

Charles Hewett, president, ABC Equipment Rental, Tulsa, Okla., also has been busy with customers trying to cope with the record-breaking cold temperatures and snow.

“We got down to minus-10 degrees with a windchill of minus-30. We get snow pretty regularly, but that kind of a cold streak for all those days broke records for sure. We’ve also accumulated 9 in. of snow. I have never had such big snow piles in my parking lot before,” Hewett says.

While he is grateful that he had power the entire time, “at one of our locations, we had pipes freeze. I think they froze underground,” he says.

Many of his customers were dealing with frozen pipes, too. “We sent out a lot of dehumidifiers and carpet-drying equipment for those that had waterline problems in their businesses and homes, and we rented a lot of skid-steer loaders, trenchers and excavators to replace waterlines,” he says.

In addition, all of his space heaters and generators were rented. “We also rented indirect heaters and sold propane and kerosene,” he says. “I had one contractor who was working on an in-ground pool. He rented an indirect heater and rigged up some plastic around the pool and used the indirect heaters to fill it with hot air so they could continue working.”

Even with all the hardships this storm has created for them, their employees and their customers, there has been one bright spot.

“State and local authorities have learned that they can rely on rental as a means for providing equipment in these situations. This is one of those examples in which they leaned on the rental operators to get through this crisis,” Puckett says.

The other good news is that the weather is supposed to break. “We are predicted to be back in the 70s by the end of the coming week, so that will be something to really look forward to,” Kitchens says.

Grants from the ARA Foundation can help rental operations and their employees who have been severely impacted by this storm. Click here to learn more.

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