The big chill: Dangerous record cold invades Ellis County

Near-zero temps, rolling blackouts grip North Texas; another round expected

Bill Spinks
Midlothian Mirror
A single vehicle travels up a nearly-deserted North College Street in Waxahachie on Sunday. A winter storm brought dangerous wind chills, rolling electricity blackouts, and from 4 to 6 inches of snow to Ellis County with more wintry precipitation forecast for Wednesday.
Chrissy (left) and daughter Nicki Holmberg volunteer to shovel a neighbor's driveway on Monday morning following Sunday's winter storm in Ellis County. The storm left between 4 and 6 inches of snow, dropped temperatures to near zero with dangerous wind chills, and caused rolling electricity blackouts in the county.

For the first time in quite a long time, Ellis County residents had to break out the snow shovels and thermal underwear this weekend as a rare and dangerous blast of pipe-busting Arctic air sent thermometers plunging.

While the snowfall amount didn’t set records, the cold that accompanied it did. It was the coldest Arctic outbreak seen in North Texas since December 1989, according to the National Weather Service.

Temperatures slipped well into single digits Fahrenheit on Monday morning and wind chills dropped precipitously into the teens below zero. Tuesday morning’s low sank to close to zero as the snow moved out, the wind calmed and skies cleared.

The previous record low of 15 degrees for Valentine’s Day in DFW was broken before the sun even set, the NWS said, and century-old record lows were to be shattered for three nights in a row. The normal high for DFW for Feb. 16 is 61 degrees, the low 40.

Ellis County earlier had a snowfall of a couple of inches on Jan. 9, but the temperatures were nowhere near as hazardous and the frozen stuff disappeared quickly. This time, the snow decided to stick around for a few days.

The snow began falling early Sunday morning and didn’t let up until early Monday, leaving behind from 4 to 6 inches of accumulation, drifts a few feet deep in places, and roads that were nearly impassable. Several trouble spots in the county were shut down because of treacherous ice, including the 8th Street viaduct in Midlothian.

Another round of wintry precipitation was expected on Wednesday, even as temperatures were to “warm” back up into the 20s.

Gov. Greg Abbott declared a first-ever winter disaster for all 254 Texas counties on Sunday as the polar air knifed all the way south to the Rio Grande Valley. President Joe Biden quickly followed with a federal emergency declaration for the state at the request of Texas elected officials.

The boreal blast created so much demand for electricity that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the body that oversees the electric grid in Texas, urged all residents to cut their juice consumption as much as possible. Early Monday, ERCOT authorized rolling blackouts throughout the state, with outages lasting between 15 and 45 minutes. Later in the day, the outage periods were significantly extended, up to several hours at times.

ERCOT blamed the squeeze on the record cold temperatures, frozen wind turbines and limited natural gas available to generating units. ERCOT said almost half of its wind-generating capacity in West Texas was taken offline because of frozen turbines.

Most Ellis County schools were already closed on Monday for the Presidents’ Day holiday. Waxahachie ISD quickly announced school closures through Wednesday due to inclement weather, allowing kids — and teachers too — to sled down hills, build snowmen and enjoy the winter wonder for a couple of extra days.

But not all districts marched to the same frosty drumbeat. Midlothian ISD did not schedule Monday as a holiday and instead pivoted to remote learning for both Monday and Tuesday — perhaps a harbinger that the cherished “snow day” may soon become another indirect casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. MISD did announce that it will cancel all remote learning for this Wednesday and Thursday in light of the power shortages, however.

The mercury in Ellis County won’t peek above freezing again until Friday, with a high of 34. But fortunately, temperatures will climb steadily through the weekend and back into the 60s by next Tuesday, just in time for the typical late-February spring warm-up in the Lone Star State.