By Michelle Iracheta
Published 4:26 pm, Monday, January 22, 2018
In just two days-the coldest days on record this winter-officials with The Woodlands Joint Powers Agency received nearly 1,700 water-related calls from residents. The calls last week were more than triple the number of calls during a normal week, officials said.
The cold winter snap last week brought temperatures down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit or lower in some areas, breaking records previously set in the 1960s and 1970s, according to the National Weather Service. It also created dangerous, icy road conditions for drivers and an unusual amount of snowfall for the region.
For hundreds of homeowners across villages in The Woodlands that meant frozen or busted pipes and no running water.
James Stinson, general manager of the WJPA, said the agency received more calls on Jan. 17 and 18 during the winter storm than during any other weather-related emergency, including Hurricane Harvey, which wreaked havoc on Texas last August causing hundreds of homes in the area to flood.
"I don't recall any event where we have had this many calls and I have been here over 20 years," Stinson said. "This far exceeded all the number of calls coming into our switchboard in the past. Harvey was a horrible event and we had quite a few homes that flooded, but in this case we literally had hundreds of properties that were needing some help."
While it's true that the extent of damage caused by Harvey is unprecedented, a greater number of customers called in during the cold snap in need of assistance, Stinson added.
Altogether, Stinson said field representatives with the WJPA completed 416 water-related work orders-about eight times the normal volume. Administration staff also answered roughly 1,696 calls in those two days alone.
On Tuesday morning, Jan. 16, the agency encouraged most of its employees to go home before the freezing temperatures made highways and overpasses dangerous, Stinson said. That left about five office and one on-call employee to handle the influx of calls that began to trickle in Tuesday.
By Wednesday, Jan. 17, the switchboard was overloaded, he said.
"The phone was literally ringing every minute, constantly with customers," he said. "We know that all the calls were not getting through. Our system was overloaded and many residents were unable to get through."
Stinson said he recognized that as a huge problem, and he said the agency would be looking at potential ways to ensure residents are able to get through to staff during future emergencies no matter how many calls come into the switchboard.
Of the calls that did make it through, the majority were related to homeowners complaining of no running water or broken or frozen pipes, Stinson said.
"Water was not flowing, so they would turn on the tap and nothing would come out," he said. "Many assume that to be a problem with the delivery of the water but in fact it was just the water to that individual home was frozen."
With all eight customer service field employees reporting to the work on Jan. 17, the agency handled and responded to calls through Wednesday night and early Thursday morning, Jan. 18, Stinson said.
When a false rumor began to circulate that the main pipes that supplied water to The Woodlands had burst leaving homeowners without running water, Stinson said his staff of a handful of employees worked diligently to quash it.
"That was incorrect," Stinson said. "The problem was that many homes had frozen pipes in the attic or in an outside service line where the water to the home was frozen. The public system was flowing but just the service line was frozen in the house or in an exposed pipe outside the home."
There are several ways to avoid having to repair a busted pipe or expensive water damage to home, including knowing where the main water shut off valve is and making sure any pipes outside a home are well insulated, Stinson said.
Overall, Stinson said he is proud of his staff who kept working through the hectic and challenging time.
"I'm proud of their commitment to deliver excellent service," he said.