LET'S REMINISCE: The Blizzard of 2011

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

Do you remember the blizzard that we experienced here in Texas during February of 2011? I remember that ten years ago we had several days of extreme cold that was made worse by strong winds, but I don’t remember specific details. Since my wife used to be an avid photographer, I’m sure we could dig out some snapshots from that week. But I have more detailed and precise information.

A friend sent me a copy of a more that 200-page government document entitled “Report on Outages and Curtailments During the Southwest Cold Weather Event of February 1-5, 2011.” The title page indicates the authorship: “Prepared by the Staffs of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.” There is also a subtitle: “Causes and Recommendations” and a date of August 2011.

In the wake of our recent crisis with massive interruptions in electric power, the blizzard of 2011 has been cited as a comparable event. Some experts say that officials should have learned from it ways to better prepare our power system for blizzards like the one we just experienced. Here are a few excerpts from that very thorough report.

“A severe arctic cold front hit the central and northeastern United States and southern Canada on February 1, 2011, and lasted for several days. It was dubbed the ‘Groundhog’s Day Blizzard of 2011. The front was not unexpected. About a week prior to the event, long-range forecasts predicted an outbreak of very cold temperatures for the first week of February, with wind, ice, and snow from Texas to Mississippi. Arctic air was expected to extend southward to the Gulf Coast by February 2, bringing daytime highs to as low as 30 degrees below normal. Sustained winds of 20-25 mph, with higher gusts, were also anticipated.”

“Actual weather conditions between February 1 and 5, 2011, turned out to be largely as predicted by the National Weather Service’s long-range forecasts. However, actual temperatures were a few degrees lower than forecasted. In some places, temperatures did not rise above freezing until February 4. Low temperatures in Dallas ranged from 13 degrees to 19 degrees. There is no question that the cold and windy weather during this first week of February was both sustained and severe.”

The report concludes with a section entitled “Key Findings and Recommendations.” One that is outstanding states “The lack of any Official Standards that directly require electricity generators to perform winterization left winter-readiness dependent on plant or corporate choices.” Just as was true in 2021, the lack of winterization was a major problem in 2011. Accordingly, the report recommended that preparation for the winter season should become just as critical as preparation for the summer peak season, and that means Texas and other states in the Southwest should consider enacting legislation to insure that power generators and operators submit and then carry out winterization plans.

The recommendation that the state require power generators to plan for extreme weather was accepted, but there are no mandated state standards. Texas does not penalize power plants that are ill-equipped for severe cold. In fact, The Dallas Morning News found that state utility regulators have issued only three fines ever related to inadequate weather planning by power generators.

The fines, which amounted to just $25,000 in total, were issued for not submitting plans on time — not for failing to properly weatherize equipment. Moreover, it has been reported that when ERCOT (Electricity Reliability Council of Texas) met recently, winterization was a topic on the agenda that occupied less than one minute of the meeting.

There is general agreement that our state’s power generation system was ill prepared for the blizzard that hit Texas in the last week. If lawmakers want to avoid past mistakes, energy experts said, they need to require winterization measures. This will be especially important as climate change means such deep freezes may become more common here.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com