EL PASO — The Sun City came to a complete standstill for a week when it was blind-sided by the worst winter storm in a decade, which cut off electricity and shut down the water systems.
The bitter wintry weather hit this high-desert city of nearly a million persons Feb. 1, a Tuesday night, as El Pasoans were going to bed. They woke up to three inches of snow in some areas of the city and temperatures well below freezing. What looked at first like a snow-day turned out to be a snow-week, leaving El Paso schools and businesses closed for several days.
Freezing weather led to a voluntary curfew in the first few days of the wintry blast for safety reasons. Electricity and gas-line failures followed, which later led to water shortages.
The city known for its mild winters was in a deep-freeze crisis.
El Pasoans were asked to stay home the first few days due to icy roads and single-digit temperatures that caused accidents around the city. El Paso Electric lost two power plant generators, leaving the city with a power shortage that caused residents to limit their electricity use. Rolling blackouts of 30 to 60 minutes were also imposed on the city at anytime, leaving some families with no heat.
People left their freezing homes seeking the warmth of city shelters around town. The main shelter was located in the El Paso Convention Center. “We were not only housing those without services, but homeless people and those stranded from other cities as well,” said Freddy Martinez, Disaster Services Manager of the American Red Cross of El Paso.
“People come here because we have the resources, but people don’t realize we also have to pay for them. People can donate at our website and can also take classes to become volunteers, because we need those resources,” Martinez said.
Residents from all over the city took refuge at the Convention Center. They were given food and drinks, and even televisions were set up to keep them entertained.
“We had no water or electricity at home, which made us resort to this,” said Shantal Saud, 18, an El Paso student staying at the Convention Center.
“I found out through friends about the shelter, since our television wasn’t working. Its great here,” Saud said.
The Red Cross rescued persons stranded in their houses. They also moved persons from shelters that closed because they didn’t draw enough clients.
“People are getting scared now and realize they should have prepared for this sooner. They can go to our website to learn safety tips not only for the winter but also for the summer,” Martinez said at the time.
After the winter storm caused several water lines to break, the city’s reservoirs’ water levels dropped and water restrictions were imposed, prompting Mayor John Cook to declare a water emergency even as the city warmed up. Laundromats and car washes were asked to close down and El Paso Water Utilities also asked schools to remain closed for several days.
“I thought we were going back to school after having so many days off but it just did not happen,” Georgia Rodriguez, a University of Texas a El Paso student said. Along with UTEP, El Paso’s three main school districts and the El Paso Community College, all complied with the El Paso Water Utilities request and remained closed.
Businesses and schools reopened Tuesday, Feb. 8, after water restrictions were lifted.
Some are still dealing with the aftermath of the winter storm but El Paso seems to be getting back into step. “This weather really messed up our school schedule and basically the whole city, but nobody can be prepared for this,” Rodriguez said.