Winter Storm Uri hits US

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Landscape company leaders respond to the snowfall and subzero temperatures from Winter Storm Uri, which hit the U.S. on Feb. 15.
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A LandCare truck plows snow in Nashville during Winter Storm Uri. (Photo: Katie Newbern)

Landscape companies jumped into action in response to Winter Storm Uri, which hit the U.S. on Feb. 15.

The storm brought with it heavy snowfall and subzero temperatures to states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee states that don’t typically see freezing temperatures in February.

Aaron Carter, vice president of customer service for Emerald Lawns, lives in Hutto, Texas, a suburb of Austin. His family of six — he and his wife, 15-year-old twins, a 10-year-old and a 9-year-old — did not realize what the storm had in store for them.

“We went to bed on Sunday ready for the storm. We fully expected everything to be fine the next day and woke up on Monday morning with no power and no water coming into the house. I thought, well, they’ll get everything back up soon,” Carter recalled. “Monday turned into Tuesday, Tuesday turned into Wednesday … finally, it was Friday around 6 p.m. that we got power back in our house.”

Carter has a fireplace in his house, so he moved his family of six from living in a 2,500-square-foot two-story house, into a 400-square-foot living room around the fireplace. Carter hung up sheets and blankets to keep the heat from the fireplace from escaping.

“We were fortunate we had neighbors who had running water so they’d drop off a couple buckets of water every few days,” Carter said. “Between that and melted snow, we were able to keep the toilet flushing.”

Carter said a silver lining of the ordeal was how the community came together. He said he’s known his neighbors for years, but the blackout made them all come closer as they supported one another and each other’s needs.

The Carters were stocked with food, and neighbors helped with water. Firewood was the big concern of Carter’s, and that problem was soon alleviated with the help of his friends.

“I was watching my supply and I thought, ‘Man, I don’t know if I can make it another day,’” Carter said. “We knew some other people in need so we shared our firewood. On Tuesday morning, it was like firewood came down like mana from Heaven. We had friends crawling out of the woodwork dropping off firewood to the point that we started putting it on the corner of the street because we had so much, and other people were in need — we were able to touch six other families who needed firewood.”

Luke Hawthorne, owner, Emerald Lawns in Round Rock, Texas, has lived in Texas his whole life, and said he’s never seen anything like what they just endured. He considers himself lucky — living across from a hospital, he only lost power for three hours. Everyone else he knows, like Carter, lost power anywhere from three days to a week.

“It was surreal, you felt like you were in a movie. You know those end of the world movies where everything freezes? Honestly, that’s what it felt like,” Hawthorne said. “And, it lasted so long. The ice started on Sunday, and it didn’t go away until Friday.”

Emerald Lawns was forced to shut down for the week, Hawthorne said. Now that the storm is passed, he does see a bright side to the lost time.

Mark Hopkins, executive vice president, central division for LandCare, leads a territory covering Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina. When the storm hit, he headed up to the Oklahoma City branch from his home in Texas.

“Our business need was greater there, because the storm was more significant in that area,” he said. “I was actually running a skid-steer for that team — it was all hands on deck.” Hopkins then flew from Oklahoma to Nashville to help the efforts there.

Customers all over his territory have felt the effects of the storm. “We’ve had customers with sprinklers burst in their warehouses, and there’s team members affected by this,” he said. “It’s to be determined what the impact will be from a landscape standpoint.”

He said the plant loss will be significant, adding he recently spoke with a regional vice president who reported that one of his sites in Texas might be dealing with over a quarter of a million dollars of plant loss.

Chris Lee, president of Earthworks in Lillian, Texas, said, “I think (the storm) caught a lot of people off guard, because we’re used to hearing that they’ll be a crazy storm and that it will be bad and all this snow, but it never happens,” Lee said. “They nailed it this time.”

Lee said his company knew it wouldn’t be working on Monday, Feb. 15, and that there were going to be rolling blackouts. The longest span the Lees had without power was 18 or 20 hours.

Over a week later, the Lees are still without hot water, and the plumber estimates it’ll be 2-3 weeks before they get it back. “I can live with that,” Lee said. “So many other people have it so much worse.

“We do a lot of work for multifamily residential, and all the fire sprinklers erupted and exploded. We have one community right now that no one’s living in. All 12 of their buildings are uninhabitable,” he said.

He recounts how a client’s apartment complex caught on fire last week, but the lack of water pressure to fight the fire drew 12 fire trucks to the scene. Half of the property burned down. “You don’t really think about it, but nothing works right,” he said.

When it comes to getting back to business, the company had to consider its people. “Our biggest issue for us is employee safety,” he said. Earthworks uses large rear-wheel drive trucks, and they’re the worst thing you can put out on the road in these snowy conditions, he said.

“(Clients) asked us if we could shovel snow, but we couldn’t, because there was no safe way to get our guys there. Our No. 1 goal is to get our guys home at night,” he said.

It didn’t get above freezing until Friday, but when the roads were safe, crews began to check on client properties and assess the damage.

“We feel certain we’ve lost several varieties of shrubs and succulents, palm trees. There’s a lot of stuff dead and a lot of stuff that won’t come back,” Lee said. “The biggest challenge for us right now is that a lot of our clients are looking at filing massive insurance claims, but they can’t wait until April or May to assess what’s alive and what’s not. We’re trying to get them to numbers that are realistic and accurate without having great info on how this will all play out.”

He thinks Earthworks will be dealing with the aftermath of the storm for the rest of this year and probably a good portion of next year.

The weather in Texas has moved on, however. Lee reported that Dallas had stared to thaw out by the end of the week and over the weekend.

“Monday morning, it’s back to work as normal, and Tuesday, it’s 80 degrees,” he said. “You’d never know what happened last week, unless you look at the plants.”

Abby Hart

Abby Hart

Abby Hart is the former senior editor of Landscape Management. A native Clevelander, she spent 10 years in Chicago, where she was operations manager of a global hospitality consultancy. She also worked as managing editor of Illumine, a health and wellness magazine; and a marketing specialist for B2B publications. Abby has a degree in journalism from Boston University’s College of Communication.

Photo: Seth Jones

Seth Jones

Seth Jones is is editor-in-chief of Landscape Management, Golfdom and Athletic Turf magazines. A graduate of Kansas University’s William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Seth was voted best columnist in the industry in 2014 and 2018 by the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association. He has more than 23 years of experience in the golf and turf industries and has traveled the world seeking great stories.

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