Weather ices out some businesses

Marice Richter

Business Press Correspondent

As icy roads thaw and daily life returns to normal, memories of the early December arctic blast won’t soon be forgotten by retailers and other businesses that took a hit from the frigid weather. Grocery stores shelves were depleted, deliveries were delayed, shopping mall parking lots were largely empty and marquee public events aimed at raising money for charity were cancelled.

Quantifying the cost of the ice storm in lost business is difficult but the insurance industry expects millions of dollars in property claims. “It hit us very hard and fast,” said Mark Fox, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. “It wasn’t as bad as the 2011 storm during Super Bowl week or the storm in 1979 but it was bad.” Fort Worth and Tarrant County were among the hardest hit parts of the Dallas-Fort Worth area with ice accumulations ranging from one to three inches and four inches in areas northwest of Fort Worth.

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The prolonged frigid conditions, which were expected to keep temperatures dipping below freezing at night for more than a week, continued to wreak havoc on area roads, Fox said. Grocery stores felt the pinch of delivery woes when supplies dwindled and some shelves were empty. “We tried to get as prepared as possible,” said Gary Huddleston, regional director of consumer affairs for Kroger. “We did tremendous sales before the storm because of the strong threat of ice.” For two days after the storm, Kroger stores struggled “with issues of deliveries and associates getting to work.” But with its distribution center in Keller, Kroger was able to recoup and refill its store shelves quickly. “We still had delivery challenges with our vendors like Coke and Pepsi and Frito Lay but we were mostly doing fine,” he said.

In fact, sales picked up on Sunday, Dec. 8, three days after the storm hit, as customers began venturing out, he said. The situation was similar at area shopping centers, where some stores were closed or operations curtailed because employees were unable to get to work and customers heeded warnings not to venture out on icy roads. Debi Martinez, spokeswoman for Hulen and The Parks at Arlington malls, said mall hours were shortened and traffic was extremely light during the first two days after the storm. But by Dec. 8, as the roads began to clear, shoppers started returning. On Monday, Dec. 9, with most area schools still closed, business was brisk. Retail sales figures won’t be available until January but sales of Santa Claus photos provided a barometer that shoppers were eager – and willing – to get out, Martinez said. “Our Santa photo sales on Monday [Dec. 9] were higher than a year ago,” she said. “It’s Christmastime and people are going to get out and shop.”

Steve Forsberg, a spokesman for BNSF Railway, said the railroad continued to operate its trains throughout the storm. “We do have challenges in extreme cold and extreme heat,” he said. “We operate in 28 states and two Canadian provinces so we are accustomed to operating in winter weather.” However, trucking operators were hobbled by the icy roads, costing time and money. “The end result for Blakeman Transportation was a two-day loss of normal business activity,” said Greg DeYoung, a spokesman for the Fort Worth-based trucking company. “A two-day loss of business at this time of year costs Blakeman an estimated $150,000.”

The firm and others placed blame on the Texas Department of Transportation for failing to clear roads efficiently. “We feel the biggest issue preventing Blakeman Transportation from operating effectively through the storm was the lack of preparation by the Texas Department of Transportation to keep the roads clear and safe for travel,” DeYoung said. “We saw very little effort to prepare for the storm and as the storm moved through our area, the lack of effort persisted.” Val Lopez, a spokesman for TxDOT in Fort Worth, said TxDOT did all it could to clear the ice. “We got a lot more than the one to two inches that was predicted,” Lopez said. “We got three, four and more inches in some spots of solid ice. “We worked 24/7 to clear the ice but we have 20,000 lane miles of highways to deal with in our district, and that is a lot to keep up with.”

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The department brought in equipment and employees from as far away as Corpus Christi to help with the road operations. The frigid temperatures and roller-coaster pattern of thawing and refreezing kept road crews on high alert for more than a week, he said. “We need to see more sunshine and temperatures remaining above freezing to clear it all out,” he said. While the icy roads led to numerous traffic accidents, an equally big headache for insurers will likely be homeowner claims, according to Mark Hanna, spokesman for the Austin-based Insurance Council of Texas, which represents 500 insurance agencies in Texas. The financial toll is “too early to tell,” but he estimated it would be in the multimillions of dollars.

“There have been tree limbs falling on houses, carports caving in, and that doesn’t include all the water pipes that were frozen and broke,” Hanna said. “We’ll learn more about the frozen pipes when temperatures rise above freezing. That’s when we will see how big a problem it was.”

The ice storm during Super Bowl week in February 2011 was regarded as worse because below-freezing temperatures persisted longer and ice and snow accumulations were higher, according to the National Weather Service.

The 2011 storm cost millions is lost revenue from canceled or postponed Super Bowl-related events. This time, there were many canceled Christmas-related events, including the MetroPCS Dallas Marathon and the Jingle Bell Run in Fort Worth, but the impact doesn’t add up to the Super Bowl losses, officials said.

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Nevertheless, this storm’s effects will continue to reverberate for a while, officials said.

“The worst part about it may be that it isn’t even winter yet,” said Fox of the National Weather Service. But the good news: above average temperatures are predicted for the winter.