This article is republished with permission from the Breckenridge Texan, a nonprofit news organization founded in 2017. Breckenridge is a city of 9,300 in Stephens County, about 100 miles west of Fort Worth. The Breckenridge Texan currently has eight stories on its homepage describing conditions and community responses to the state’s emergency
This article by Breckenridge Texan Publisher Tony Pilkington uses a time-honored method of front-line local reporting: the ride along. Pilkington conducted his ride-along with Stephens County Judge Michael Roach on February 15. In Texas, the county judge is the presiding officer of the county commissioners and has broad administrative responsibilities, including emergency management. The Breckenridge Texan published this article on February 18.
For Stephens County Judge Michael Roach, the winter storm that has gripped Breckenridge and Stephens County, along with the entire state of Texas, for the past week has been the largest crisis he’s had to face during his two years in office.
On Monday, he was deep in the middle of it, sitting in the county’s silver Ford F-150 double-cab, four-wheel drive pick-up truck that he had converted into his Mobile Emergency Control Center. As he drove through snow-packed roads in the city and county, he fielded phone calls, monitored emergency radio traffic, coordinated rescue operations and made snap decisions on the fly as one mini-crisis after another popped up.
At times, the judge stopped on the side of the road and juggled cell phone calls with conversations on the emergency radio, where he’s known as “CJ-1.” There was rarely a time when he wasn’t talking to someone, coordinating something.
Late Monday afternoon, he pulled into The Lighthouse Church on East Walker Street, where he also serves as pastor. All day Monday, the church served as a warming center for residents in the city and county who needed a place to stay warm. Volunteers from across the community turned out at the church to help cook and serve the food, provide people with rides to the center and just help out in many different ways.
Throughout the winter storm, the Lighthouse Church never lost electric power or water. The church is located on the eastern edge of Breckenridge, and Roach surmised that the continued power could be due to its proximity to the local nursing home. Some of the power outages in the city and county were due to damages to the lines, while others were due to the planned outages that the power companies were ordered to implement to lessen the load on the state’s power grid. The planned outages were controllable, and places like hospitals and nursing homes were spared.
Roach was there to pick up the last person at the center, an older gentleman who needed to be taken from the church to the Regency Motel, where he would be put up for the night because his home didn’t have any electricity or heat. It was just one of the many transfers Roach would make that day and had made the day and night before.
Once he had dropped the man at the motel, the county judge headed to the Stephens County Law Enforcement Center to meet a local businessman who wanted to help out. In the parking lot, the man, who wanted to remain anonymous, gave Roach $2,000 in United Supermarket gift cards he had purchased to give out to people displaced by the storm and $1,000 in cash that could be used to purchase other items anyone might need, such as propane.
Throughout the afternoon as Roach traveled from destination to destination, he never stopped fielding a never-ending stream of phone calls, responding to the police dispatcher on his truck radio, checking text messages and occasionally taking a minute to shoot a photo of some unusual snow scene to post on the county’s Facebook page.
In a matter of minutes, he answered a wide range of calls that ranged from quick chats with law enforcement officials, like his brother, Stephens County Sheriff Kevin Roach, and Breckenridge Police Chief Bacel Cantrell, to an in-depth conversation with an Oncor electric company official. He was trying to find out what the situation was with the power outages, when the county and city might expect to get power back and how rolling blackouts would affect the area. He also talked with his wife, Cori, as they coordinated plans to provide a meal at the church that evening for all the people who had been staying at the local motels because their homes didn’t have power or heat.
There was lots of planning that had to be done with hundreds of little details that couldn’t afford to fall through the cracks. There were lots of questions. For example, a congressman’s office called the police chief and sheriff wanting to know what kind of support his office could provide. Then there was the coordinating of a bus to transport the people to and from the motels and finding a volunteer to drive it.
After his call with the Oncor representative, Roach knew the power outage could become more wide-spread or last a long time, possibly even for days. So, he started making calls to coordinate an overnight shelter at the Breckenridge High School gym in case they needed it.
All the while, the Judge, like the Chief of Police, the Sheriff and countless first responders, police officers, sheriff deputies, firefighters, emergency workers and volunteers, was working on very little sleep. He said he had only had about three hours of sleep after spending Sunday and Sunday night transporting residents to local motels and warm places to stay and making countless trips throughout the city and county checking on residents to find out if they were OK. Roach and the others were making sure local residents had power and heat, water and food. And, then, with the threat of more long-term power outages, they were looking to do it all over again.
Why He Does It
When asked what keeps him going, his answer was simple: because it’s the right thing to do. “What I’ve done isn’t any less or more significant than what a whole bunch of other people in our community have done. Or what a decent human being would do,” Roach said. “So the motivation behind that is just what I believe is doing the right thing.”
He also credited his church upbringing, his role as pastor of his church and following the teachings of the Golden Rule. “Now, I don’t try to shove this down anybody’s throat, but I embrace the Judeo-Christian ethic … that’s a desire to treat others as I want to be treated myself, some people call it the golden rule, or Jesus certainly said that.”
Roach also sees emergency management as his duty from when he was sworn into office. “I raised my hand and took an oath,” he said. “And I promised the people that I would do this job to the best of my ability. And I think in a situation like this, you can’t just turn a blind eye, so to speak, and (say) it’s somebody else’s job. And the people who elected me said, ‘Hey, we want you to do this job.’ And I knew going in that this was part of it.”
He said Stephens County Deputy Sheriff Bill Flournoy has been the Emergency Management Coordinator for a long time and is still in that position. “He and I tag team a lot. Of course, I lead the charge there because law enforcement’s stretched so thin, and Bill has a lot of other duties,” he explained.
Pushing Things to the Limit
Roach said Stephens County is a self-reliant community with very resilient people, but the overwhelming magnitude of this storm has really pushed many to the limit and that’s why the emergency efforts have been so important.
“I think everybody has their breaking point. And certainly this has shown that,” he said.
For example, during the first night of the power outage, only one person showed up at the warming center they had set up at the high school gym because many people just tried to ride it out at home. But by the next morning, dozens showed up at The Lighthouse Church to get warm and eat meals.
“I think a lot of them, especially that first night, where we only had one at the shelter, it was definitely that, where … people were going, ‘OK, you know, we’re gonna sit here and tough this out, and not going to ask for help or go anywhere’ and that kind of a thing. So it definitely went on. But as the hours progressed, and the situation grew more dire, then it really became unlivable for a number of people.”
Cori Roach, who was coordinating much of the work at the Lighthouse Church, said people of all ages showed up at the shelter to get warm. One concern many people had was their pets, she said. The church was able to take in people with small dogs.
The Community Stepping Up
Roach said without help from community volunteers and the dedication of people like the local first responders and city and county workers, the situation would be much worse. He said because the storm was so wide-spread, state resources were stretched to their limits and each community had to pull together and find solutions.
He said Stephens County’s most important resource was “boots on the ground,” which required many departments in the city and county to cross over and perform duties they normally weren’t responsible for. Also, many members of the community, organizations and churches stepped up to help out.
“You had folks who were throwing in and helping do a variety of things and whatever needed to be done,” he said.
The teamwork included everyone from law enforcement officers who went out and picked up residents and delivered them to shelters to private citizens who just showed up with food and said, “You know what, I want to help, and I’m bringing food,” Roach said.
He said people from all over the community and members of many of the different churches also came out to help. They brought food, made donations, cooked at the shelters, helped set up cots for people to sleep on and transported supplies and people to the shelters. Despite being shut down because of the power outage, United Supermarket opened up and provided breakfast food for the people at the shelter.
“You go look at the church right now, and you’ll see a bunch of empty pans (in which people had cooked and delivered food to the shelter) and they’ll say this person’s name, that person’s name, and I never asked any of those people to do anything. Nobody did,” he said.
Later Monday evening, after the Lighthouse Church shelter had been closed for the evening, more bad news came in: the power had gone out at the high school gym, which they had planned to use as a shelter, if necessary.
With no gym to use for a shelter, the County Judge and the Sheriff started working on their next option, using the Stephens County Ag Center as a shelter. But, acknowledging that it was less than an ideal location, they hoped they wouldn’t need to shelter anyone there and that they’d able to handle the number of people needing a place to sleep by continuing to put them up the two local motels.
Meanwhile, with the help of church members and other volunteers, the Lighthouse Church reopened as a warming center and served dinner to anybody in the community who wanted a place to warm up and have a hot bowl of stew.
But, once again, the situation got worse: the power went out at both motels. So, residents who had been at the motels needed to be bused to the Lighthouse Church to wait out the power outage that everyone hoped would end within a few hours.
At the same time, the police department’s dispatch center was starting get calls from other residents whose power was out. They needed rides to the shelter to warm up. It was getting dark, and more and more people were without electricity and heat. The roads were still in bad shape with many only passable with four-wheel drive vehicles.
Once again, an army of volunteers and first responders began to go around the community and pick up many residents who needed rides to the Lighthouse Church. Some families showed up to wait out the power outage in a warm place and to get something to eat.
Roach took a call from dispatch on his radio to pick up three older people on Parks Street who needed a ride, and he headed their way. Before long, around 80 people had showed up at the church and a dozen or more volunteers were there to help out.
Inside the warm church, a few people slept or relaxed on cots, others put their heads down on the tables and rested. One family sat on cots next to each other with the kids playing games on the phones to pass the time. Others read books or played cards, and some just sat at the tables talking.
Outside, it was bitterly cold. It was 9:36 p.m. and the temperature on the church’s lighted sign showed to be just 3 degrees.
As the evening wore on and it began to get late, the power was still out at the motels. The volunteers at the church began to make plans and preparations for the people in the church to spend the night.
Into the Darkness
Meanwhile, the judge was back in his pickup, heading west on Walker Street to check out the power situation. As he headed into downtown, things looked normal. The street lights were lit and the businesses had lights on in the windows. But when he crossed Rose Street, Roach drove into pitch black darkness. There were no street lights, no lights on in the businesses, no lights in the surrounding neighborhood, just total darkness.
As he continued west on Walker Street toward Walmart, most of the area was completely dark, including Walmart. A few places had some light, but mostly it was darkness.
Roach then headed to the Law Enforcement Center and checked in with the dispatch center, which was the heart of the Emergency Management efforts that had been going on for the past couple of days. While there, dispatchers fielded calls ranging from concerned family members requesting welfare checks on people in their homes to requests for rides to the shelter. They also continued to handle the normal day-to-day police, fire and ambulance 911 calls.
One of the dispatchers told him they had received a call from two people whose power was out and they needed a place to stay. But they both had Covid-19, so the dispatchers needed to know how to handle the situation.
After some phone calls, Roach was able to arrange for them to stay in a room in Stephens Memorial Hospital’s Covid-19 wing and to get them transported there by ambulance.
Before long, Roach was back on Walker Street again, heading west toward Hubbard Creek Lake. This time, he was responding to call about a woman who lived out in the rural area and was on oxygen. Her generator had run out of gas, and she couldn’t get outside to restart it. Roach made his way through the snow covered roads to her dark house. Then, using the flashlight on his cell phone, he found the generator and two cans of gas nearby, filled up the generator and got it started again. The resident briefly stepped outside and introduced herself and thanked him.
With the lights back on, Roach got back on the road and headed into town and the shelter. On his way in, he stopped at the Stephens County Courthouse to help volunteers load more cots into vehicles to take over to the shelter.
A little while later, after taking a break at the shelter to eat, the judge was back on Walker Street, going toward the lake again to give a man a ride to his house, where the power had come back on.
At 12:03 a.m., as Roach was getting ready to wrap up his night, the thermometer on the church’s sign showed a temperature of 1 degree below zero. A little while later, he would head home for a few hours of sleep, but like many of the volunteers he would be back up at the church a few hours later at 7 a.m. to help out at breakfast time.
Roach said coordinating the emergency efforts for the county has been a daunting task and that he couldn’t have done it without the help and dedication of the all the city and county employees, first responders and community volunteers.
On one of his final trips of the night, Roach drove west on Walker Street, sipping on a Monster energy drink, and reflected on the events that had transpired. “We’ve said this a lot. We say in emergency management meetings, that teamwork makes the dream work,” he said. “And I think it’s everybody else that kind of keeps you going. If all the weight was on your shoulders – one person’s shoulders – you’d probably fall over in a ditch somewhere and say, ‘Nobody else cares, forget it.’ But if you look at that shelter tonight, and all day long today, from bus drivers…law enforcement…people coming there to cook and a wide variety of folks showing up and saying, ‘Hey, let’s make a difference.’ You’re not in this by yourself; they help share the load, and that makes you want to keep going on, you know, get up and say ‘Let’s do it all again tomorrow.’”
Rest of the Week
And, he did get up and do it all over again the next day. The electricity and water outages continued for most of Tuesday and Wednesday for at least some Stephens County residents.
On those days, Roach continued coordinating with first responders and volunteers to check on residents, provide supplies such as firewood and water, set up community meals, provide hot showers and more.
By Thursday, many homes in the county had electric power and water restored. But, the judge has little time to rest. The county courthouse, like many homes in the area, suffered damage to the water pipes during the freeze.
Roach is busy, once again, coordinating plumbers and others to repair the situation.
Tony Pilkington is publisher of the Breckenridge Texan.