Surprise snowstorm in Austin brings havoc and joy

5:29 p.m Friday, Dec. 8, 2017 Local
Ralph Barrera
Samuel Watsham, 12, plays in the snow-covered fields of Circle C Metro Park on Friday morning enjoying a free day from school after an unexpected snowfall blanketed Central Texas and the Austin area. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Ashley Gaytan was working at Big Rob’s Burger in Kyle when her husband called Thursday.

“Are you seeing this?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered. “What am I supposed to be seeing?”

Snow. Big, fat, white snowflakes. Gaytan, who moved with her family from New Mexico to Austin earlier this year, didn’t think she’d ever see snow in Central Texas. But when she did, it delighted her.

“I just kind of stood outside in it,” Gaytan said. “I think this is my welcome to Texas.”

It came in flakes and then in flurries. At first it melted in the air and then on the ground. Then it began to stick. A dusting became a tenth of an inch, which grew to a fifth and then half of an inch.

By Friday morning in the small Bastrop County town of Rosanky, 4.5 inches of snow had fallen; Kyle measured 3 inches; and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport recorded its first measurable snowfall in almost seven years, clocking 1.3 inches.

PHOTOS: Central Texans share their snow pix

School districts and universities across the area — including the Austin school district and the University of Texas — canceled or delayed classes.

Authorities shut down a miles-long stretch of MoPac Boulevard in South Austin after ice turned the usually traffic-clogged freeway treacherous.

The accumulations tapered off farther north. Camp Mabry reported receiving 0.4 inches, while Georgetown measured just 0.1 inches.

From Austin, the storm stretched south and east, spanning nearly the entire length of the Texas coast.

Just under 2 inches fell at San Antonio’s major airport. A Corpus Christi TV station, KIII-TV, posted a photo showing block after block of that seaside city blanketed by snow. Even residents of famously hot and humid Houston woke up to icy roads and a dusting of the white stuff.

“Something like this would be pretty rare, maybe every 20 years,” said Cory Van Pelt, a National Weather Service meteorologist who described it as the biggest snowstorm to hit Central and South Texas since 1985’s record-setter.

WATCH: Bastrop blanketed in snow

It hit metro Austin with little warning. On Monday, the high hit a record-setting 85 degrees at Austin-Bergstrom. As early as Tuesday, meteorologists with the National Weather Service had advised that snow could fall in the Hill Country and Travis County’s highest elevations, but few thought snow would fall all across the city — and the state.

“The amounts, we really didn’t see coming,” Van Pelt said. “A situation like last night really doesn’t happen here very often.”

Van Pelt explained that unlike up north, it’s extremely rare for all of the conditions needed to produce snow to come together here: first, Austin is far enough south that the air temperature is rarely cold enough for snow to reach the ground; second, when temperatures drop that low, it’s typically because of cold air sinking in behind storms — after the rain has stopped.

It’s virtually unheard of, he said, to get a steady stream of moisture and storms from the Pacific layered on top of chilly air from the north, which arrived via Tuesday’s cold front.

Austin’s Public Works Department began preparing for a possible snowstorm Tuesday, as employees checked trucks and sand spreaders to make sure everything was in working order.

By the time the snow started falling Thursday afternoon, the Public Works Department had units across the city ready to respond.

“It was pretty minimal, what we put down,” said Molly Ritter, who oversees city streets and bridges. “For us, it was pretty uneventful.”

Staffers began checking street temperatures overnight and the city’s response peaked during the morning rush, when it had four trucks checking known trouble spots around the city.

Ritter added, “We were prepared for a much larger event, and luckily we didn’t have it.”

Elsewhere, the rare snowfall wreaked some havoc. At Austin-Bergstrom, more than 130 flights were delayed or canceled Thursday, up from just 30 on Wednesday.

Out on MoPac, Austin police reported at least eight wrecks by 7:30 a.m. near the freeway’s interchange with Loop 360. Eventually, the ice forced authorities to shut down a seven-mile stretch of MoPac, from Loop 360 all the way to Texas 45 for two hours.

But amid the travel and commuting misery on Thursday and Friday, there was unbridled joy.

Lori Medeiros was alarmed when she heard her husband call to her from outside, but she quickly discovered something extraordinary was happening.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s snowing,’” she said. “There was so much snow. Big fluffy snow. Not ice or sleet. It was legit snow.”

Her 2-year-old son Benjamin was bewildered, then excited. They made snowballs and wrote in the snow.

“He was like ‘What the heck is this?’ and he loved it,” she said.

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