Houston is on track today to break a record with the earliest snowfall ever recorded in the city’s history.
Forecasters are still hedging their bets, but say the most likely scenario is 1 to 2 inches of widespread snowfall beginning this afternoon.
Some areas could get up to a half a foot.
But emergency management officials say snow isn’t the biggest concern — it’s icy roads. A 12-hour freeze period is expected to begin after sundown today, continuing into Saturday, which could cause hazardous driving conditions.
A freeze warning has been issued for more than 20 Texas counties, including the coastal counties of Chambers, Galveston, Brazoria, Matagorda and Jackson, extending northward through Harris, Montgomery, Fort Bend, Wharton and Liberty counties, then stretching as far northwest as the cities of Bryan and College Station and as far northeast as Trinity and Polk counties.
“Even though we can’t say for sure this weather event is going to occur, we can definitely say our confidence has increased substantially compared to three or four days ago,” said Fred Schmude, a meteorologist with ImpactWeather, a private, Houston-based forecasting service.
As of 5:30 a.m., the moisture that will set the stage was approaching as expected from the southwest, but not quite in the Houston area yet.
There’s a 60 percent chance of precipitation this morning increasing to nearly 100 percent this afternoon. It may start as light rain and mixed sleet during the morning commute.
That should quickly change to a mixture of sleet and snow by mid-morning. By noon, the precipitation is expected to convert entirely to snow as temperatures hit the low- to mid-30s, Schmude said. Indications are that the heaviest precipitation will fall near the coast.
Icy roads after dark
Widespread light to moderate snow is forecast through the afternoon, with pockets of heavier snow possible in some areas.
The forecast has caused the National Weather Service to call for a winter storm warning until 8 p.m. for much of southeast Texas, including the immediate eight-county Houston area and areas to the north and northeast.
The snowfall should gradually decrease after 5 p.m. as the storm system moves eastward, setting the stage for icy roads after dark and a freezing night during which temperatures will dip into the upper 20s.
A National Weather Service advisory said there is “a growing consensus” that the heaviest snow will fall along and east of U.S. 59. Most snow accumulations will be on grassy and elevated surfaces, the advisory said.
The icy roads and hazardous driving conditions are the most treacherous factors on officials’ minds. The city of Houston, Harris County and Houston Airport System all have sand trucks ready to coat freezing roads and runways.
Even so, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett suggested employers use “good common sense” and consider sending workers home early today.
“If it doesn’t snow, it could still be a really bad event from our point of view,” Emmett said Thursday. “I don’t just want the public, if it doesn’t snow, to think, ‘Ah, everything’s OK.’ Because, in fact, it could be worse.”
Harris County Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Sloan agreed that driving today could be risky.
“We could have bad road conditions in the afternoon just based on wind and snowfall,” Sloan said. “Prepare for a slow drive home and take the appropriate precautions and be patient. Think holidays while you’re driving.”
Could be worse tomorrow
Road conditions could be even worse by the time people wake up Saturday morning after the hard freeze overnight. But by Saturday afternoon, all precipitation should melt away under mostly sunny skies with highs reaching the upper 40s.
The city of Houston’s Public Works Department has loaded six trucks with sand and chat rock, which will be used to coat city streets and overpasses that become covered with ice. Several thousand tons of the material are available, and crews will be on standby tonight, using police, fire department and ambulance reports to determine which roads to coat, as well as reports from motorists who call 311 to report icy streets.
The state highway department also will spray an anti-icing solution on various bridges and overpasses throughout Harris, Montgomery, Waller, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties. Harris County also has sand trucks ready to go, with the Fred Hartman bridge leading into Baytown to be treated today.
Emmett said some toll roads may be closed entirely once the freeze begins tonight.
“The toll roads are really our biggest concern in the sense of bridges and overpasses,” Emmett said. “We build these very high, dramatic flyovers in this part of the state, because we know we don’t freeze very often. But when they freeze, it’s really bad.”
The Houston Airport System is also prepared, with sand trucks and chemical trucks on standby to fight the ice. While the inclement weather could delay or cancel some flights, travelers should call 281-230-7000 to use the airport system’s real-time automated service to check the status of their flights. Travelers can also check the airport system’s Web site at www.fly2houston.com.
Airport officials are less worried about runways icing over than they are the roads because the runways are made of very thick concrete, which would require at least three days of subfreezing temperatures for icy conditions to form there, said Frank Haley, the airport system’s interim chief operating officer.
“We’re not expecting that kind of event here in Houston,” Haley said. “We’re looking at very minimal impact, we believe.
“Although it is an unusual event in Houston … we are completely prepared. We are completely ready for this,” Haley added.
Aircraft pilots also will forward their braking reports to officials after they land their planes, which will help the city and air carriers keep tabs on whether hazardous conditions develop.
Continental Airlines said customers scheduled for flights to affected airports today through Sunday will have a one-time option to change their itinerary without penalty as long as they plan to travel no later than Dec. 20. Refunds may be requested for canceled Continental flights.
During the brutal cold snap, the Star of Hope’s Men’s Center will open floor space for up to 200 additional homeless men, even though the center is already near capacity right now, with almost all of its 300 beds taken.
Floor space also will be offered at Star of Hope’s Women and Family Emergency Shelter to those seeking refuge, though that center is also near capacity.
The Star of Hope’s “Love In Action” van will also go around the city in the morning so staff and volunteers can hand out blankets and coats in areas frequented by the city’s homeless.
Houston Independent School District schools will hold classes today since hazardous road conditions are not expected to be a problem in the morning. HISD officials will monitor weather conditions throughout the day in case school closures become necessary, but said afternoon bus rides home should not be affected if just a light amount of snow falls. South Texas College of Law will be closed today, with tonight’s final exams to be rescheduled for Dec. 13. The law school will resume normal operations on Saturday if weather permits.