Winter storms and record cold temperatures descended upon much of the southern and central U.S. this past week, with contractors in Texas particularly hard hit.
From Dallas to Austin, the weather halted construction including state infrastructure projects and private commercial jobs.
Monte Thurmond, division head for the Texas and South regions at AECOM Hunt, told Construction Dive that it's not only the snow and ice on the ground that makes conditions so dangerous but also the extreme cold, which most Texans are not accustomed to. Thurmond is based in the Dallas area.
"It's unprecedented," he said.
In fact, according to CBS News, there have been at least 17 weather-related deaths in Texas since the storms began, and about 3 million people were without power as of Wednesday morning. Burst pipes and a lack of power at water treatment plants have also put residents at risk. The state is now bracing for a second storm, and several major cities won't see temperatures above freezing until Saturday.
Even without the rolling blackouts, which would make most work at construction sites difficult if not impossible, Thurmond said that the vast majority of AECOM Hunt projects in the state have been temporarily halted, not only because conditions have made many jobsites unsafe, especially where lack of power prevents heating, but also because it's dangerous for workers to be on the road.
The Texas DOT has advised motorists to stay home barring an emergency and has also seen its many infrastructure projects across the state shut down while the bad weather passes through, according to a TxDOT spokesperson. The impacts are spread almost across the entire state, with more significant issues in the northern part of the state, the spokesperson told Construction Dive.
TxDOT projects, the agency said, have built-in allowances for bad weather and, just as when the state experiences a great deal of rain, it expects that work will resume, once conditions allow, with no significant impact to schedules.
Likewise, Thurmond said, AECOM Hunt will work closely with its customers and trade partners to catch up on the schedule wherever necessary. There could be some projects moving forward, like those taking place in interior spaces with uninterrupted power in sections of the state that have milder weather and safe roads, but those would be “few and far between,” he said.
Preparations and precautions
Fortunately for contractors, most construction agreements allow for extensions to the schedule when work shuts down because of such extreme and out-of-the-ordinary weather. Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic has proved itself a sort of training ground for how contractors have been working during the storm.
"Leveraging some of our best practices implemented during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are able to keep our teams managing projects remotely as jobsites and offices are temporarily shut down until conditions improve in a few days," said Matt Hoglund, who is based in Austin and is a regional manager with general contractor DPR Construction.
Before the snow and ice began their trek through the state, Thurmond said, AECOM Hunt winterized its jobsites as best as it could, but it is unknown what workers will be returning to once the temperatures start to rise because it has been unsafe to return to the projects to make sure those measures are still in place. One exception is an employee in Austin who lives within walking distance of one of the company's projects and has been ensuring the integrity of the project when it is safe to do so.
DPR also has emergency measures in place at its projects and does not expect major impacts to its schedule, but, like AECOM Hunt, the priority is the wellbeing of its workers.
“Right now, we’re trying to stay in touch with our employees and make sure they’re safe. That’s what’s most important,” Hoglund said.