Before the record-setting freezing weather that blanketed the state last week, the last time Norman saw temperatures this cold was in 1905, when Cleveland County recorded temperatures as low as -12 degrees.
As an unusual burst of arctic air forced its way through the American heartland all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, Norman again saw temperatures as low as -12 degrees on Tuesday as Oklahoma City recorded a record-breaking -14 degrees at Will Rogers World Airport, according to the National Weather Service.
“As far as records go back, these are the coldest air temperatures we’ve reported in Norman or Oklahoma City since statehood,” said NWS meteorologist Doug Speheger. “This is very cold air and weather that we’ve not experienced here in Oklahoma for a very long time.”
Record-breaking temperatures continued Friday, with an early morning low of 3 degrees, breaking the previous 7-degree record, according to NWS meteorologist Erin Maxwell.
Speheger said Friday’s temperature also represented the 11th day straight the city had experienced subzero temperatures, the third-longest stretch where the city did not go above freezing since a 13-day run in December 1983 and a 12-day run in late February and early March of 1960.
“We have been hitting records both for the extreme and the duration of these temperatures,” Speheger said.
These record-low temperatures have not only proved inhospitable, but have caused damage to water pipes throughout the city. Subfreezing temperatures caused a pipe to burst Thursday at Norman’s Water Treatment Plant, and while the pipe was fixed late Thursday, the City of Norman continued to urge residents to take water conservation efforts following the breakage.
“First we dealt with snow removal and rolling power outages, and now we are dealing with issues at our water treatment plant which will affect our water supply,” said Norman Mayor Breea Clark. “Any support we can get from the state and federal government will be greatly appreciated and can’t come soon enough.”
City Utilities Director Chris Mattingly said that the city had multiple reports of residential pipes bursting due to the freezing weather, as well as businesses sustaining water damage from pipes bursting in water prevention systems.
Mattingly also said that some unexpected results from the historic temperatures included a disruption in some city operations after freezing temperatures caused diesel engine mixtures to begin to “gel up.”
“Because we’re not from up north where they deal with these temperatures all the time, we don’t regularly add antifreeze to the diesel to keep them from freezing up,” Mattingly said. “This cold snap got us and those diesels gelling up caused some problems.”
While Oklahoma did see record-breaking frigid conditions, the overall impact the historic winter storm had on the state’s energy grid was nowhere near as critical as in neighboring states like Texas, where an energy grid crisis has left millions of Texans without energy or heat.
Kenneth Wagner, Oklahoma’s secretary of Energy and the Environment, said now that the likelihood of blackouts and other human safety factors were significantly reduced, the state’s biggest concern is mitigating higher utility bills as a result of spikes in gas costs and significant increases in usage.
“I think our grid performed really well under these historic conditions, and while it’s the first time in history that the Southwest Power Pool has issued controlled interruptions, we shared those with 14 other states,” Wagner said. “Even with such historic arctic temperatures, we never saw human health really in jeopardy in Oklahoma and, from that perspective, we’re thankful.”
Contrasting Oklahoma’s situation with Texas, Wagner said that the biggest reason he believes the Sooner State fared better was because of its incorporation in the Southwest Power Pool.
A nonprofit corporation that manages the electric grids and wholesale power market for all of Oklahoma and Kansas as well as portions of New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Iowa, Wyoming and Nebraska, the SPP provides a safety net mechanism where other states in the pool can provide energy to states affected by outages and other energy crises.
Meanwhile in Texas, nearly 75 percent of the state’s energy grid is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. With no external support systems, Texas finds itself in a very different situation, Wagner said.
“It’s really Texas going it alone, whereas we have a 14-state balancing area that mitigates that same risk,” Wagner said. “When we might be having issues, we can look to our neighbors to the north who can provide us relief.”
Moving forward, Wagner said the state is focusing on how to lessen the cost impact on residents and local businesses who are blameless for the cost of energy and the adverse impacts from the weather.
He also added that another important concern for Oklahomans moving forward is to ensure they are taking precautions to boil their water after any service disruptions.
“If Oklahomans find that their water service was interrupted, they probably need to check with their water utility provider if it’s safe or if they need to boil their water until the system flushes through,” Wagner said.
The Transcript previously reported Thursday that the burst water pipe at the city’s Water Treatment Plant affected only the quantity of the water being produced, not the quality. City spokesperson Annahlyse Meyer said that the city’s water remains potable and usable, and the city didn’t expect to issue a boil advisory.