In the days after the winter storm settled drearily across Fort Worth in February 2021, the fire department’s Office of Emergency Management received unexpected aid from local businesses whose containers, in normal weeks, held other goods.
That week, however, milk jugs and pickle buckets and brewing tanks and a wildly painted school bus would help provide a much-needed and inaccessible resource — clean water — to hundreds of thousands of residents who’d lost access to their own.
The cohort of unlikely allies that came together to love their neighbors in the cold asked for no recognition, but simply did their part to serve the community, said Kristen O’Hare, an emergency management officer and spokesperson for the Fort Worth Fire Department. Furthermore, she said, the pickle company, the brewery, the milk distributor and the nonprofit represent only a fraction of the groups who gave of themselves that cold week in February.
“I never could have imagined the way that Fort Worth, without even being asked, just stepped up,” she said.
‘The four disasters’
The disasters came like four horsemen, one after another after another after another.
The first disaster, winter weather, fell upon the city in a cold hug, blanketing Fort Worth in snow and ice. As people tried to keep warm, fires, meant to provide relief, escaped their bounds. Emergency calls to the fire department tripled.
The winter weather gave way to the second disaster: a power outage that turned the lights and heat off for hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. The power grid could not physically withstand the cold, nor could it support the needs of people in counties across the state who were draining it to stay warm.
The loss of power compounded with the bone-deep cold to strain the water pumping system, and the third disaster occurred: a water shortage that left more than 300,000 people in Fort Worth — around 1 in 3 residents — without clean water. Nearly 700 water mains throughout the city broke from the freeze. Two water processing plants lost power.
When the fourth disaster, the thaw, seemed to promise respite, it offered too much, too quickly: As temperatures rose and snow melted, more pipes busted and left homes and businesses flooded with water they’d needed only days before.
From the Emergency Operations Center, a fortified bunker within the ‘Zipper Building’ in downtown Fort Worth, O’Hare and a cadre of other emergency professionals and city leaders discussed how to provide warmth and water via roads that became skate rinks amid a pandemic that discouraged crowds.
Typically, when a local disaster — like a hurricane or tornado — occurs, emergency officials can call the state for aid. But the state could only do so much, because “every single county is asking for help,” O’Hare said.
“You picked up that phone to call your neighbor and say, ‘Hey, we need help.’ They said, ‘So do we.’”
The city in a pickle
When an emergency overtakes the city, emergency officials like O’Hare gather in the bunker to strategize and mobilize until the crisis passes. During the winter storm in 2021, O’Hare camped there with her colleagues from Feb. 14 through Feb. 24. Day and night, they catastrophized.
“We’re the least fun people,” O’Hare said, “because we have to take a situation and then go to the absolute worst-case scenario that can happen.”
The winter storm, however, surpassed the imagination. The pandemic further complicated the emergency management team’s options. Resources the team normally could rely on — like scores of volunteers offering to provide manpower, or aid from neighboring counties — diminished in the face of both threats.
“The city staff was tapped enough because we had so many operations going on,” O’Hare said.
They were clearing roads, managing warming centers, carting generators to homes during medical emergencies, ferrying people to work in a convoy of police cars with chains on their tires. They were strapped, and people knew it.
So when the fire department asked a local pickle company, Best Maid Pickles, for containers with which to transport water, it was an instance of the emergency management team throwing the playbook out the window.
The pickle company, a family-owned operation that first sold single jars of pickles door-to-door in the 1920s, agreed. They collected close to 1,500 five-gallon buckets that typically carry pickles to baseball games and burger joints and transported them to water distribution sites around the city.
“Being a family-owned and operated company and local to Fort Worth, it’s really important to us to maintain a positive relationship with the community and help out where we can,” said Emily Christy, a spokesperson for the company. “It’s just another show of generosity from the Dalton family working together for the community good.”
Like water for beer
As the roads became more and more impassable on Sunday, Feb. 14, the owners of Cowtown Brewing Company in Fort Worth decided to forgo their typical brewing schedule and close shop.
The brewing tanks, which twice weekly help create craft beers like Horse With No Name and Jeff Goldblum Noises, sat dormant. Still, they brimmed with hundreds of gallons of highly filtered water — the primary ingredient in beer. “Water is at the heart of everything we do,” co-owner Shawn Kidwell said.
Kidwell contacted Fire Chief Jim Davis, whom he’d seen at the brewery in the past. He offered the chief the brewery’s undiminished supply of what had become liquid gold almost overnight.
“Folks didn’t have access to fresh water,” he said. “And we’re sitting here in the brewery with large tanks full of filtered, very drinkable water that we weren’t doing anything with at the time. We thought it’d be a good idea to allow people to come fill up whatever containers they had, so that they could have fresh water.”
On Thursday, Feb. 18, the brewery opened for business and for water distribution. A steady flow of people ventured to the brewery for water, toting coolers and five-gallon jugs and glass bottles and “all manner of containers.” A handful of people returned again and again for nearly two weeks before their own water services were restored, Kidwell said.
The fire department estimates Cowtown Brewing Company alone provided people with 1,200 gallons of water — roughly the equivalent of 10,000 water bottles.
“And they didn’t have to do that,” O’Hare said. The generosity was difficult to swallow.
“That is what is so humbling to me — at no point did we turn and say, ‘The city of Fort Worth wants you immediately to cease brewing beer, and make water.’ They just did it. And then they reached out to us and said, ‘We have water. Where do you want it?’”
The jugs on the bus went round and round
As the days passed, requests for clean water continued to pour in. The emergency management team has since estimated that they needed to distribute about 700,000 water bottles’ worth of water that week in February, O’Hare said.
By Friday, Feb. 19, the city had received a “water buffalo”: a 2,500-gallon tanker brimming with drinking water from the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth. Back at the bunker, O’Hare remembers a feeling of elation followed quickly by concern. “I guess we assumed people would just do this” — she mimics cupping her hands below a faucet — “underneath it?”
“I just remember sitting at this executive table and saying, ‘What are we putting the water in? What is the receptacle for this water?’” she said. “And it was just like this silence fell over us.”
Containers. The word repeated in her head over and over again. What kind of place would have containers?
“‘The milk place?’” she remembers asking. “And they’re like, ‘The milk place?’”
Vandervoort’s began in the 1930s as a dairy distributor that provided milk, ice cream and butter to people in Fort Worth. Jeremy Sprinzl had been managing operations for a few years when the winter storm happened. He remembers receiving a call from someone on the emergency management team asking, first, for water and, later, for empty jugs and caps. The company had managed to escape the boil notice and still had access to clean water.
But they, too, needed a container, Sprinzl said. People weren’t unloading much that week, so tankers that would’ve otherwise been available were already bloated with milk. Sprinzl made some calls and managed to secure two 5,500-gallon tankers. He asked a vendor who specialized in welding to add a water faucet to the back. He asked the fire department for hoses — 200- to 300-foot long — to help dispense the water from the store to the tanker. And, he put together “bags and bags and bags” of empty milk jugs.
Back at the bunker, O’Hare had solved one problem — containers — and was on to the next: transportation for said containers. She had recently finished her tenure as a board member for a Fort Worth nonprofit, The Welman Project, that collects and repurposes school and art supplies for teachers who can’t afford them. The Welman Project’s official vehicle is a school bus — painted like a kaleidoscope and whose seats had been gutted to make room for crafting. Its name is Barb.
O’Hare pulled out her phone and texted Taylor Willis and Vanessa Barker, The Welman Project’s co-founders, and asked for Barb. O’Hare and Barker spoke on the phone, and Barker said yes.
“I never actually thought that I would get off the phone and in tears, say, ‘Barb is going to get the milk jugs and bring them to the water buffalo,’” she said. “Like, that is a sentence I never thought in my entire life I would ever say.”
That same day, Barb journeyed to Vandervoort’s to collect the bags and bags and bags of milk jugs Sprinzl and his team had put together for the city. The fire department estimates Vandervoort’s provided 4,000 that day, O’Hare said.
“I’m just glad — I feel lucky that we were able to help in any capacity,” Jose Castro, who took over as site leader at Vandervoort’s the week of the storm, said.
Bursting with jugs, Barb the bus arrived at a church parking lot, next to the water buffalo provided by the naval base. Volunteers from The Welman Project and Rainwater Charitable Foundation passed out jugs along the line of people that had formed there.
Back at the bunker, O’Hare received a photo of the collaboration. She hadn’t slept for days.
By the time the first disaster struck, the fire department was still reeling from the pileup that took place only two days before. They hadn’t had time to process, O’Hare said. When she saw the photo, she cried.
“You can’t plan for that. That’s not in any exercise. That’s not in any playbook. That is just the goodness of people’s hearts,” she said. “And I — we — needed that win.”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.