In Katy, Not Everyone Heard They Were Supposed to Shelter in Place After Chemical Leak

George McAteer, the Fire Chief of Harris County Emergency Services District No. 48, was joined by other Harris County officials during a press conference to update the public about the status of the ammonia leak.
George McAteer, the Fire Chief of Harris County Emergency Services District No. 48, was joined by other Harris County officials during a press conference to update the public about the status of the ammonia leak. Screenshot
Despite the active shelter in place order issued on Sunday morning, Natalie Northcutt woke up to yard people working on her lawn.

At the time, Northcutt, a resident of Katy’s West Memorial Neighborhood, was unaware of the order and found out a couple hours later before it was lifted at 1 that afternoon.

“I was scrolling through YouTube when I saw a newscast about the chemical leak and the order for residents to stay inside their houses,” Northcutt said. “I had no idea anything was even going on before that.”

The shelter in place order was issued after a chemical leak occurred late Saturday around 9 p.m. at the 99 Cent Store Distribution Warehouse on Colonial Parkway. The source of the leak came from a refrigeration line inside the warehouse that was damaged during maintenance, officials said.

The line held anhydrous ammonia, a chemical compound that is combustible and toxic, that can cause harm to human respiratory systems. The chemical was detected inside the warehouse, but around 1 a.m. officials — from the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Harris County Pollution Control Services and Department, Harris County Public Health, Houston Fire Department and Texas Department of Public Safety — found that the chemical had leaked outside.

Northcutt’s neighborhood, and others on Kingsland Boulevard, Mason Road and Mason Creek along Highway 99 were the areas put under the shelter in place order, issued at 9 a.m., according to Harris County Public Health.

“I looked at the map that was under the headline of the video I was watching and recognized my neighborhood was in the red zone,” Northcutt said.

Prior to watching this video, Northcutt had not received a notification on her phone about the order or the chemical leak. She reached out to her parents, who own Northcutt’s house, to see if they heard anything. Northcutt’s parents were not aware of the situation and found out more information following their daughter’s call and conversations with nearby neighbors.

“I don’t know anyone personally who didn’t hear about it from the news or another neighbor, all the information seemed to be provided through word of mouth,” Northcutt said.

The order was initially announced at an 8 a.m. press conference held by the agencies that were on site. Following the conference, Harris County Public Health and Harris County Emergency Services District No. 48 further notified the public through their respective social media pages. However, they did not send out an emergency alert about the situation through residents’ phones, said Jason Tharp, Harris County Emergency Services’ Public Information Officer.

According to Tharp, this is because officials who continued to monitor the area found ammonia levels to be low enough that they didn’t pose a significant health concern. Tharp said the shelter in place order was issued out of an abundance of caution.

“The next step, if they had levels that were lethal or posed a high concern to public safety, would have been to work with the Harris County Public Health to put something through cell phones, like a reverse 911,” Tharp said. “Just to let everybody know not to go outside, but the shelter in place we had this time was just a precaution.”

Although Tharp said this leak was less severe, ammonia still can pose a serious threat. In 1976, a tank truck carrying the chemical crashed on the Southwest Freeway, releasing the contents into the air in nearby areas. Those who encountered the chemical suffered from severe lung burns, leaving 100 people injured and 10 people dead.

According to Harris County Public Health, there were no injuries reported during this leak. However, health officials said if residents in the affected areas experience burning, watery eyes, difficulty breathing or irritation of nasal passages they should seek medical attention.

To curb any potential exposure, Northcutt and her neighbors turned off their houses’ air-conditioners to stop any outside air from circulating inside and made sure all their windows and doors were completely closed.

Like residents in the area, business owners of stores including the British Depot, Harvest Bakery and several others in the area had to act quickly, closing their doors for the day after hearing about the shelter in place order.

“We actually had a staff member that lives close by to the area that was affected that called to tell us about the situation around 11:30 a.m. and that is how we found out,” Sarah McGowan owner of The British Depot said. “We decided to close straight away, so we let our staff know and posted about it on Facebook and updated our website so customers would know not to come in.”

McGowan’s store was able to close prior to the start of their business day on Sunday, but some stores were unaware of the order and had to close during the middle of their business day.

The British Depot reopened its doors for normal business hours Monday morning, but some businesses in the area remained closed, McGowan said.

In addition to no mass alert from Harris County Public Health and Harris County Emergency Services, these residents and business owners didn’t receive a notification from the city of Katy.

According to a spokeswoman from the city, the reason why Katy did not send out an alert was because the areas impacted were outside of city limits, which meant the agencies that responded to the site of the leak were responsible for notifying the public, not the city.

“This is something that has come up before, not about anything as serious as this, but people in the area have complained about not getting notifications about water restrictions when there’s droughts or situations like that,” Northcutt said. “I don’t know why we don’t get city alerts; I think it is because even though we are a part of Katy, we are outside of the city limits so we exist in a gray area.”

After the order was lifted on Sunday afternoon, agencies stayed on site to continue to investigate the incident. As of Monday evening, the investigation into the incident was still on-going.
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.