Residents prepare but not for fire

Marina Riker By Marina Riker

Sept. 8, 2017 at 7:36 p.m.
Updated Sept. 9, 2017 at 7:34 a.m.

Kimberly Bagnall stands in the rubble that was once her home in the 500 block of Westwood Drive. "Heartbroken," Bagnall said about the loss of her home.

Kimberly Bagnall stands in the rubble that was once her home in the 500 block of Westwood Drive. "Heartbroken," Bagnall said about the loss of her home.   Nicolas Galindo for The Victoria Advocate

Kimberly Bagnall, 35, thought her family would be safe from Hurricane Harvey when they hunkered down in their Victoria rental home.

"We bought food, we had water, we had water to flush toilets with," Bagnall said. "We were ready."

The last thing she expected was to lose her home in a house fire.

"We were sitting here in the living room, watching TV and my kids were playing Xbox," Bagnall said. "The lights had like flickered off, and then we heard a loud boom."

Hurricane Harvey's raging winds sent a power line onto the house, Bagnall said, sparking a fire that would eventually turn her home into a pile of rubble and ashes.

But the fire at Bagnall's home was far from the only one that ignited in South Texas during - and after - Hurricane Harvey slammed the coast with gusts up to 130 mph. Although many people braced for damage caused by fallen trees or flooding, others faced an entirely unexpected problem - fires.

As the hurricane snapped utility poles and ripped apart homes two weeks ago, a man in Rockport was killed after his home caught fire, local officials said. Just 50 miles south in Robstown, three homes were destroyed after an electrical fire spread in the storm's strong winds.

On that same night in Victoria, Bagnall was left without time to grab a pair of shoe as she fled the burning home with her three children and husband.

The home erupted in flames about 8 p.m. just as Hurricane Harvey's winds were strengthening.

Firefighters arrived on scene, but the home was eventually destroyed. The only thing Bagnall planned to salvage from the rubble was a quilt her mother made for her daughter.

"God does work in mysterious ways," Bagnall said. "We weren't asleep; it wasn't smack dab in the middle of a hurricane with higher gusts of winds."

The fire at Bagnall's home was one of at least six structure fires in the area in the past two weeks, according to the fire department.

During a recent news conference, Victoria Fire Chief Taner Drake said the number of calls for help doubled in Hurricane Harvey's aftermath.

Aside from structure fires, there were more than 100 calls for downed power lines and electrical hazards, according to the department.

Victoria Fire Marshal Tom Legler, who has been with the department since 2011, said the reports of electrical problems didn't stop when the worst of Harvey's rains and winds left Victoria.

Instead, reports of sparks or smoldering are more prevalent as electrical companies begin to turn power back on, he said.

"We can almost track where they just turned on (electricity) because of reports of sparking," Legler said.

In the midst of major storms, however, there is little electricity providers can do to prevent the problems, an American Electric Power spokeswoman said.

"It's a Mother Nature event," said Vee Strauss, of AEP. "Things come in contact with power lines all the time - in a storm event it's more pronounced."

Trees often fall on power lines while flooding can damage electrical equipment in homes. Although Victoria's power lines are above ground, Strauss said, even buried power lines could be damaged by accident.

To prevent problems during and after major storms, homeowners can unplug appliances, switch off breakers or find an electrician to inspect homes before power is turned on, she said.

The most important thing is for residents to be alert for any potential electrical hazard, she said.

"Be mindful and watchful of any power line that may fall," Strauss said.


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