Oh, what a year!

Top 10 stories of 2017

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The year 2017 brought a lot of change in Sealy city government. Residents elected a new mayor, got a new police chief and will have a new city manager early next year. We mourned the loss of Fire Chief Eric Zapalac and rebuilt after a microburst storm and Hurricane Harvey changed the lives of many. Here are our top 10 stories of the year.

1. Microburst

Sealy residents literally didn’t know what hit them when a storm, described by National Weather Service meteorologists as a “microburst” touched down on the evening of May 23. About 5,000 homes lost power and winds up to 100 mph raged through the community. Interstate 10 was shut down for about eight hours due to power-line damage.

Some Sealy residents reported property destruction but just a few minor injuries – maybe about a dozen – were sustained, which then-Police Chief Chris Noble called a “blessing,” considering a few 18-wheelers flipped on their sides.

The storm hit during a Sealy City Council meeting and two Sealy ISD events.

Sealy ISD Superintendent Sheryl Moore said the district had senior awards at the Sealy High School auditorium which holds 700 people and was “fairly full” when the storm struck.

“When the worst of it passed, we told people to safely get on the road,” she said. “We did have a few who were battered and bruised, primarily people caught between their car and the building.”

Officials with CenterPoint Energy also were credited with a speedy response in securing loose wires and repairing downed power lines.

“We do this every day but this is our finest hour,” said CenterPoint Logistics Manager Bill LeBlanc the afternoon following the disaster. “We’re going to work until we get the lights on.”

Sealy Mayor Janice Whitehead said the majority of repairs were expected to be complete by May 26, although many Sealy families were working on recovery efforts and meeting with insurance adjusters through the weekend. About 2,000 households and businesses were still without power the morning of May 24, but residents reported that CenterPoint officials moved quickly, and 40 contract crews were called in to assist.

“Last night I had the opportunity to witness a very well-oiled machine,” Whitehead said at a May 24 press conference, referencing the importance of disaster training.

While not specifically labeled a tornado, Jeff Evans of the National Weather Service said the microburst was rare due to the high wind speeds and could be considered worse than a tornado.

“It was evident that it was a very significant windstorm that struck this area,” he said. “Nearly every damage point was giving us 80 to 100 miles per hour wind,” he said. “It would be consistent with an F1 (moderate) tornado.”

2. Fire chief

There wasn’t a dry eye in the massive Second Baptist Church as Sealy Fire Chief Eric Zapalac was laid to rest Nov. 27, just one week after the 39-year-old died suddenly, sending shock waves through the community.

Zapalac’s wife Kelly and children Nicholas, Lucas and Leah were surrounded by first responders from Sealy and the greater Houston area. The firefighter, who died suddenly Nov. 20, was described as someone who loved fishing, camping, helping others and solving problems.

“The fire service was proud to have a man like Eric,” said Houston Fire Department Capt. Chris Garcia. “There’s two types: ones that work for the department and ones that are the department. Yes, Eric, you are the department. Your commitment and dedication will always be carried out by the younger generations.”

Cliff Langton, an assistant chief at Sealy FD and captain with the Houston Fire Department, provided the eulogy, noting Zapalac’s efforts to save money and save lives in his community.

His voice cracked with emotion as Langton thanked Zapalac’s parents, Randy Edward and Judy Fay Greak Zapalac.

“You taught him and he taught us,” Langton said. “His upbringing made him mature beyond his years. He didn’t ask the world for permission. He just leaped.”

In closing, Langton appealed to the fireman’s widow and asked if she’d been told 16 years ago that she’d be marrying a man who would leave the earth on Nov. 20, 2017, “you would have said yes.”

“You were his rock, his soul mate, his best friend,” he told Kelly McKimmy Zapalac. “The rock bottom you may feel is actually the foundation he wanted for you and the kids … We are all better having walked this journey this far with you.”

3. City manager

The Sealy City Council voted May 23 to terminate the contract of then-City Manager Larry Kuciemba. Councilman Larry Koy cast the only dissenting vote.

Among the criticisms of Kuciemba were allegations that he was argumentative with residents and he did not live within the Sealy city limits.

Planning and Community Development Director Warren Escovy has served in the interim and guided the city council through the budget process.

Escovy did not apply for the permanent position but has been part of the search process. The council recently narrowed the pool of applicants to four, and interviews are scheduled Jan. 8 and Jan. 10. The finalists include Stephen Ashley of Spring Village, Andrea Gardner of Copperas Cove, Debi Lee of Ruidoso, N.M., and Lloyd Merrell of Madisonville, Ky.

4. Hurricane Harvey

When the wrath of Harvey hit Sealy in late August, the generosity of local residents – even those who suffered losses – was unprecedented.

Deemed the costliest tropical storm on record, racking up a bill of more than $200 million, the storm took the lives of more than 90 people and destroyed homes all over the greater Houston area. Sealy was relatively unscathed but served as a shelter site and volunteers jumped into action.

“You have these types of warnings about what’s going to flood and heed the warnings, so that kept people safe,” said then-Fire Chief Eric Zapalac. “There have been a lot of people helping us help the community … Emergency here has pretty much stabilized. We’re in the recovery phase.”

County Judge Tim Lapham announced that Austin County was added into the federal disaster declaration granted by FEMA, allowing residents to become eligible for public assistance.

“While the road to recovery is a difficult one, Texas remains committed to helping the victims as long as it may take,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press release. “I am pleased with the work of our federal partners to help Texans get critical resources to those in need. Rebuilding after a disaster is no small feat, but I have no doubt we will recover stronger than ever before.”

Austin County Sheriff Jack Brandes pointed to the preparation of emergency crews before the storm hit as a key piece to why the loss of life wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

5. Marcus Pena

Former Austin County Tax Assessor-Collector Marcus Peña returned to his former workplace in August as he faced a district judge on charges of first-degree felony theft by a public servant.

Peña was arrested in January after an accounting error was discovered in the tax office following the accountant’s failed bid for re-election. The amount in question was reportedly greater than $150,000 and less than $300,000. Texas Rangers and the Austin County Sheriff’s Department conducted in the investigation.

The former county employee served for about four years from 2012 to 2016 and was replaced by Kim Rinn.

The theft case was turned over to the Attorney General’s Public Integrity Unit.

Peña said during a follow-up court appearance in December that he’ll plead guilty. A court date is set for Jan. 22.

Peña was arrested in January after an accounting error was discovered in the tax office following Pena’s failed bid for re-election.

6. I-10 suicide w/art

Just 10 days before Christmas, 30-year-old Cruz Guerrero-Arreola was driving on Interstate 10 in Sealy when police say the man opened the vehicle door and shot himself in the head as he was exiting the vehicle.

His four children and their mother were also in the vehicle at the time and were unharmed. Guerrero-Arreola’s death was classified a suicide.

Guerrero-Arreola’s body fell out of the car and rolled into the shoulder of the highway while the female in the passenger seat steered the car safely to a stop in the grass farther away.

“Based upon what the witnesses told us and evidence at the scene it looked like he opened the door and said, ‘I hate to do this but I have to,’ and as he was going out the door shot himself,” Sealy Police Detective Jason Manies said. “He just had a tremendous amount of pressure on him with losing his job a couple of months ago and raising six kids with the holidays coming up.”

It is the policy of The Sealy News to not report on suicide unless it occurs in a public place or involves a public figure.

Guerrero-Arreola, who was a Sealy resident, legally purchased the .380 caliber pistol used in the incident and had no previous record of mental illness or noticeable criminal background, police said.

Sgt. James Long said the couple was struggling with finances but otherwise the relationship was a good one. They had resumed their relationship in May after previously breaking up. Police said the motivation for the suicide can only be speculated upon and the manner in which he did it is something they’ve never seen before.

“In almost 40 combined years of experience, we’ve never seen anything like this,” Manies said. “This is one of the most unusual things I’ve ever seen because typically someone does it in their garage or backyard but rarely while they’re driving.”

A funeral service was held last week in Sealy.

7. Police chief

A crowd gathered at Sealy City Council Chambers in August as longtime officer Jay Reeves – who previously served as second in command – was sworn in as the city’s acting police chief.

The move comes just two weeks after Chief Chris Noble was placed on administrative leave Aug. 8.

“We’re all trained to do every job,” Reeves said. “This is just second nature. There’s certain things we have to do. Part of my job description is to work as the chief in his absence.”

Reeves was appointed to the permanent post a couple of weeks later.

City officials issued a press release Aug. 24 stating that an “independent investigation regarding a personnel issue involving Police Chief Chris Noble” was recently completed and that Noble had tendered his resignation.

Details of the investigation have remained scarce, but city officials said in a public news release that Noble “implemented many important initiatives within the community, and for that we are truly grateful.”

Noble issued his own release through his attorney, Gregg Clements.

“After much deliberation, my family and I have decided it is in the best interest of all for me to resign my position and that we may move on to the next chapter in our lives,” Noble said in the release. “I would like to take this opportunity to thank the citizens of Sealy for allowing me to serve in this position for the past two years. I have had the opportunity to work with a great group of men and women and will miss working with them in the future.”

8. New school

A groundbreaking ceremony for the new Sealy Elementary School was held May 24, just a day after an unprecedented “microburst” storm ripped through the city.

The project is under construction on F.M. 2187 about half a mile from Highway 36, west of Virnau Sealy Tractor and the Sealy Homestead neighborhood. It’s slated for completion in August 2018 and was part of a $43.2 million bond referendum approved by voters last year.

The district went to great lengths to ensure that the new school’s demographics line up with the current Selman Elementary School. The new school will have 336 Hispanic students, compared to 340 at Selman. Sealy Elementary is zoned for 61 African-American students while Selman has 60.

About 64.1 percent of the proposed population at Sealy Elementary is listed as economically disadvantaged, while the number is 64.7 percent at Selman, based on the newly-approved attendance zones.

“We went into this process looking for two equal [schools],” Superintendent Sheryl Moore told the school board at their June 28 meeting. “We did not want schools of haves and have-nots.”

Moore worked with parents and teachers along with Assistant Superintendent Nicole Poenitzsch, Transportation Director Randall Krchnak and a school board member to study the issue. The committee consulted with Fort Worth-based Templeton Demographics to create the boundary lines. The boundary line they proposed runs along Interstate 10.

“It was about as close as it could possibly be,” Moore said. “There seemed to be a magic line, and I think we found it.”

9. Mayoral election

Janice Whitehead became Sealy’s mayor in a May 7 election, defeating Councilman Michael Kubricht 407-166.

Whitehead has been at the helm as the city has gone through a couple of major storms, several personnel changes and the city’s budget adoption.

“The citizens spoke loud and clear giving me their support for an overdue change at City Hall,” Whitehead said after the election. “I think we’ve got our hands full getting the issues resolved and back on track. It will take time. This race was about taking a stand for truth, transparency and open government.”

10. Moldy jail and courthouse w/art

Just weeks after the Austin County Commission entered a contract with an architect to address mold in the county jail, they were faced with the same problem at the county courthouse.

“The roof has been leaking,” said District Attorney Travis Koehn, referring to his offices on the third floor of the county courthouse on Main Street in Bellville. “We really need to address these issues and try to get the roof fixed. It concerns us that there appears to be some mold growing up there. The roof has been patched a couple of times over the years, and it just doesn’t seem to work.”

The carpet is stained and file cabinets are rusted, he added, noting that records and computer equipment have not yet been damaged.

Extensive discussion ensued about whether it makes sense to do a patch job when, historically, leaks have continued after repairs are made.

“Every time it gets patched, the problem is, it fixes wherever that particular leak was, and the water runs down and floods a different place. We never know where to put the plastic or where to put the buckets down,” said Assistant District Attorney Brandy Robinson. “Now we’ve moved from buckets to trash cans to big industrial-size trash cans. We’re going to have to move somewhere if we can’t get the roof fixed.”

Commissioners previously determined that an immediate necessity is to remediate mold in the county jail. Once the mold was detected, Sheriff Jack Brandes created a temporary fix whereby intake and booking is done from a temporary trailer and jailers transport inmates to Fort Bend County at a cost of $55 per head per day, which translates into about $400,000 over a six-month period.

The court hired architect Kenny Burns and construction manager Gaeke Construction to address the problem.

According to Burns’ report issued in September, it would take more than two years to design and construct a brand new facility. A 96-bed jail and sheriff’s office would cost about $19 million to $21 million, while a 144-bed jail and sheriff’s office would cost up to $24 million.

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