HOUSTON — If you look at a calendar, the first day of winter is December 21. But when Houston-area residents looked out the window on Friday afternoon, winter had already arrived.
A winter storm warning was in effect Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. for Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery, Polk, San Jacinto and Waller counties.
The National Weather Service said an inch of snow is likely in those areas, and accumulations of 2 to 4 inches are possible.
Weather service meteorologist Charles Roeseler said it's the earliest snow in Houston's history. The previous record for Houston was Dec. 10 in 2008 and 1944.
Snow is rare for the nation's fourth largest city. In the past 15 years, it has snowed four times, including Friday.
Snow also made its first December appearance in Austin Friday morning, along with ice accumulation on some windshields. The flurries caused the Austin ISD to cancel athletic events and after-school programs. Only one Austin-area district — Lake Travis — decided to release students early.
In addition to all of that, Southeast Texas was also under a freeze warning, effective until 9 a.m. Saturday.
In a word, it’s going to be cold.
"Our normal tropical climate is going to see a significant change Friday afternoon," KHOU-TV meteorologist Mario Gomez said.
Gomez said a block of light-to-moderate precipitation crept into the Houston area from the south Friday morning. That system produced the snow that fell across the area early in the day.
When it meets with a mass of cold arctic air moving in from the northwest Friday afternoon, the snow will really start coming down, Gomez said.
Gomez said the temperature will drop steadily throughout the day and should reach the freezing point around 3 p.m.
And while that could make for a nasty commute, many area residents told 11 News they were excited about the snow.
"That would be great because my 4-year-old wants to play in the snow," Suzi Guerra of Conroe said.
"I’m hoping for 5 inches," Rita Collard of The Woodlands said. "Let the kids build snowmen and play in the real stuff, not the stuff they truck in."
By Friday night, all of the snow will be out of the way, but it will stay cold. Saturday’s low is projected to be in the mid-20s, with a high of just 47 degrees.
"Basically a blustery 48 hours for us, so be ready for wintertime – it has arrived a little earlier than scheduled," Gomez said.
A number of area school districts and campuses announced weather-related closures and early releases in response to the snow.
The City of Houston implemented its Inclement Weather Policy late Friday morning. That means the city will only be providing emergency services, beginning at 1 p.m.
Mayor Bill White said he left it up to city department directors to determine which non-essential employees can return home or remain home after 1 p.m.
"Employers should take into account both the needs of their business and work force and also the fact that we don’t want everybody leaving their place of business and work all at the same time all during the normal rush hour. So be considerate of your employees. We’re lucky in Houston to not have to worry about icy weather but two months a year, but it also means that most people are not used to driving in these conditions," White said.
In addition to that, the city canceled the Mayor’s Annual Holiday Celebration on the plaza at Houston City Hall, which was scheduled for Friday night. Officials said the mayor’s staff is discussing the possibility of a smaller-scaled celebration at a later date.
Friday morning, the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management moved to a Level 2 activation (High Readiness) in response to the weather threat.
Officials with the Texas Department of Transportation and the City of Houston were out working early to make sure the roadways remain safe for drivers.
Trucks left a TxDOT facility at 9 a.m. Thursday, filled with 6,000 gallons of magnesium chloride, which lowers water’s freezing point.
"So when the precipitation hits the concrete it doesn’t freeze as quickly," said Raquelle Lewis with TxDOT.
They sprayed the compound on hot-spots on the north and northwest side of the Houston area, including bridges and overpasses along I-45 and 290.
"We have lots of crews on call to dispatch after we find out locations where freezing happens outside of our hot-spots," said Lewis. "What we consider hot-spots are overpasses and bridges that are extremely elevated. They are more susceptible to the freezing temperatures."
Officials also sprayed the Pierce Elevated in downtown Houston, the Southwest Freeway along the George R. Brown Convention Center and the East Loop near I-10.
The Harris County Toll Road Authority said they’re keeping a close watch on a number of areas, including the Hardy Toll Road, the Sam Houston Toll Road, Highway 249, the Ship Channel Bridge and the Westpark Tollway.
The City of Houston was also ready for the winter weather. City crews loaded up six dump trucks with tons of crushed rock Thursday afternoon.
City officials said if you see an area that needs to be sanded in Houston, call 311.
Though they’ve tried to get a jump start on hot-spots, officials said drivers should use extra caution when navigating bridges and overpasses Friday. Elevated roadways are always the first to freeze, because they’re not insulated by the ground.
Continental Airlines on Thursday said flight plans may be affected by the weather on Friday and Saturday, so they’re offering customers the opportunity to change their flights for free at continental.com.
"Customers scheduled on flights to, from or through affected airports Friday through Sunday, Dec. 4, 5, or 6, 2009, including Continental’s Houston hub at Bush Intercontinental Airport, are permitted a one-time date or time change to their itinerary without penalty, providing rescheduled travel originates by Dec. 20, 2009. If a flight has been canceled, a refund in the original form of payment may be requested," the airline said in a statement.
With a lot of people cranking up their heaters for the first time this season, fire officials said to be sure you don’t stack anything flammable around your heater. If you’re using your fireplace, be sure to open the flue before you light it.
It’s also important to remember your plants and pets.
The SPCA said people should keep their pets indoors during the freeze.
But if you have an outdoor pet, the SPCA said to provide them with a well-insulated pet house that’s wind and waterproof.
And even if you don’t have a pet, the SPCA said to bang on the hood of your car before you start it. They see a lot of cat injuries when it gets really cold, because the cats tend to hide under car hoods to keep warm.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.