Report on February freeze spurs heated council comments

Map shows North and Northwest side had most forced outages, but councilwoman says impacts could have been “felt” more in other areas

Council members discuss fallout of February winter storm, areas most affected

SAN ANTONIO – A committee’s report on February’s winter freeze led to some passionate city council discussion Thursday about who suffered most during the extended cold temperatures and power outages.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg assembled the Committee on Emergency Preparedness in the aftermath of the freeze that threatened the state’s power grid and forced many San Antonians to go days without power or water. Chaired by former councilman Reed Williams, it included city council and community members and looked at what the city and its utilities could have done better leading up to and during the freeze, as well as how to fix it.

Williams and other community members of the committee presented their findings during a city council meeting Thursday. The report included analysis of the “cascading” events and listed various issues with how the different entities communicated with the public and each other during the freeze, how rolling power outages unevenly affected the city, and how the regulatory structure of Texas’s energy market and power grid may have led to the power issues.

READ the full report here or read below

Though it includes dozens of recommendations for how CPS Energy, San Antonio Water System, and the city could prepare better for the next emergency, the report did not include heavy criticism of the utilities.

“Now, what was not my job, and what was not the job of my partners on this committee, was to provide cover for CPS, or SAWS, or the city,” said District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez, who served on the committee. “Our job was also not to prosecute CPS, SAWS, or the city. Our job was to go in there, get the facts and report out and make some recommendations. I think we’ve accomplished that.”

The strongest language in the report was saved for sections concerning state-level entities like the state legislature or the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which oversees ERCOT, where the report talks about “the failure of deregulation” and “interference in the free market.”

Council members questioned CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams and SAWS CEO Robert Puente about their utilities’ responses and discussed the committee’s findings for more than two hours.

During that time, it was the discussion of power outages that spurred some of the more passionate remarks.

Williams told council members that during the freeze, “here was a lot of folks saying, ‘Well, obviously the more disadvantaged part of the cities were hit harder longer with more circuits out.’”

However, he said, a map showing how various long circuits were under forced outages indicates that the North and Northwest sides carried the worst of it.

A map included in the Committee on Emergency Preparedness's final report to council shows how long different neighborhoods had forced outages.

Newly elected District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, who represents the East Side, pointed out why the opposite perception might exist.

“When we’re talking about the income that exists and the disparity on the North Side, East, South, and West -- and we’re talking about the lack of produce, and we’re seeing scarce resources on our sides of town -- that leads to this feeling that the East, West and South Sides are being left out and aren’t being prioritized, and that the North Side is,” McKee-Rodriguez said.

District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval, who served on the committee, said, “even though there does not appear to be a disparate impact of the outages -- sorry, of the actual rolling outages on the Southern, or the inner West Side, or the inner East Side -- we can’t say that the impacts weren’t more strongly felt in those areas. We’re talking about, like you said, older housing stock, less access to other resources. So I think we do need to be mindful about that.”

Sandoval pointed out that the report contained a similar sentiment.

“Residents in lower income or hipoc (sic) areas who potentially experienced comparatively shorter outages may still have experienced significant impacts,” the report reads. “Housing stock in these areas is often older, less well insulated, and residents may have less resources to contend with the storm and outages, all of which would make the impact, even of a shorter outage, disproportionately great.”

Pelaez, though, who was also on the committee and represents the Northwest Side of the city, bristled at the suggestion different sides of the city suffered more or less than others.

Everyone in San Antonio was vulnerable for that week, he said, and every senior across the city “was in pain -- genuine, physical pain.”

“I don’t accept that the pain is felt on one side, more than another. To suggest that is pejorative to the people who were experiencing genuine pain all over Texas in big houses and in little houses. It is pejorative to all the people’s families who died all over San Antonio and all over Texas,” Pelaez said.

The committee’s report noted that not all the interruptible circuits and a few low-frequency circuits were shut off evenly as part of CPS’s rolling outage plans. Some circuits were forced offline for less than an hour, and others were in the dark for more than 59 hours in all.

The white areas on the map in the report represent the combination of critical and low-frequency circuits that were not subject to forced outages.

The committee’s recommendations included CPS updating its rotating outage program and shifting around its circuits to make the subsequent rotating outage response less lopsided.

The city, SAWS, and CPS are reviewing the committee’s recommendations. City Manager Erik Walsh said city staff would take the lead on recommending a process to keep the council and community apprised of their progress.

About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.