City Council members on Thursday emphasized the need for foresight and better planning ahead of future extreme weather events and emergencies.

City Council heard an update from Reed Williams, who chairs the committee formed by Mayor Ron Nirenberg after freezing temperatures and winter weather in February caused power and water outages across the city. The committee is charged with reviewing the area’s emergency response and coming up with recommendations for future crises.

Former city councilman Reed Williams leads a conversation in March as chair of the Committee on Emergency Preparedness. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The committee has determined that the City’s coordination with CPS Energy and San Antonio Water System was not effective during the winter storm, the Emergency Operations Center did not properly communicate with residents during the storm, and internal communication within the Emergency Operations Center was inadequate.

The lack of emergency preparation ahead of the storm showed in some of the answers provided by the public utilities, said Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), who sits on the committee.

“I’m really frustrated also with the answers that we’ve been getting from everybody [but] not for a lack of candor,” Pelaez said. “I have no reason to believe … that the City of San Antonio or SAWS or CPS are trying to frustrate our ability to get to information. I have no reason to believe that they’re trying to torpedo or sabotage our efforts, or that they’re hiding the ball. I’m disappointed and frustrated that just the answers sometimes are anemic, because the answers are sometimes, ‘I don’t know, we didn’t plan for it.’”

Williams agreed that the City and public utilities cannot simply explain away failures by pointing to the rarity of a storm event. They now have an opportunity to reassess how they react to emergencies, he said.

“We’re very used to and we’re very good at dealing with emergencies that we have seen and we understand, even a hurricane. …  You’ve done it before,” Williams said. “But we can’t just say, ‘Oh, not our fault. We didn’t know that.’ No, it has to be our fault. We have to figure out how to manage events that are not only not known before, but change within the event [because] they’re dynamic.”

Williams also assured council members that the committee would continue to press CPS Energy for more information about what areas of town were affected the most by power outages. Though CPS provided a map broadly showing what areas were on circuits that could be shut off during “load shedding” efforts, Williams said he wanted to see the amount of time certain areas of San Antonio went without power in February.

“There’s a lot of folks in our community that believe the disadvantaged, lower-income part of our community was disproportionately hit with the disconnects,” Williams said. 

Though Williams was told CPS could not provide that data by census tract, he said it would provide a “heat map” showing different zip codes and the length of time each one of those lost power during the storm.

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), who sits on Williams’ committee, noted that the City’s hazard mitigation plan, established in 2015, already had a section detailing potential harm from a winter storm event. Those include things like freezing pipes, long periods of power outages, and energy shortages, she said.

“I just wanted to let my council colleagues know who weren’t there that there were these really important things that were in this risk mitigation plan that we did not plan for as a council and that we didn’t follow through on as a council,” she said. “And we need to fix it now.”

Williams told council members the committee continues to receive hundreds of questions and comments from the public and staff is sifting through them. Some requested information from CPS Energy hasn’t been supplied, he said, because of pending lawsuits the utility has filed related to the winter storm.

“There’s several of the questions that they’re just not going to be able to answer,” Williams said. “But everyone has been responsive.”

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.