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Where, in the worst winter weather crisis in San Antonio’s contemporary history, are our local leaders?

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, so visible throughout the pandemic with their nightly briefings, have not appeared in an organized press conference or formally addressed the media and public. There has been no visible demonstration of calm heads and firm hands managing the crisis.

Until Wednesday’s virtual meeting of City Council, CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams and SAWS CEO Robert Puente also had not appeared in public, even as both count tens of thousands of customers without power and water. There have been no public briefings by San Antonio Police Chief William McManus and San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood.

After publication of this column Thursday morning, Sgt. Jesus Salame, a deputy chief of staff and department spokesman, cited a brief online Sunday briefing McManus held for reporters, although staff here missed it and so probably did most of the public. To their credit, police have done a thorough job of closing down dangerous highways and roadways. One officer was seriously injured this week after being struck by a motorist on Tx. 281 while attending another motorist.

I have no doubt public servants are hard at work, but collectively there has been no effective communication throughout these uncertain days. People are frustrated not only by catastrophe, but also by their inability to get real-time information about what is being done to restore essential services.

Council members are bearing the brunt of the public’s ire in their respective districts, but if they thought Wednesday’s meeting with Gold-Williams and Puente would offer a clear path forward, they were mistaken.

Meanwhile, the tone-deaf San Antonio Police Officers Association issued a Wednesday morning press release attacking the policing reform group Fix SAPD, filled with misleading claims and fear-mongering, passing up a perfect opportunity to highlight the selfless service of local first responders in the moment.

If there is an organized regional response to the current emergency, it is not visible. Where is the South Texas Regional Advisory Council (STRAC), formed to address public health emergencies in the 22-county area stretching from San Antonio to the border?

Read STRAC’s mission statement: “To reduce death/disability related to trauma, disaster, and acute illness through implementation of well-planned and coordinated regional emergency response systems.”

Isn’t that right now?

People I am encountering in the city – and I traveled from downtown to far northern Bexar County Tuesday, stopping at San Antonio International Airport for a brief walk-around – are understandably alarmed over power and water shortages, and looking for someone to tell them they and their families will be okay.

Unfortunately, it appears there is no playbook guiding a unified response to the current crisis, no prior anticipation of how the City, County, and utilities would respond in such an emergency.

It took a push by City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) to get the lights shut off at the Alamodome and other public buildings and to nudge owners to dim lights on the city’s skyline even as tens of thousands of households endured frigid temperatures without power.

The City did not open the Convention Center as a warming center until Tuesday evening to families in need. Only 220 people were fed and housed there Tuesday night. Many others had no practical way of even getting there. VIA Metropolitan Transit, which suspended service, offered rides, but for many outlying residents in need, the offer of transportation to a single downtown location was not a practical option.

At the very heart of this statewide disaster, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has fallen far short of living up to its name. Instead its stands as a symbol for all that is wrong with deregulation of essential infrastructure and services. ERCOT has allowed price and profit to trump public service. Texas is wholly unprepared and underinvested in meeting citizen needs during a a severe winter weather event.

I’ll write more about that Sunday. Today my concern is focused on the need to bolster lagging public confidence and assure people their most essential needs will be met.

People are suffering. The arrival of such extreme weather on top of the continuing pandemic feels Old Testament in its punishing impact. Once again, San Antonio is experiencing an unexpected, epic occurrence that underscores the stark differences between those of us safely insulated against life’s vicissitudes and those living and working in poverty who cannot fall back on such protections.

My family’s home, like many of yours, is well built, and we have always taken measures to be ready for an emergency. We have everything we need and will not have to join the long lines of people waiting in the cold to buy groceries, propane, and other necessities.

A line forms outside H-E-B South Flores Market in downtown San Antonio. Credit: Robert Rivard / San Antonio Report

Wednesday morning I walked from our home to the nearby South Flores Market where a growing line of 60 people waited to gain entry as several San Antonio police officers mingled.

“We have no milk, no bread, and no gas,” an H-E-B store manager informed the crowd. No one left the line.

Supply chains will remain disrupted in the coming days, and even the most community-minded businesses will be hard presssed to meet people’s needs.

It’s an essential time for strong leaders to address public concerns and act expeditiously.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.