Multiple community organizations, advocates, and residents of the San Antonio Housing Authority gathered Saturday to demand an independent review of the agency’s response to last month’s winter storm, during which many SAHA residents lost power and water.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Queta Rodriguez led the charge outside the Fair Avenue Apartments, a SAHA property, on Saturday morning, claiming the housing authority failed to check on residents who lost power and water during the winter storm. The League of United Latin American Citizens Concilio Zapatista 4383, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), American GI Forum, Texas Organizing Project, NoMas Movement, veterans, and other concerned San Antonio residents joined Rodriguez.
“We want complete transparency, and we want people to be held accountable,” Rodriguez said. “We want to know what the plan is moving forward to make sure that this never happens again.”
She said SAHA residents and the advocates who stood with her Saturday want the public housing authority to take responsibility for the “needless suffering” incurred by many residents last month, some of whom require dialysis or supplemental oxygen.
“Those who have given their lives to our community were left to fend for themselves,” she said. “That is unacceptable, and as we saw, it took all of us coming together to make sure that they were taken care of, that we were calling elected officials to do their damn jobs.”
SAHA claims that staff stayed at Fair Avenue overnight on Feb. 14, the day the storm arrived, to fulfill emergency work orders and deliver portable heaters to residents, according to a press release. The agency also claims staff was on site the next several days, making sure building systems were functioning and encouraging residents to seek shelter at the downtown warming center.
“SAHA staff responded to its more than 100 residential communities across the city during a difficult week,” the press release stated. “SAHA staff also experienced no electricity and water and staff had to use their personal cars to charge their cell phones to implement the emergency response. It was a herculean effort but we got it done with the help of our colleagues in the City, community partners, and the courage and resiliency of our SAHA residents and SAHA family.”
On Friday SAHA conducted resident town hall meetings at Fair Avenue to garner feedback on an emergency action plan and other concerns, according to a press release. The agency plans to begin work on the emergency action plan, laying out a series of steps that includes requesting CPS Energy place SAHA properties on the critical electric grid, investing in power generators, and expanding on-site resident councils.
Fair Avenue resident Adela Foit, 74, said the 30-minute meeting with SAHA leadership felt like “a slap in the face.” She wants every staff member of the agency replaced after she and her neighbors went without electricity, water, and – in some cases – food for days. She said she gave way food and clothing to other residents because no one from SAHA came to help them right away.
“We don’t deserve this,” Foit said from her scooter, her service dog Missy sitting on her lap. “We’re not asking for sympathy. Empathize with us.”
Rodriguez went to another SAHA property, the Col. George Cisneros Apartments, at 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 16 to check on residents. She found they had been without power for 24 hours and that many were also without water. She slammed SAHA for not preparing for a severe weather event that state and local leaders predicted could lead to the loss of electricity and, therefore, life.
“I was angry to discover that no one was here to check on them, to take care of them,” she said. “These are our neighbors. These are our abuelitas and abuelitos, our tíos and our tías, our mamás and papás.”
The storm hit San Antonio late Feb. 14, when temperatures plummeted to below freezing and snow began to fall. People began to lose power, including many SAHA residents. But it wasn’t until Feb. 16 that the City set up warming centers. Many SAHA residents did not know about these centers because they lacked electricity and access to the internet and television, Rodriguez said, adding that she and others, not SAHA personnel, took residents to the Grand Hyatt warming center.
SAHA said in a statement that staff went door-to-door Feb. 16 to offer transportation to the Grand Hyatt, taking 60 Fair Avenue residents downtown and continuing their efforts the next day.
Bertha Casares, a 77-year-old Fair Avenue resident, said the hotel ended up being worse than her apartment. There were no blankets or sheets for the beds, and there was little food or water to drink. She said she doesn’t know how she made it through, but that it must be thanks to God.
Retired Col. Lawrence Romo, National Commander of the American GI Forum, said SAHA failed to adequately prepare for such an emergency situation. The Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) established a public housing disaster readiness and preparation guide in 2016 and directed housing authorities to develop their own plans. SAHA does not appear to have a disaster plan, said Romo, who also served as head of the Selection Service System in the Obama Administration.
“We already know that the HUD guidelines were not followed. We want to know why,” Rodriguez said. “When we need leadership the most is during times of crisis, and we saw that we did not have any leadership during that time of crisis. And because of that, these people suffered tremendously.”
Photographer Nick Wagner contributed to this report.