A committee formed to investigate how local officials responded to last month’s winter storm wants to know what plans were made in advance and how the area can better prepare for the next emergency.
The group, created by Mayor Ron Nirenberg after six days of extreme winter weather caused widespread power and water outages, met for the first time Friday morning.
Nirenberg tapped former City Council member Reed Williams to chair the committee, which includes Council members Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), Ana Sandoval (D7), Manny Pelaez (D8), and Clayton Perry (D10). Also on the committee are Lisa Tatum, an attorney and former president of the State Bar of Texas, and retired Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr., who led the Air Force’s education and training command for nearly three years.
Most of the group met Friday morning at the Henry B. González Convention Center. Rice had a conflicting appointment and did not attend, while Perry joined the two-hour meeting via videoconference.
Originally dubbed the Select Committee on the 2021 Winter Storm Preparedness and Response, the group renamed itself the Committee on Emergency Preparedness to allow for a broader scope, Williams said.
“I’ve been asked many times what the purpose of this committee is,” Williams said. “And as you know, the mayor asked us to do this and he was very clear, and hopefully we picked up that direction and we’ve got it defined appropriately.”
The committee’s charges include investigating the winter storm and identifying changes to emergency response protocol based on its findings, Williams said. He emphasized that the committee has no authority to implement changes, but members want to be thorough to prepare for the next extreme weather event.
On Friday, members introduced themselves to people watching via livestream and talked about what topics the committee needed to address. All agreed that assessing damages wrought by the winter storm would be an important topic, as well as getting a clearer understanding of what emergency protocols are in place at CPS Energy, San Antonio Water System, and local government entities like Bexar County and the City of San Antonio.
Williams stressed the importance of establishing a timeline for the storm. For instance, when did CPS Energy begin shutting electricity off to certain parts of the city? When did SAWS decide to power down certain water pumping stations?
“Who got affected? We won’t know that unless we lay this timeline out,” he said.
The committee will ask about the timing of certain decisions from the utility companies and any other organizations involved, including the City. Rocha Garcia pointed out that there were unofficial response efforts during the storm that also should be reviewed.
“Peer mobilization and stakeholder group support … I’m talking about beyond the folks who are supposed to respond,” she said. “The folks who step up and respond, the nonprofit organizations … neighborhood associations leaders, etc.”
Committee members all said they would like to examine communication efforts during the storm, either between CPS Energy and SAWS, between the utility companies and local governments, or between utility companies and their customers. Tatum noted that communication plans during the storm may have been thwarted by power outages.
“Recognizing that some of the avenues [of communication] were cut off over the course of the event, I think that that information, in terms of knowing what those opportunities would be and where they can be taken, is important,” Tatum said.
Pelaez suggested reviewing a broader range of communication efforts during the storm.
“I would like to see the communications between leadership at SAWS, CPS, COSA, and the state and the county … to include not just formal letters back and forth, but I’d like to see text messages between [CPS Energy President and CEO] Paula Gold-Williams and [SAWS President and CEO] Robert Puente and [City Manager] Erik Walsh giving updates to each other and the extent of the communication,” Pelaez said.
Pelaez also filed a Council Consideration Request (CCR) Thursday to “synchronize” City Council offices with emergency preparedness planning in the future. In his CCR, Pelaez asked for the Governance Committee and full City Council to consider more training for City Council members and staff on local emergency plans and protocols, including them in emergency preparedness communication plans, and equipping them to support and inform their constituents during emergencies. Rocha Garcia, Sandoval, Perry, and Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) signed onto his request.
“In many instances, Council Offices were in the dark on emergency communications and not adequately prepared to support emergency response plans at a time when neighbors may have needed them most,” Pelaez wrote in his CCR.
Besides requesting utility and government officials’ answers, Tatum said the committee should review customer feedback during and after the storm. On the City side, Chief Financial Officer Ben Gorzell promised the committee that feedback to City Council offices, 311 calls, 911 calls, and social media posts would be gathered and presented in a report soon.
The City’s Government and Public Affairs Department will discuss ways to collect community feedback and questions for the committee, Gorzell told committee members. Individuals can soon visit the City’s website to leave comments, and the City is also considering phone call and text messaging options. Those options should be live next week and the City will provide information on how to use them, Gorzell said.
The committee will meet again next week to “to look at, develop, understand, and flesh out questions that we’re going to make to specific entities and how we’re going to make those questions,” Williams said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect Lisa Tatum’s role with the State Bar of Texas as former president.