As many San Antonians continued to face burst water pipes, more snowfall, and freezing temperatures Thursday, Mayor Ron Nirenberg floated establishing a fund to help residents pay for pipe repair or other damages as the city thaws.
“I have talked to my peers. I had a great conversation with Mayor [Sylvester Turner of Houston] yesterday,” he said at a City Council meeting Thursday.
Nirenberg said the City would ask the federal government to expand eligibility for federal funding as well as reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to include pipe repairs after San Antonio’s freeze.
“We’re dealing with the immediate crisis of getting folks’ power back on and water back on. But then there’s going to be an infrastructure issue that we’re going to need all hands on deck for. We’re going to need federal support. But I think we also are going to need a fund, at least in the near term.”
Though power in much of CPS Energy’s service area was restored by Thursday morning, the company’s outage map still showed nearly 7,000 customers without power Thursday afternoon. But CPS Energy confirmed Thursday that they had shut off power to pumping stations in the face of electricity shortage. Even with power restored to pumping stations, many still have no running water due to frozen or burst pipes.
City Manager Erik Walsh said he would return to Council after looking into the possibility of a pipe repair emergency fund for residents.
In the meantime, the City will be waiving permit fees for emergency plumbing repairs to help people more quickly get their pipes back in order, Walsh said. (Property owners and licensed plumbers do not require a permit for emergency repairs, freeze damages, or leaky water pipes, he said.)
“We are going to be working to waive all permit fees for emergency plumbing repairs over the next two weeks,” he said.
Walsh also warned residents to avoid scammers who may advertise repair services without the intention of providing them or falsify messages regarding disaster relief in Texas.
“We’ve been pushing out corrections and proper information out to the public,” he said. “You should never have to call the state or the federal government and give social security numbers. … And additional information this afternoon regarding contractors and any potential scams will be pushed out through [the Development Services Department]; that has already begun as we had been on this council meeting this morning.”
The mayor also reminded San Antonians that he and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff issued an emergency declaration Wednesday that prohibits charging more for things such as groceries or hotel stays than they did before the snow covered San Antonio.
“Every repair company in town is going to be working overtime,” Nirenberg said. “They’re going to be trying to get materials, they’re going to be competitive. The judge and I issued an emergency order with regard to price gouging. We will go after you if you are taking advantage of our residents in that regard.”
The mayor’s emergency repair fund proposal comes a day after he and the rest of City Council grilled the leaders of CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) at an emergency meeting Wednesday.
Nirenberg, who opened Wednesday’s meeting, asked CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams if she could explain the reason behind power outages driving water shortages. CPS Energy and SAWS officials have said they prioritize “critical” services such as hospitals and public safety stations, but Nirenberg reasoned that providing water could be construed as a critical service. SAWS relies on electricity to power its 200 pumping stations around San Antonio, which distribute water to customers.
“We have quite a few things already on critical circuit,” Gold-Williams said. “So I believe that we have tried to go to the main facility sides to get that coordinated, but it’s obviously an opportunity point for us. That will just narrow, though, the number of circuits we can work with – but of course this points out a gap that we can go after.”
Nirenberg seemed unsatisfied with her answer.
“That certainly would be on top of my list for action when we get through this,” he said.
In light of the power issues across San Antonio, Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) said Wednesday that she and some of her fellow Council members have signed onto a Council Consideration Resolution (CCR) to request a contingency plan for CPS Energy in unexpected situations.
“When hell freezes over, it’s frozen over,” she said. “So we need to have this type of contingency plan. I know that there’s already a lot of emergency plans in place. … I just want to make sure that we prepare for the inevitable.”
Any plans must also take into account how to reach all San Antonio residents, Rocha Garcia said. People who rely on resources such as TV news for updates are rendered vulnerable when they don’t have access to electricity. There also are disparities in what other resources residents may have in the face of a boil-water notice issued by SAWS on Wednesday.
“In my area, we have electricity, we don’t have gas,” she said. “How are we going to boil that water? How are we going to get communication to residents who don’t have access to social media?”
Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said although he and his fellow Council members are “furious” over the power and water outages, simply pointing the finger at who caused the issues at this point of the crisis was not a priority.
“I have yet to meet a constituent who is going through this crisis who is interested in hearing whose fault this is,” Pelaez said. “They’re more interested in hearing when it’s going to be fixed. There’s gonna be plenty of time for us to do a postmortem later.”