After the city and local utilities fumbled a real-life stress test during the unprecedented winter storm in February, the City Council is now seeking to beef up San Antonio’s emergency preparedness plans.

While the city has long had detailed plans in place and regularly does both real-world and tabletop exercises to stay on top of potential disasters, the winter storm made it clear that implementation was lacking.

“The winter storms in February are prime examples of why we need to ensure contingency plans are in place and followed by after-action reports so that community trust and confidence can be restored,” Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) wrote in June.

She is one of three council members who have filed “council consideration requests” relating to emergency response and preparedness. Elements of those requests are now being addressed by various City Council committees.

Rocha Garcia’s request seeks a plan to enact the recommendations compiled by the task force Mayor Ron Nirenberg assembled to review the city’s response to the disaster. Snow and freezing temperatures for days led first to rolling, then sustained power and water outages. Inadequate communication from the utilities to the city and residents exacerbated the situation. Several residents died as a result.

Though the task force placed much of the blame on the state power system, its final report criticized CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System for failing to communicate with residents the potential damage the winter storm could bring. During the event, the task force found, CPS Energy did not keep local and emergency response leaders in the loop as they were forced to decide where to cut power to help the state keep the grid from collapsing.

“City leaders and the public were unable to understand the rationale behind such decisions, especially when the public communications from CPS Energy were inconsistent with their personal experiences,” the report stated.

Rocha Garcia’s request has been partially addressed by the 2022 budget, Deputy City Manager María Villagómez said at a meeting on Sept. 15. It includes $8.5 million for “resiliency,” efforts, including purchasing generators for public safety facilities and establishing fixed locations as”resiliency hubs,” so residents know where to go in an emergency. The Municipal Utilities Committee and Public Safety Committee will take up other parts of Rocha Garcia’s request.

The utilities committee, which was created after February’s storm to keep City Council more apprised of CPS Energy and SAWS, will receive regular updates from city staff on their efforts to implement recommendations from the task force, while the public safety committee will receive regular updates about the Office of Emergency Management’s 2022 work plan, Villagómez said.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) asked in March for City Council offices to be kept in the loop during all emergencies and preparedness efforts; plans to do that are underway, according to Villagómez. Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) requested in February the creation of an emergency preparedness community guide. The Public Safety Committee will consider it.

“Rather than wait for another weather emergency, it is important to be proactive and learn from previous lessons,” Perry wrote. “These weather emergencies come in the form of snow, floods, tornados, extreme heat, etc. No longer can we say, ‘Not in Texas.'”

Emergency plan templates

San Antonio’s Emergency Management Basic Plan gets its structure from the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) and is essentially created off of a template, said Assistant Emergency Management Coordinator James Mendoza. It is updated every five years and does not require council approval, Villagómez said. The most recent update took place in early September, but there were no major changes, said Mendoza.

The city also has a Hazard Mitigation Action Plan, required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in order for the city to qualify for relevant federal funding. This plan identifies hazards the city faces and how likely each one is, reviews past disasters, and outlines what mitigation efforts the city should undertake.

That also must be updated every five years, as well as be formally adopted by City Council and submitted to FEMA and TDEM for approval, Villagómez said. San Antonio submitted its updated plan early this year, but after the February storm, staff will develop specific plans to deal with a “cascading” event, where multiple hazards happen at the same time.

Previously, Mendoza said, emergency personnel sometimes scoffed at the idea of a hurricane happening at the same time as a hazmat spill and a terrorist event. Now, after 18 months of a pandemic during which any number of natural and man-made disasters have also occurred, emergency planners and government officials understand the need to prepare for stacked emergencies.

“We will begin to look at cascading events and throwing a lot of different scenarios on top of the major hazards and see how we react to that and learn from that,” Mendoza said.

The council is expected to review the hazard plan for adoption in October.

The basic plan lays out the players in any given emergency situation, which could include county, state, and federal agencies. A key resource is the county’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which allows several agencies to be in one place to address any major emergency or disaster.

Overall, the approach that city officials emphasize in emergency situations is collaboration.

The San Antonio Fire Department is in charge of emergency medical services (EMS) and runs the ambulances, making it a key participant in most emergencies. But depending on the emergency, different agencies will take the lead, said spokesman Joe Arrington.

During a pandemic, such as now, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District leads the coordination effort, Arrington said. If there’s an active shooter situation, the San Antonio Police Department would take charge.

At the EOC, each agency literally has a seat at the table, said Roger Pollock, emergency preparedness coordinator for Metro Health.

“If we got into a large category five hurricane that hit Corpus Christi,” he said, “we would have not only city departments [but also] county departments, state departments, and federal departments all sitting here at the Emergency Operations Center.”

Prepping for future emergencies

Pollock said doing run-throughs of potential scenarios is an important part of being ready for a disaster. For example, one exercise Metro Health practices regularly involves getting a treatment from a national source to people in the community.

“If your community is facing some large-scale bioterrorism events such as anthrax, our charge is to put pills in people’s hands within a 48 hour time period from receiving the Strategic National Stockpile,” Pollock said.

In a non-pandemic time, Metro Health would have staff and volunteers meet at the Alamodome to run through that exercise, Pollock said. Instead of real anthrax antibiotics, volunteers receive Skittles or M&Ms. The goal is to have people move through the process in anticipation of a real event one day.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attack in New York City, Metro Health was tasked with developing a response to bioterrorism, chemical terrorism, and radiological terrorism, Pollock said. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the health department helped San Antonio accept and shelter refugees at the Alamodome.

After that, the Department of Homeland Security charged San Antonio with preparing for all natural disasters, including pandemics.

“So really, since 2005, we have been developing plans to respond to these incidents,” Pollock said.

Metro Health and the fire department use tabletop exercises to map out potential disaster scenarios, but large-scale, physical exercises allow agencies to see where they might be lacking, Arrington said. He gave the example of a fictionalized mass shooting the police and fire departments went through with Brooke Army Medical Center in 2018, where hundreds of people participated. Exercises like that act as “stress tests,” he said.

“We intentionally tax our resources to see, ‘Where can we bend and where can we flex, so that we don’t break?’” Arrington said.

The EOC handles cybersecurity emergencies too. Ransomware attacks are on the rise and have targeted cities, hospitals, and farmers. Colonial Pipeline, an oil pipeline in the United States, made headlines in the summer after it paid $5 million to hackers to regain control of its IT network. Locally, Judson Independent School District paid $500,000 to hackers who crippled the district’s systems for a month.

“The cyber threat landscape is extremely dynamic and preparedness is always ongoing,” said Patsy Boozer, the city’s chief security officer in an email.

Because many cyber attacks start with users, a large part of preparing for future emergencies involves creating good “cyber hygiene” habits — training employees to recognize and avoid phishing attempts and other attempted hacks.

Before the pandemic, Boozer ran a drill in which representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the FBI, and the Secret Service participated in a tabletop exercise simulating a hack. Having those outside agencies engaged is crucial for good communication when an emergency does happen, she said.

Pollock agreed communication is critical, one reason the EOC is so important.

“When you get all of the partners at the table in the process, if they’re not aware of what all of those pieces are that are moving constantly, it brings them up to speed,” he said.

Partner agencies need to stay linked during emergencies and so do community members, Villagómez said. She referenced the breakdown in communication between the utilities and the city, and the city and its residents.

“One of the biggest frustrations for our community is that they didn’t know when the outages were happening,” she said. “The city didn’t know when the outages were happening.”

The information pipeline that needs bolstering is the one between the city and CPS Energy and SAWS, Villagómez said, and then from city and utility officials to residents. “That’s where we need to improve.”

Jackie Wang

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