In a meeting of the Committee on Emergency Preparedness on Friday, members concluded that communication processes must be better coordinated for future emergency events.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg formed the committee in February immediately after the winter storm that caused power and water outages across the San Antonio region, and the group met for the first time in early March. On Friday, the committee shared some of the answers it received from CPS Energy, San Antonio Water System, and the City of San Antonio regarding communication efforts and emergency planning during the winter storm.

Two months after the committee first met, members were able to discuss information provided to them by public utility companies. Though committee members Councilmen Clayton Perry (D10) and Manny Pelaez (D8) are still reviewing answers from SAWS, the committee did share answers to some of the questions it posed to CPS, which can be found online here

In one of the questions posed to CPS, committee members asked the energy company to describe how it prepared its generation plants and distribution infrastructure for the February winter storm. CPS replied with a seven-page document that outlined testing procedures, communication with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) about winter preparation, and a timeline of CPS activities during the storm. It also described winterization efforts undertaken in past years, including insulation upgrades and studies to identify weaknesses in its power plants.

“Since the freeze event which occurred in February of 2011, CPS Energy has invested approximately $17 [million] in freeze protection projects for our generation facilities,” the utility wrote.

The rest of the questions should be answered by CPS within the next week and a half, San Antonio’s Chief Financial Officer Ben Gorzell said.

“There are a couple of [questions] … that they have indicated they will not be able to provide the information [for], but they will provide a response to the committee in terms of why that information isn’t available to the committee,” Gorzell said. “If everything goes smoothly in terms of the review process, I expect to have all the responses in by next Friday.”

The committee will continue to post answers online not only from CPS but from SAWS and the City as well.

Vice chair and retired Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr. joined forces with fellow committee member Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) to question the City of San Antonio on its winter storm response efforts and contingency plans for similar emergency events. Rice and Garcia found three main issues: coordination with CPS and SAWS was not effective during the winter storm, the Emergency Operations Center did not properly communicate with community members during the storm, and the communication within the Emergency Operations Center was lacking. 

Rice said many problems stemmed from not having proper contingency plans in place for “complex” emergency weather conditions. There is a basic emergency plan, but the City was not prepared for something like February’s storm, he said.

“We didn’t have a plan and therefore we couldn’t follow the plan that we didn’t have,” Rice said. “When it reached that tipping point of becoming a cold weather event that then also included a major power event and a major water event that lasted for three days, we didn’t have a plan for that … and then the question is how do you handle it and how do you manage it?”

He presented several recommendations Friday to address those issues, including having SAWS work with city leaders to plan for water shortages; coordinating daily media briefings with the City, Bexar County, CPS, and SAWS; and making sure that all communication goes through a Joint Information Center for consistent messaging.

Rice also pointed out that with the City’s budget process starting soon, winterization of energy and water facilities should be discussed.

“It’s a big-ticket item,” he said. “And the reasons we haven’t done it in the past are largely because are you going to spend money on something that has a low probability of happening or are you going to spend money on schools and roads now? It’s a decision we’ll still have [to face].”

Committee member Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) added that City Council would need to hear recommendations with budgetary impact from the committee soon. 

The committee aims to finish their work by mid June.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.