This article has been updated.
The Henry B. González Convention Center opened Tuesday evening to residents who lost power and needed somewhere warm to wait, providing food and shelter to 220 people. The facility remained open Wednesday.
Residents, some of them homeless and others without power, carried children, bags of clothing, and blankets as they trickled into the convention center Tuesday evening.
Johan Velasquez, who arrived on a VIAtrans bus that picked him up from the City’s Homeless Resource Hub at the San Fernando Gym, said the last time he experienced such frigid conditions was when he lived in Chicago.
“I thought I was running away from the cold,” he said.
On Monday night, the Alamodome and the convention center went mostly dark to conserve energy, according to Jeff Coyle, the City’s director of government and public affairs. But the convention center was called back into action Tuesday to help the thousands of Bexar County residents experiencing power outages during atypical freezing temperatures.
“We have several hundred cots and the San Antonio Food Bank will be helping us with the preparation of meals for people who need the shelter from the cold,” City Manager Erik Walsh said during a news conference Tuesday. “The warming center will be prepared to receive initially up to 500 people. We will continue to monitor that if there’s more demand and we will expand that capability.”
The City is providing free parking at the Hemisfair garage for people who drive themselves to the convention center.
Walsh said public health guidelines will be followed to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading within the center, including conducting temperature checks at the front door and spacing out beds. The City will supply masks on site. For those who don’t pass the temperature check, there will be isolation space so they still can use the warming center, Coyle said.
Elsewhere in Bexar County, the City of Converse has partnered with the Judson Independent School District to open a warming center with cots at the Judson High School gymnasium, at 9142 FM 78, for anyone in the Converse/Judson communities needing shelter.
As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, more than 250,000 customers were still without power, according to CPS Energy’s outage map. The unusual deep freeze had prompted the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to call on transmission companies to cut demand by instituting rotating outages. CPS Energy first used an automated system to conduct the outages but switched to a manual system Monday evening to give it more control.
Walsh was unsure how long city officials would keep the convention center open as a shelter.
“One of the measuring sticks of that will be a power reliability and we continue to get updates from CPS and what’s happening statewide through ERCOT,” Walsh said. “But we’ll have to see what the status is in the morning. Based on what I’m hearing for CPS now, we can expect this prolonged power outage situation to continue through tonight. And beyond that, I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”
As energy demand around San Antonio continued to rise Monday and Tuesday, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County looked for ways to scale back their own power consumption to help balance CPS Energy’s electricity supply. Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the City would be doing more to conserve as freezing temperatures held steady.
“I’ve asked the city manager to make sure lights will not be on needlessly in city buildings, and to urge private firms to reduce their power usage in any way possible,” Nirenberg said. “We don’t need a sparkling skyline tonight while thousands of residents are without power. We all need to work together.”
The City also has curtailed its energy usage at San Antonio International Airport, Coyle said.
“We have turned off non-critical power usage at the airport, and we are actively examining other City facilities to power down today,” Coyle said in a statement Tuesday. “We urge all major energy users to do the same.”
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) had tweeted a call to action Monday night urging that the buildings downtown go dark to conserve energy, singling out the Alamodome and convention center.
“Those are just sort of the biggest examples of where we can turn off lights and conserve power, but the request is really to reduce power at any and all city facilities,” Treviño said. “I also contacted Centro leadership and asked them to contact their … private property members to consider doing the same.”
The Dallas downtown skyline went dark Monday night amid calls for energy conservation. Residents of Austin and Houston criticized companies and building operators in their respective downtown areas for not doing the same.
Bexar County announced county facilities would be shut down through Wednesday, though emergency and essential workers were to go into work as usual. Bexar County also received a request Tuesday from CPS Energy to scale back its energy use even further, spokesman Tom Peine said. Treviño said CPS Energy leaders informed him Tuesday morning that they requested something similar from the City.
“Enacting a load curtailment agreement with CPS, Bexar County has powered down facilities that serve a purely administrative need,” Peine wrote in an email. “Other facilities have been switched to backup power. Certain critical infrastructure continues to draw power from the grid, but is equipped to react to possible outages with their own backup generator power.”
Both the dispatch center that fields 911 phone calls and the Bexar County Adult Detention Center have backup generators that should ensure no loss of power, Peine added.
“We are working to secure shelter for the homeless and those in critical need,” he said. “So, that is ongoing and that’s a joint effort of agency partners, elected officials – everybody is working on that.”
At a separate news conference Tuesday afternoon, Treviño joined fellow Council members Rebecca Viagran (D3), Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), and Ana Sandoval (D7) in calling for an emergency meeting that would convene City Council Tuesday night. Viagran, Cabello Havrda, and Sandoval sent a memo to the city clerk requesting the emergency meeting but had not received a response, they said.
City Council will have a special meeting Wednesday with CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System to discuss the utilities’ winter storm response.
The City has no plans to open another location as a warming center. Finding a location with guaranteed electricity was critical to the decision; the convention center has a backup power source and CPS Energy also told the City that the center would not lose electricity, Walsh said.
Walsh urged people to think about how high on the priority list they would be in terms of needing to shelter at the convention center.
“There’s no guarantee that households that currently have power will continue to have power through the night, according to CPS,” he said. “We are asking that folks that may use the convention center – we do want to make sure that we’re making it available to those elderly and those families with children as a priority. So everybody needs to make their own decision.”
Senior reporter Iris Dimmick contributed to this article.