California grapples with some of the nation’s most disastrous wildfires and earthquakes. Many are familiar with the Camp Fire of 2018, when a fire tore through Northern California’s Butte County, largely destroying the foothill town of Paradise and killing 85 people. State regulators blamed the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), for repeatedly failing to maintain a transmission line that broke from a 100-year-old tower, causing the deadly blaze. On June 16, 2020, the utility company pled guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of illegally causing the fire.
Following this horrific tragedy, PG&E was forced by state regulators and the public to increase its accountability. As Texas thaws after a week of frigid weather that left millions without power in subzero temperatures, the public is once again calling for accountability. While we demand accountability for the mistakes that led to the crisis we are experiencing, we must also demand serious planning at all levels to prevent another disaster.
The futures of cities is in emergency management
When countless households in Texas were left without heat this week – in many cases for days, when power outages led to water pump shutoffs and homes were left without water, when icy roads prevented people from driving out to seek essential supplies – all without meaningful communication from local and state leaders – Texans were left wondering why we were so unprepared for a large-scale emergency.
It reminded me of a series of blackouts in response to strong winds in Northern California in October of 2019. These public safety power shutoffs already were a practice in California, but primarily in rural communities. After an especially harrowing series of Northern California wildfires in 2017, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) revised its guidelines in preparation for the 2019 fire season.
The first series of blackouts, intended to reduce wildfires in times of high-risk weather, took place in the Bay Area from Oct. 9 to Nov. 1, 2019. PG&E was lambasted for its handling of the blackouts, creating confusion among residents and businesses. As customers who were directed by PG&E to go to their website for details on outages tried accessing the site for information, the site crashed, leaving customers in the dark. Medical baseline customers said they didn’t receive warning in time.
While some other California cities struggled, San Jose stood well-prepared in spite of a lack of flowing information from PG&E. At the time I served as director of communications for the City of San Jose and activated my emergency public Information team in a makeshift war room as soon as I received initial reports from PG&E and the National Weather Service that an outage may occur, and a full 24 hours before we activated the full City Emergency Operations Center.
Instead of relying on PG&E to notify customers, we issued flash reports, held press conferences, partnered with Santa Clara County to disseminate text message alerts, and used social media like NextDoor to warn San Jose residents. City staff developed a power outage map of our own, where residents could self-report outages in place of PG&E’s website failure.
But this preparation did not happen overnight. It started two years prior, in 2017, following the disastrous Coyote Creek flood, where heavy rain caused Santa Clara County’s largest reservoir to overflow, displacing 14,000 people in three San Jose neighborhoods and causing $100 million in damages. The City was bashed for not alerting residents in time, and in their native languages, for them to evacuate their homes. In a City-commissioned report, conducted by an independent emergency management consultant, the City was given an “A” for its response to the flood, but an “F” for foresight.
After the catastrophe, new City Manager Dave Sykes made emergency management and preparedness his top priority. In fact, it was the reason he hired me in 2017; my assignment was to avoid another communications failure. As a leadership team, we were not only responsible for emergency planning, we served on the front lines during an actual emergency activation. We developed emergency plans, after-action reports, and new systems; organized leadership meetings and task forces; led planning workshops, tabletop exercises, and added new technologies; improved our language translation and interpretation capabilities; and, held study sessions with the City Council so they understood their role in the time of an emergency. We created shift schedules and trained essential workers, in partnership with the County, at the City and County’s emergency operations centers. And when a flood, fire, or power shutoff occurred, we were there, sometimes overnight, serving in 12-hour shifts.
Joint agency coordination is crucial
Many of us assume our local agencies already have these protocols in place. However, emergency management and preparedness require diligent attention and constant practice. Staff leave an agency or retire, sometimes creating a gap in knowledge; new types of emergency situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, emerge; or, existing plans grow out-of-date. An ever-changing political environment requires leadership and collaboration among key local agencies on a continuous basis.
We live in a digital age, and audiences are segmented more than ever, relying on multiple sources of information and expecting instantaneous updates. We can and should expect better coordination from the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, CPS Energy, SAWS, the National Weather Service, and others during times of disaster so our residents can have adequate time to prepare.
There is much San Antonio can learn from San Jose’s emergency preparedness work. First, we monitored changing CPUC regulation and met with PG&E early in 2019 to build a power vulnerability plan for San Jose. We formed an internal City task force, identified operational and communication gaps in PG&E’s plans and pinpointed areas the City would need to take over. We planned for worst-case scenarios and exercised the plan in partnership with the County and key agencies.
Our plan included issue areas such as traffic and transportation needs; law, fire, and medical response; cooling centers and backup power generation; large and small business concerns; public information; and medically fragile and vulnerable populations. During the blackouts, we participated in coordination calls with other Northern California counties. While some counties and cities were scrambling to notify residents, we implemented our communications plan with clarity of each agency’s role and the roles of our elected officials as spokespeople during the crisis.
Communicate anything and everything
In San Jose, our worst-case scenario was an earthquake. But we used each crisis and every opportunity, including this blackout event, to practice for an immense earthquake. In San Antonio, our worst-case scenarios will be different. As we learn more about the causes of the Texas power outage and look toward the state’s grid operator for answers, we also must look at why our local agencies did not mobilize sooner. We must ask why they failed to provide adequate information, alerts, and guidance to residents such as critical care customers who rely on electrically operated medical equipment and other life-saving devices.
In times of crisis, it’s critical to communicate information as soon as it’s available and to meet residents where they are – that is, in the way they communicate and in the language they prefer. If there are no updates, communicate that too. As a resident, you have a right to this level of information and preparedness from your local government and agencies. Texans deserve better, and better is not out of reach.