The winter storm that brought Texas’ power grid to the brink of failure last month has taught local leaders a few vital lessons about handling a crisis. Among those lessons is that better communication with the public and across government entities is needed, said panelists during a San Antonio Report virtual event on Wednesday.

Freezing temperatures and inches of snowfall brought on by Winter Storm Uri in mid-February caused power outages and pipe damage for thousands of San Antonio area residents. Since then, San Antonians have been asking how local utilities could have handled the historic weather event differently and what they’re doing to repair the damages caused by Uri. 

Senior Environmental Reporter Brendan Gibbons moderated a Wednesday discussion with San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh; Paul Barham, Chief Grid Optimization & Resiliency Officer at CPS Energy; and President and CEO of the San Antonio Water System Robert Puente. Watch the virtual event, titled Inside the Control Room: San Antonio’s Winter Storm Uri Response, at this link.

Each of the city leaders noted a lack of clear communication, among government agencies and with local residents, as a major issue in responding to the winter storm. This is an issue that needs to be rectified before any other major weather events affect the city, Walsh said. 

“I think the takeaway for me is that we have to do a better job of … communication because it will happen again,” he said. “Now’s the time to be thinking through that so that we’re prepared, whether it happens again in a winter storm, or if it happens in the heat of August.”

The city’s infrastructure is very interconnected, Barham said, a fact that the storm highlighted. Although coordination between CPS, SAWS, and the City occurred, officials were relying on cell service, which was unreliable during the weather event. 

“Communication was what we [at SAWS] didn’t do the best,” Puente said. “I didn’t do the best; I should have communicated a whole lot more than I did with everyone.”

While there was never a complete halt in communication between the entities, communication can always be better, Puente said. 

“[The] error we made, I believe, was a self-desire to discipline ourselves in giving out incomplete information,” he said. “Information that we didn’t know if it was going to end up to be true, so we held it back. And I think our public would have appreciated [having access to available information, despite it being incomplete].” 

In an effort to better understand what issues took place during the storm and how San Antonio can be better prepared for similar events in the future, the City of San Antonio has formed a seven-member committee dedicated to investigating the Uri winter storm response.

The Committee on Emergency Preparedness has met every Friday for the past four weeks to discuss different aspects of the local response to the event. 

Watch the full panel discussion between Gibbons, Walsh, Barham, and Puente here.

Disclosure: CPS Energy is a San Antonio Report business member.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.