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Texas cities weren’t ready for a massive winter storm in February. Has that changed?

 Austin was covered in snow amid freezing temperatures as the devastating winter storm in February hit the state.
Jordan Vonderhaar
for The Texas Tribune
Austin was covered in snow amid freezing temperatures as the devastating winter storm in February hit the state.

Cities have made some preparations in case of another severe winter storm. But keeping the lights and water on is far from guaranteed.

Officials in major Texas cities say they are in a better position to handle a severe crisis like February’s winter storm than they were before — but big gaps in their preparation remain and won’t be closed until after the upcoming winter.

Texas cities drastically underestimated the severity of this year’s freeze, which left hundreds dead and millions of Texans without heat, water and electricity for days.

The catastrophe exposed shortfalls in local governments’ ability to respond to frigid weather. As the storm blanketed Texas in snow, city officials found they lacked supplies like power generators and water trucks necessary to handle the winter emergency, and they struggled to communicate crucial information to residents. Icy roads and blackouts stranded city workers who otherwise would have been responding to the crisis. Even some of the cities’ best-laid plans were thwarted by statewide power outages.

Now, cities know massive winter storms are not only possible but also capable of great devastation.

“If nothing else, they now know it can happen,” said Reed Williams, a former San Antonio City Council member who helmed a committee to investigate the city’s response to the storm. “So they ought to be paying better attention.”

In the aftermath, local governments looked to zero in on what went wrong with their emergency responses and better prepare for similar disasters in the future. Probes in Austin and San Antonio produced dozens of recommendations like stocking up on emergency supplies and revising outdated emergency planning documents that had downplayed the risk and severity of a winter storm.

Ten months after the freeze, Texas cities have made some headway on storm preparedness, an oft-neglected area of local government. They have bolstered reserves of bottled water for residents in case of water outages, bought tire chains for city emergency vehicles, and implemented measures intended to shorten potential power outages for residents and keep electricity flowing to critical facilities.

But as winter approaches and the electrical grid remains vulnerable to blackouts, cities are still short on two key fronts: making sure their most vulnerable residents have the information they need to survive a similar calamity and that the water stays on. Many preparations cities are undertaking to protect residents against future disasters will take months, if not years, to put in place, city officials have said.

And worries abound that officials didn’t learn the lesson and will neglect to adopt new readiness measures — as they have after past disasters.

Austin officials failed to make emergency preparations before February that may have helped during the winter storm, despite past recommendations to do so, according to a recent report conducted by city auditors. Austin has adopted only a sliver of the recommendations made in the wake of other recent calamities, the report says.

“It’s extremely frustrating, and we need systems in place that don’t let that happen again,” Austin City Council member Alison Alter said during a meeting on the report’s findings last month.

Emergency officials say part of the reason those calls haven’t been entirely heeded is that large-scale disasters are becoming increasingly common as climate change worsens, making it more difficult to learn from the last one before the next one hits. On top of that, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched emergency responders thin.

“There hasn’t been enough time in between them to look at all those corrective actions,” Juan Ortiz, who heads Austin’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told a council committee in November. “That really has caused the congestion in work that needed to be done.”

As the storm hit and knocked out utility services, many Texans huddled in the dark for warmth and waited for authorities to inform them when the lights and water would return. A key point of frustration for many Texans during the storm: When they needed information about what was going on, local governments weren’t there.

In Austin, residents had little heads-up from city officials about how to prepare for the storm before the power and water went out, according to a November audit of the city’s storm response.

“The city did not communicate effectively with Austin residents in the days leading up to or during Winter Storm Uri, so residents were left without critical information that may have helped them stay safe,” the audit said.

For Austinites who speak languages other than English, the delay was even worse. It took Austin officials an extra day to translate information about boil-water notices and emergency shelters into languages like Spanish that they had already shared in English, the audit shows.

Many staffers typically in charge of getting city communications translated suffered power and internet outages during the storm, which made it hard to share key information in other languages in real time, Jessica King, the city’s chief communications officer, told Austin council members last month.

But there’s no reason the city couldn’t have some emergency communications translated and ready to send ahead of the storm, Austin City Council member Kathie Tovo said.

“Some of this work is definitely happening,” Tovo said. “I think there are legitimate questions about why some of it didn’t happen before.”

Austin emergency officials are hammering out a plan intended to make sure emergency messages go out to the public in several languages during a disaster. But the plan isn’t slated to be finished until September.

In San Antonio, city and utility officials are scheduled to deliver a joint emergency communications plan at the end of the month. An important question they are expected to address is how to communicate ahead of and during a storm with residents who don’t have internet access to begin with — like many residents on the city’s South Side.

Those residents can’t be left out in the cold, said council member Adriana Rocha Garcia.

“A preparation checklist should be on a door hanger for every vulnerable community to be able to just literally go out and get it from their doors so that they know exactly what to do, exactly who to call in case of an emergency during a winter storm,” Rocha Garcia said.

Officials in Texas cities didn’t count on the possibility of widespread and prolonged power outages in February.

In Dallas, the outages knocked out power in facilities like libraries and recreation centers that had been set up as hubs for people to warm up, forcing officials to pay for a fleet of charter buses to act as warming shelters.

As a short-term measure to get through this winter, Dallas officials are trying to acquire small-scale generators that can power and heat those facilities in case another blast of severe cold weather leads to more power outages, said Rocky Vaz, the city’s emergency management director. Dallas won’t have permanent backup generators for some of those facilities until next year, he said.

“It’s a long process,” Vaz said. “No. 1, we have supply chain issues. No. 2, it’s not as simple as just going and plopping a generator at a rec center.”

Power outages in February knocked out San Antonio Water System’s water pumping stations, leading to widespread outages across the city and prompting a boil-water notice from the city-owned utility, though not everyone had electricity to heat it.

Before the storm, the city’s water pumping stations weren’t on circuits that would protect them from outages. Now, they are — but that’s not enough to guarantee they won’t lose power.

The stations don’t have backup generators to help water continue flowing to nearly 2 million people should Texas’ electrical grid fail, despite a 2015 recommendation by outside disaster planning experts urging the utility to purchase them.

Utility officials have said equipping each of the pumping stations with generators would be too expensive, citing a $200 million cost estimate; they also worry that generators will fail in cold weather, as they did in Houston. Instead, the utility has pinpointed a number of stations that could serve as backup and maintain water service in the city even if several others go down.

The problem now for San Antonio utility officials is figuring out how to install generators cheaply, particularly ones not powered by natural gas.

“Natural gas failed the state of Texas,” said the water utility’s CEO, Robert Puente. “So if you’re going to rely on that for your backup, for your emergency, you may run into the same problem.”

Disclosure: San Antonio Water System has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/12/06/texas-cities-winter-storm/.

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Joshua Fetcher | The Texas Tribune