After nearly 400,000 were left freezing without power and light during Winter Storm Uri and water pump stations failed, the ire of local residents fell on San Antonio’s water and power utilities. Failures by elected and appointed leaders have largely flown under the radar. That may change.
The Committee on Emergency Preparedness has been tasked by Mayor Ron Nirenberg with discovering how San Antonio fell into a frozen dark hell during February’s Winter Storm Uri and making recommendations to prevent an encore collapse.
To say the committee could do more to engage the public would be akin to calling the punishing polar vortex a cold snap.
Meeting notices aren’t posted until a day ahead. The meetings aren’t streamed or advertised on the City of San Antonio’s Facebook page as are Council meetings and nightly COVID-19 updates. The archives are scattered and hard to locate. (Only one of three meeting recordings are hosted on the group’s webpage.*) Due to COVID-19 precautions, members of the public are only allowed to view the proceedings in an adjacent room. There are no public agendas. There is no live public comment; feedback is invited through a survey page or by leaving a message with 311.
Its members, mostly current and former City Council members, have agreed to “hang up” their Council hats and conduct their investigation as concerned residents. But should the investigation lead back to failures of the Mayor and City Council, well .. we’ll see how long those hats stay off.
So far, the meetings have involved a lot of wondering. The initial meeting was used to develop a list of categories (English; Spanish) from which to develop questions worth pursuing. The second meeting saw development of a list of questions for CPS Energy (English only). Last Friday’s hour-and-a-half meeting was dedicated to developing a list of questions for the San Antonio Water System leadership, the result of which is yet to be posted.
All questions should lead to variations of What were you doing when you should have been preparing for climate disaster?
However, this orderly accumulation of queries was unexpectedly upended by Councilmember Adriana Rocha Garcia presenting on an unfamiliar document: The 2015 City of San Antonio Hazard Mitigation Plan.
Anyone heard of it? she asked, mid-meeting.
Not this bunch.
“The first time I saw it was yesterday, I’m not going to lie,” said Rocha Garcia. “But I couldn’t sleep last night because I was so freaked out about some of these things. It literally predicted what was going to happen in 2014.”
The document prepared in 2014 with support from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, and approved by the City Council the next year, attempted to rank the highest-level risks threatening the City (flood, drought, locusts..). Additionally, it proposes potential policy responses to dampen their inevitable blow.
Click Play to listen to the Committee on Emergency Preparedness discuss the Hazard Mitigation Plan.
That said, Austin-based consultant H2O Partners Inc., who prepared the report, didn’t actually come anywhere near to predicting February’s dangerous icy blackouts. Despite the near-collapse of the local power grid and much of the water network on account of Arctic weather incursions, H2O Partners assessed the potential severity of winter storms as “minor.” Strange, as this report was prepared only a few years after the last winter state-wide rolling blackouts.
However, there is a lot in this document which, if acted upon, could have reduced the suffering San Antonio residents experienced—and maybe prevented a lot of it outright.
“I’m really worried now because [the Hazard Mitigation Plan] also says that we were supposed to do budgeting during the annual budget process for these risk mitigation processes in general and it says that we will speak about it,” Rocha Garcia continued. “I’ve been through two budget cycles now. I don’t recall this.”
Among the list of mitigation measures recommended were firebreaks in city parks, better communications tools for emergency responders, hail-proof HVAC systems for critical infrastructure, and formation of an intimidating “all-man security team” drawn from the police and fire departments “trained in a uniform method to respond to terrorism acts.”
And, yeah, high up on the list of 131 proposals are back-up generators for San Antonio Water System pump stations—of particular interest since CPS Energy’s February power outages eliminated electricity to key SAWS facilities, compounding the punishment meted out to residents reliant on City-owned utilities.
Proposed Action #6: “Purchase generators for secondary emergency backup power. Generators will have enough power to enable full use of the primary pump stations that provide water to the City’s critical facilities i.e., fire departments, fire hydrants, hospitals, medical offices, schools, universities, numerous high value commercial customers, large residential apartment complexes and homeowners.”
Also fairly high, and of interest to Rocha Garcia, was a big charge proposed for the Office of Sustainability.
Proposed Action #30: “Adopt and implement smart growth initiatives that incorporate the adopted Hazard Mitigation Plan in long-term community development planning activities.”
If adopted, the Office of Sustainability would have led an annual assessment and update of the Hazard Mitigation Plan and the Comp plan 2040, as well as deep and wide-ranging resilience work. Tasks would have included:
1) A climate and vulnerability assessment – climate change sensitivity analysis addressing stormwater management, and road operations and maintenance to identify current and projected weather conditions.
2) Policy recommendations to enable the identification of parcels or areas to be designated as high risk.
3) Identification of related capital improvements or land acquisition projects to strengthen at-risk public facilities, such as fire and police stations, and utility systems, or to resist floods and geological hazards or incorporate interconnection service networks, such as roads, pipelines, and cables, and to allow more than one route to any point so that they are less vulnerable to local failures.
Complained Rocha Garcia: “I have not seen a presentation by the Office of Sustainability in my two years on Council.”
Now, the pandemic and winter white-out have many of us living hour to hour these days, so we’re going to forgive this overlooking of the whole Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, passed just over a year ago after more than a year of CAAP meetings and Office of Sustainability presentations to Council. Prior to that came a string of reports forecasting similar disaster scenarios that address, at least in part, this proposed action’s first task. Where Rocha Garcia is correct, however, is the apparent failure of the City’s elected and appointed leadership to follow these accumulating disaster warnings with any significant investment.
Just since the adoption of the Hazard Risk Mitigation Plan, there’s been no shortage of vulnerability modeling. It has factored into a 2015 Climate Trends in San Antonio, 2016’s SA Tomorrow Sustainability Plan and Climate Vulnerability Assessment, as well as the 2019 Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, which identifies a lot of vulnerabilities while focusing primarily on reducing the City’s climate pollution contributing to these accumulating crises.
Under Proposed Action 30, the Office of Sustainability would have been fueled by $250,000 a year for five years, allowing the City to move beyond vulnerability mapping and into active community protection.
It appears, at least in this case, not to have happened.
While City Attorney Andy Segovia pledged to update the committee on the document’s course through the City bureaucracy, it appears that the majority of the Hazard proposals (and processes) may have sunk into the graveyard of best intentions grown cold.
Committee member and Councilman Manny Palaez chimed in, recognizing his fellow law-school grads in the room:
“One thing we’ve been taught as lawyers, particularly when it comes to employee handbooks, right? If you’ve got an employee handbook and you let that employee handbook collect dust then you really don’t have an employee handbook. And you really don’t have policies. That’s what sounds like what happened here.”
It’s reasonable to expect many of the recommendations this Committee will ultimately fall in line with will include at least some of those 131 proposed actions identified in 2014. Committee Chair Reed Williams also expects to receive from CPS Energy another layer for our burgeoning vulnerability data: maps of the critical and non-critical nodes across the City’s power grid telling the story of who, ultimately, who lost power and who did not.
While we’ve learned not to expect a public agenda before the next committee meeting, it’s reasonable to bank on a briefing about what happened to that Hazard Mitigation Plan.
“It sounds like we don’t know to what extent that has been implemented,” Segovia said.
Since the polar vortex descended on the state, San Antonio residents have read a lot about ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission of Texas. Many in San Antonio have also learned how our city and City-owned CPS Energy operate outside of the deregulated state power market. We’ve learned how CPS is responsible for managing its own portion of that electric grid, meaning that while ERCOT put pressure on CPS Energy to reduce power in the middle of the storm, how those reductions were made, how the rolling outages became a massive blackout has a lot to do with local decision-making.
And now a committee of mostly current and former Council members are investigating these failures, only to learn there is a history of inaction that can’t be pinned solely on the heavily compensated CEOs at SAWS and CPS. They themselves bear responsibility as well.
Included among the City Council’s Charter-derived powers of utility oversight, including rate approval, board appointments, financial assessments, and the like, come variations of soft and hard power. An example of this being Councilman Roberto Treviño’s call on CPS and SAWS to suspend disconnections of service a year ago just as the pandemic began to set in. Both utilities responded affirmatively the very same day.
It’s an imperfect comparison, but still worth noting, that all three of the appointed members of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, with a mission to oversee the state’s power grid, have resigned. Meanwhile, there have been few visible tremors among the local utility boards or our City Council, which together are intended to serve that PUC function for San Antonio.
Whether a Councilmember-heavy disaster-orientated committee will take the conversation deeper into that critical contrast remains to be seen. But Rocha Garcia has opened the door.
“We literally just had to read and execute [the Hazard Mitigation Plan],” she said. “And that’s what I’m worried about.”
* The other two meetings were added today.