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Long-Awaited Answers On San Antonio’s Winter Storm Response Begin Trickling In, But Public Will Have To Wait For Full Report

Just east of I-37, Denver Heights residents woken up to a blanket of snow on Monday, Feb. 15, like much of the city.
Dominic Anthony Walsh
Texas Public Radio
Just east of I-37, Denver Heights residents woken up to a blanket of snow on Monday, Feb. 15, like much of the city.

A report on San Antonio’s response to the winter storm is expected to be ready by the middle of June, making it more than four months before the public fully sees the shortcomings of the energy crisis that left many residents without power and water for days in February.

While responses to questions by a special committee overseeing the process are starting to come in, many answers still remain. Members of the San Antonio City Council expressed concern about lapses in communication on Thursday, and on Friday responses from the San Antonio Water System and City of San Antonio were released.

The committee, comprised of several council members, former councilman Reed Williams, former assistant criminal district attorney Lisa Tatum, and retired Air Force general Edward Rice submitted more than 100 questions to CPS Energy, the San Antonio Water System, the City of San Antonio and its Emergency Operations Center

During Thursday’s council meeting, the committee chair, former District 8 Councilman Reed Williams briefed council members on the information acquired at the time.

“We definitely have to answer the questions of were parts of our city overburdened with this terrible event,” Williams said. “... I’m not going to give up on getting that answer; it’s not there yet but I will keep working on it.”

Current District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez, who also sits on the committee, said he was frustrated and disappointed at how information flowed during the crisis and information that was coming in.

“We need to figure out how to be more nimble. I keep telling folks that McDonalds does a better job at telling everybody that the McRib is finally back then we do at warning folks that disaster is imminent,” he said.

The overall energy crisis in the early morning of Feb. 15 stemmed from emergency requests by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas who began mandating rolling blackouts across the state to keep the Texas power grid from being overwhelmed as several power generating units went offline due to cold weather and plants freezing up.

District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval said the electric grid overall is reliable, but that it can’t stand up to adverse events like the winter storm.

“The grid is reliable, CPS energy is extremely reliable but what reliable means is that you’re prepared for expected events, you’re prepared for scheduled shutdowns, for routine maintenance, said Sandoval "What we don’t have right now is resiliency."

Data provided by CPS Energy shows some unidentified circuits were without power for 70 hours. The utility which uses natural gas as fuel for some of its power plants, was forced to buy more natural gas in part because it's coal plant was offline during part of the storm.

Williams told the city council Thursday that CPS Energy customers deserve to know if they are a circuit subject to losing power in an emergency.

“Let’s say you have somebody on a dialysis or you have somebody that’s needing an oxygen generating machine; they need to understand what kind of circuit they’re on — so we get that, do we have it? No we don’t.” Williams said. “There’s security issues around it — we’ve got a lot of bad people that might want to get a hold of that information and want to use it someway.”

Late Thursday night, the city’s website on the investigation was updated with answers from the San Antonio Water System.

Documents released by the committee show text messages between CPS Energy and SAWS officials.

An exchange on the evening of Feb. 15 highlighted an apparent lack of water pressure from SAWS hindering the ability of a gas-powered CPS energy plant at Braunig Lake to cool its generators.

“Steve, we are getting low potable water pressure at our Brauning site & we will lose units if we can’t get to normal pressure. Any help greatly appreciated,” said CPS Energy’s former chief operating officer Chris Eugster to his SAWS counterpart Steve Clouse in a text message.

To which Clouse replied: “We are struggling in the center city area that bleeds down through PRVs towards the Brauning area. We’re working hard to get that pressure back to you.”

That text was followed by Clouse saying: “It’s going to be a really challenging night. Tomorrow Everyone’s frozen pipes will start to show breaks everywhere. That’s our next problem.”

Several hours later into the early morning of Feb. 16, more texts showed requests by SAWS to CPS energy to take SAWS pumping stations out of circuits affected by the blackouts.

On Friday, the committee began diving into responses form the City of San Antonio, and SAWS.

Some information is still lacking, and operational questions on CPS Energy’s plants remained unanswered. Williams said baseline information was needed to see how much still needs to be discovered.

“We simply must understand how the plants operated. We cannot just say they didn’t operate well, we need to understand where and why they didn’t operate well," Williams said on Friday.

The committee is expected to review the SAWS answers at its meeting next week.

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Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules