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Sunday, February 21, 2021

As Texans endured days in the dark, the state failed to deliver vital emergency information

Posted By on Sun, Feb 21, 2021 at 12:35 AM

click to enlarge Gov. Greg Abbott spoke at a Saturday press conference regarding Texas’ emergency response to a winter storm gripping Texas. - JORDAN VONDERHAAR / THE TEXAS TRIBUNE
  • Jordan Vonderhaar / The Texas Tribune
  • Gov. Greg Abbott spoke at a Saturday press conference regarding Texas’ emergency response to a winter storm gripping Texas.
As millions of Texans fought to survive brutal winter weather without power and water, Gov. Greg Abbott said residents should call 311 or visit a state website to find warming centers — and added that a Google search had also worked for him.

The only problem: Many people lacked internet access, cellphone service and the ability to watch the governor’s press conferences. When the power went out, the state suddenly lost the ability to provide essential information to people desperately in need of help.

“Telling people to Google it is not OK. It’s the result of non-imaginative or non-planning in general, and it’s very, very unfortunate,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a senior research scholar for Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “And I think there needs to be some accountability for why they hadn’t made the infrastructure more resilient, and also why they hadn’t planned for a situation where the power’s out.”

During natural disasters and other humanitarian crises, the Texas Division of Emergency Management can use the national Emergency Alert System to share important updates, including for weather events, with Texans in specific areas. Impacted residents of the state would immediately receive a cellphone notification through that system with basic information like boil water notices or updates on when power might be restored.

But according to residents and lawmakers around the state, TDEM failed to provide such emergency alerts during this crisis, effectively leaving Texans without the kind of information necessary for living through a disaster. Instead, Abbott and TDEM officials encouraged people to search for resources on social media or Google.

The governor’s office and TDEM did not immediately respond to requests for comment on their tactics for sharing information with the public over the past week.

Suzanne Wallen, a resident of Austin, told The Texas Tribune that when she lived in Boston, the mayor would send out robocalls to everyone in the city providing information about power outages or road conditions during weather emergencies. This time, though, she felt at a loss for where to find updates on the situation.

“That kind of [robocall] I think is more effective, and I would say the same is true of the vaccine rollout,” Wallen said. “To expect everybody to go online is just ridiculous.”

Normally, disaster planning involves constant communication between state agencies to create protocols for any possible emergency situation, according to Redlener. The Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee oversees the Division of Emergency Management, but Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, said the committee only meets with TDEM officials on an as-needed basis.

“When it comes to disaster preparedness, I would say that they don’t really give us instructions or advice or even a network to say in an emergency ‘Here’s who you should be reaching out to,’” Goodwin said.

Goodwin added that she plans to bring up the lack of communication during the legislative session, and she wants to see TDEM use the national Emergency Alert System during future disasters because an automatic cellphone message would be the most effective way to share information. Committee Chair Rep. James White, R-Hillister, also said he has already contacted House Speaker Dade Phelan about scheduling committee hearings to improve the state’s disaster planning and preparedness strategies.

White said he himself did not receive any cellphone alerts during the crisis, and agreed with Goodwin that there are opportunities for TDEM to improve.

But some Texans said that new legislation should not even be necessary for making changes to the state’s disaster planning.

“Does it even need to be a law, though? It’s just common sense. I mean...state officials...send text alerts. Make robocalls,” said Shannon Bentle, a Sugar Land resident who lost power this week. “Give people as much information as possible so they don’t die.”

Although many state officials blamed the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s power grid operator, for a lack of warning about prolonged outages, Texans pointed out that the extreme weather conditions should have warranted emergency messages anyway.

“Even if they didn’t know the power outages were coming, just the temperatures alone should have been enough to have massive warnings to people of what is possible,” Wallen said. “The icing of trees and the icing of power lines, all of that is kind of basic dangerous weather information.”

Communicating the right information to people in a timely manner often becomes a life or death situation during disasters like this, Redlener said. Especially when people lose access to clean water, they need to know immediately that they should stop drinking their tap water before boiling it.

And even though TDEM may not have been prepared to send out emergency alerts before people started losing power, the state agency still could have shared information through the national alert system when the situation became dire for people across Texas.

“From so many different perspectives, this is an example of a very poorly planned disaster response, and there’s all kinds of things that could have been better, including the communication issues,” Redlener said.

After a hellish, rollercoaster week for the state, people are losing what faith they had left in their public officials. The electric grid failed, the communication system failed and Texans say they feel abandoned by their government.

“They don’t seem to have a concept of disaster preparedness, which is really surprising given the disasters that have hit Texas over recent years,” Wallen said. “Honestly, there’s a part of me that feels like they just don’t care.”

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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