Saturday, September 30, 2023 Sep 30, 2023
82° F Dallas, TX
Local Government

‘There Was No Plan’: City Scrambles to Shelter Residents Left in the Cold

Members of the Dallas City Council describe navigating a chaotic few days of power outages, burst pipes, and icy roads without clarity from the electricity provider.
Imani Lytle

On Tuesday evening, downtown, Uptown, and East Dallas Council member David Blewett became so frustrated with his inability to reach constituents suffering through the prolonged power outages that he did something he has only done a handful of times while in office. He tweeted.

Blewett said in his tweet that he was testing the medium and had “a bet going” about its effectiveness. Without any context, however, the tweet came across as tone deaf, particularly at the end of a day that had seen pipes burst in several Uptown apartment complexes. His followers pounced, some responding with videos of flooded apartments and images of Uptown residents living in the freezing cold for multiple days. Their anger sprang from deepening anxiety as extended power outages pushed the severe winter weather event into a humanitarian crisis.

Rather than indifference, Blewett paints his tweet as an act of desperation. As for many of his colleagues on the Council, the last 48 hours have been chaotic and confusing. Information about the blackouts is scarce. Power outages have not only left neighborhoods in the dark, but they have knocked out chunks of the city’s government. City staff has been operating with what city spokesperson Catherine Cuellar described as “less than a skeleton crew.”

Basic communication and coordination between departments has proven a challenge. Cuellar herself lost power, as did Mayor Eric Johnson’s chief of policy and communications, Tristan Hallman. Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates lost internet in Preston Hollow, and Councilwoman Paula Blackmon experienced intermittent, hours-long blackouts near White Rock Lake. Residents are reaching out to council members, looking for information about when to expect rolling blackouts or when power might be restored to their neighborhoods. Council members can’t get the answers.

“I’m very frustrated with lack of communication coming from Oncor,” says North Oak Cliff Council member Chad West. “They’re frustrated with ERCOT. I realize that no matter how much I bugged my contacts at Oncor, we had to turn to doing what we could do, which is provide warm places for people.”

ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, manages the state’s electric grid. It ordered energy providers like Oncor to shed enough power to warm millions of homes throughout the state. The council members share West’s sentiment: they don’t know anything about how the agency is distributing the outages, other than that the company says it preserves grids containing critical infrastructure such as hospitals and fire stations.

Even finding public facilities with power to repurpose as warming centers has proven difficult. The city’s office of emergency management opened a large warming center at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, and the city has relocated some displaced residents to hotel rooms purchased by the city last December with federal COVID-19 stimulus funds. Expanding that shelter capacity is complicated because city staff doesn’t know which facilities might lose power during the outages. The convention center was chosen because it is connected to downtown Dallas’ ultra-reliable electric “Smart Grid.” But the location is difficult for many stranded Dallas residents to access. The city’s solution so far: provide shuttle bus service for residents who want to go to the convention center and deploy two coach buses per council district to serve as remote “warming stations.”

In addition, council members have been working with nonprofits, churches, synagogues, and other organizations in their districts to reach out to residents. Gates is coordinating with nonprofits active in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood to establish a warming center, and a YMCA in her North Dallas district has opened as a temporary shelter. Blackmon reached out to her network of constituents, securing Wilshire Baptist Church and Owenwood Farms as warming centers. The county helped arrange a nearby YMCA. Southeast Dallas Councilman Jaime Resendez was asking the Pleasant Grove Ministerial Alliance whether any churches could open as warming centers, as well any businesses. They were unable; most were out of power.

Councilman Casey Thomas, of southern Dallas, arranged for a mobile unit in the Mountain Creek neighborhood and another at the Moorland Family YMCA on Hampton Road. Councilman Adam Bazaldua of South Dallas worked with the city to get 24-hour powered mobile units staged at the Parkdale Park and the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center. Bazaldua, a golfer, also coordinated with Parks Director John Jenkins to grab hand warmers from pro shops at the municipal courses. He says he dropped those off at porches belonging to vulnerable constituents.

“It’s something tiny, but it’ll give you a little heat,” he said.

Creating warm spaces is one thing, but it doesn’t guarantee that residents know they exist or are able to access them. And the city’s patchwork response is reflective of a lack of information from Oncor. All the council members who spoke with D Magazine said they received an email Monday notifying them of rolling outages — and then little else.

“There was no plan,” Bazaldua said. “There were no prudent measures taken to notify us of any communication that occurred between ERCOT and Oncor. What trickled down to us was very minimal.”

That affected the messaging to constituents.

As of Wednesday afternoon, it was difficult to find information about relief resources on the city’s website outside of a press release announcing the convention center warming station. Information is being filtered out to residents through multiple channels, including city emails, text lists, and council members’ email and social media networks. Another factor that might be limiting residents’ willingness to seek out shelters is the lack of clear information about rolling blackout plans from Oncor, says Blewett.

“The bigger problem for me is a lot of my people don’t want to leave the [apartment] towers. They don’t want to leave their homes,” Blewett says. “There are people who have been in their houses for two or three days with no power, and they are thinking, ‘Any minute now, any minute now, it will be on.’ If they knew, if we told them, ‘You’re not going to have power for two days,’ that would change their behavior.”

Park Board President Calvert Collins-Bratton said the city is prepared to open more recreation centers as warming stations but hasn’t received assurance from Oncor that they would have power throughout the event.

“We haven’t been able to get Oncor to give us the go-ahead if they can maintain power,” she said. “We do have some locations and recreation centers that do have the buses outside for bathroom and warmth and charging stations, but we are working to get the rec centers open if we can get Oncor to promise to give us power.”

Meanwhile, Cuellar says 911 has been overwhelmed with non-emergency calls and urges residents to use the state’s 211 and the city’s 311 non-emergency number to report issues like water main breaks.

As freezing temperatures persist, bursting water pipes are creating a new crisis. Dallas Water Utilities reported 30 water main breaks on Wednesday, about 10 times the typical amount, Cuellar says. Dozens of videos have surfaced on social media showing flooded apartments and homes.

Bazaldua says the newly renovated Hall of State and other facilities in Fair Park have “sustained significant damage.” Gates says the residents of Dallas two largest domestic violence shelters, The Family Place and Genesis Women’s Shelter, had to be relocated after a pipe burst in its facility. Even though Dallas Water Utilities is still delivering potable water to customers, Gates urges her constituents on social media to conserve and reserve supplies in case a water main break creates a localized disruption. More broadly, the City Council has been assured that the city’s water supply is secure and that an order to boil water does not appear to be necessary.

And as temperatures rise, Blewett believes, these problems will only worsen. “I think we’re going to have a lot of people who will not be able to live in their houses or their apartments or condos,” he says. “What I see coming is an unbelievable amount of water damage. We have people who don’t have a place to live because their houses are flooded. I see a week or two of significant dislocation.”

Before the city can tackle that next crisis, it must get through the remainder of the week. The public works department is running round-the-clock shifts to sand roads, and Dallas Water Utilities has extra crews on ground working on busted pipes.

Meanwhile, no council member seemed to have any idea about how decisions regarding the local grid were being made. Blackmon and her husband drove her district to try to determine a rhyme or reason and reach vulnerable constituents. Bazaldua says he got in a wreck after a driver turned into him while he was making a left turn on an intersection that had no power. (He’s OK but now carless.)

Most want an investigation and what Thomas calls an “equitable distribution of blackouts,” both in their district and across the city. Thomas hasn’t lost power, but he knows some who haven’t had it in days. West wants an after-action review of the city’s response, citing concerns about coordination and communication across city departments.

“There are departments that are doing their mission and doing it well,” West says. “But why am I getting calls about zoning cases for next week on a SUP [special use permit] for a gas station? Why is that something that we have staff dedicated to right now versus what is at hand?”

But all that will have to wait. Dallas residents face the fifth consecutive night of below-freezing temperatures and all the mess that will bring.

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