13 Investigates: Year-round storm suffering deserves year-round prep

ByTed Oberg and Sarah Rafique via KTRK logo
Monday, February 22, 2021
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Some are still waiting for aid from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 which experts say is an example Houston's lack of ability to bounce back from extreme storms.

Editor's Note: In our video piece above, Ted Oberg says weather "is colder than anytime since the late 1800s." Travis Herzog corrected us. It should be "is colder than any February since the late 1800s." Our apologies.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- When she walked into her bathroom, Clara Logan said she heard water gushing. She didn't realize where the noise was coming from until water started seeping in through a crack in the floorboard.

That night, after suffering from days of power outages, Logan said the temperature inside her Fifth Ward home dropped to the 20s, and the water that pooled underneath her daughter's bed turned into ice.

Statewide, more than four million residents lost power at one point during the winter storm that swept through Texas this past week. Thirteen million residents were under boil water notices or without running water. And at least 20 deaths have been attributed to the frigid conditions in the Houston area.

But, this is not the first time Logan has faced a disaster due to extreme weather. She's still waiting for aid from the city after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 - an example of Texas' new reality and repeated failure to bounce back from extreme storms.

"This is a way of life now," Logan told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg. "It's every season, I'm worried."

ABC13 Chief Meteorologist Travis Herzog said the weather pattern typically goes through extreme cycles with periods of quiet weather and then periods of calamity. He said the state's power grids and other essential infrastructure needs to be prepared to withstand those extreme hot and cold temperatures.

"That means we can't build the way that we would have 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago," Herzog said. "We have to always be forward-looking. We have a growing population, which is a growing strain on our infrastructure, and we have the potential for stronger storms, more rain, stronger winds, more snow coming down."

The change, or at least realization, to a year-round storm threat means disaster plans must update to account for more than just hurricanes. Water systems that have elevated key components now must winterize, too. Building codes may have to adjust. Shelters must stock for winter, not just summer needs and plans to get people to those shelters must start before roads get dangerous to travel. In the most recent storm, Houston's METRO bus service stopped before the worst of the storm hit. Emergency food and water may need to be brought to an area before roads ice over instead of trying to come in once the ice has melted.

Assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Tech Dr. Emily Grubert said Texas cannot be blamed for the weather, but she said, "Where I will place blame, actually, is that Texas hasn't really invested a lot of effort in making sure that people are safe when things like this do happen."

With Texas still in the midst of extreme winter weather, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared an emergency, calling on lawmakers to mandate and ensure funding for the winterization of the state's power system.

13 Investigates found state leaders were aware of proposals to winterize energy equipment for decades, but did not act on those recommendations.

"I'm over anger," Logan said. "I feel like this shouldn't even be like this. This should have been fixed a long time ago. Why are we in this predicament?"

During a February 2011 winter storm, the state's power grid operator, ERCOT, had to cut power to at least a million Texas homes during a record-breaking cold snap.

A subsequent report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corporation found there were "potential vulnerabilities" and that power plants should winterize their equipment to withstand not just the average Texas winter, but also "unusually severe events."

Vice President of Engineering and Standards at NER Howard Gugel said Texas should have been prepared for the impacts of this severe weather event after lessons learned during the 2011 freeze that strained the system and caused similar, though less widespread, outages.

After that storm, NERC developed reliability standards for winterization, but those guidelines are not mandatory or enforceable.

Gugel said it is challenging to design a unit that can run in both extremes. He said in cold temperatures, there's a need for extra insulation around the generators, but that insulation puts limitations on the equipment during warmer temperatures. For example, throughout the year, generators will have to be updated or modified to keep up with the weather.

What isn't feasible, Gugel said, is to make major changes to weatherize the infrastructure at power plants with just a week's notice of an upcoming storm. Instead, all generator operators can do is audit their existing equipment.

"You may not be able to prepare at that point, but you can check now to make sure that everything that you had done before is still in place," Gugel said. "You shouldn't have to do a massive change, but maybe there's one or two things that maybe slipped or that have changed since you did your [last] winter prep."

This week, ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said there will be a full review to see what led up to the mass outages.

Still, Logan said the state and energy companies should have been prepared.

"You received the information, but you didn't do anything with the information. You were told what to do earlier about the situation, but you didn't," she said. "Why? It's a money thing. It's going to always be a money thing."

Who's responsible for winterizing?

With more extreme weather across the US, NERC moved to create standards that are mandatory and enforceable. In early 2020, the organization started requesting input from providers across North America.

Gugel said this time will be different.

"We will mandate that winter weather preparation has to occur, that their plans are there and that they have to be implemented," Gugel said. "That necessary communication needs to occur between the generator owners, and those that operate the system, so everybody knows what the temperature limitations are for particular units and whether or not they can be counted on given certain ambient conditions."

But, residents who have suffered one weather disaster after another aren't as confident things will change for the better.

"If they don't stop pointing the finger and do something about it [it won't get better]," Logan said. "They're going to keep blaming the other person. And the people in Houston, we're the ones who suffer."

Magness said winterizing equipment is not ERCOT's responsibility, but rather the companies that operate the generators.

"We don't own the generation units, we don't own the transmission. We're really just managing the overall transmission system and dispatching, putting generators on and off the grid," he said. "Winterization is an effort that's going to be needed to be undertaken by those entities that own the physical assets out in the field."

Magness said he wasn't sure how much it would cost to winterize power plants for future storms.

Gugel also does not know how expensive it would be to winterize existing systems or build new ones prepared for extreme cold, but said "You and I are the ones that bear the cost" as "it gets rolled into the rates."

Although people today may be willing to pay that extra cost in the midst of a disaster, Gugel said if too much time passes without real reform, there could be less of an urgency to get it done.

"We don't know the answer to that right now. Hopefully, when we get through with the inquiry, we'll at least have some ideas about what went wrong," Gugel said.

Georgia Tech's Grubert said national standards on how to prepare power grids for severe weather, hot or cold, tend to be based on the conditions those regions expect they might see. But, it might be time to better build for extremes, otherwise the same conversation will keep happening.

"I think we have a few months before something like this happens again," Grubert said. "They're not one-offs."

Gugel said he hopes to complete the winterization standards by the end of the year, and based on the results of the inquiry into this latest storm, make any necessary changes in 2022.

By 2023, he said he hopes there will never be another event like this week's outages.

"What I see success as is that, we had adequate preparation going into it so that everything could be done to make sure that the lights stay on and that the system remains intact and that we have adequate regulations in place that would be able to protect for that," Grugel said.

This week's weather was the coldest it has been since the late 1800s, Herzog said. With summer droughts, stronger hurricanes and now evidence of more powerful winter storms, Houstonians can no longer afford to prepare just for summer storms.

"Even if it's not common, you always want to mitigate, if you can, to the worst case scenario that you can dream up, otherwise it's false security," he said.

Harvey is considered the worst recent disaster in the state and about 900,000 Texas families applied for aid. But this week, more than five times that many people were left in the dark, even more without water.

As for Clara Logan, she's still waiting for help from Harvey, but said the devastation from both are equally painful.

When she goes to bed at night, the cracks in her house's floor and walls from both storms will once again let cool air inside, making it hard to stay warm, even if the power is working.

She's worried she'll be forgotten, again.

"How can you have hope in a system that doesn't give you hope? How can you believe in a system that doesn't really believe in you?" Logan said. "When they do help you, it's because the spotlight's been put on them."

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