February’s record-breaking winter storm knocked out power to millions of Texas residents, and hit other utilities hard. Officials in Abilene had to cut off the flow of water to city taps when Abilene’s three plants lost power. It was the first time in memory that backup power to the plants failed. It prompted some residents to demand better protections. City officials will look at the possibilities during this month’s budget process.
On a recent hot, windy and sunny afternoon, eight-year-old Emma played fast walking tag with her older brother Connor at the Grover Nelson Park Splash Pad. “I would rather be hot than freezing cold!”
Emma enjoyed cooling off in the spray and the buckets that dumped gallons of water every few minutes. But she has clear memories of what it was like in Abilene a few months ago, when the historic winter storm blew into town.
“Well, what we did at my house, is that every time the power went on and the hot water came on, we took a bath real quick. And when all the electricity was on we drank hot cocoa and stuff. And that’s a good way.”
Emma’s grandmother Kelly Sansing also remembers how hard that week was. She blames the electric grid and power generators for much of the trouble, but she says she thinks the city should do something to better protect the utilities,
“It was hard for a few days. But we managed,” Sansing said. “You do what you have to.”
When the power outages knocked out all three of Abilene’s water plants, it took nearly a week to get drinkable water running normally. The first night that the city lost water, fighters watched helplessly as a house burned to the ground, unable to get water from the nearby hydrant.
Angel Gutierrez and Angela Beavers were watching their nieces run through the spray at the splash pad. They live near the hospital on the west side of town, and that kept their lights on through the storm. But Gutierrez says he thinks global warming will bring more extreme weather to Abilene and the city should build more backup power,
“If it happens again we gotta be prepared for it,” Gutierrez said. “It’s gonna be more often. I mean we’re not making it any better out here with the Earth. And it’s just, gotta be ready.”
Back in February city officials offered residents regular updates from a cold and dark city hall. Abilene City Manager Robert Hanna stressed that Abilene’s safety net had been sufficient for at least 70 years. But this time it wasn’t enough.
“We haven’t seen temperatures like this since 1896, and folks our infrastructure isn’t designed for this kind of weather,” he said.
Hanna said then that the city’s water plants exceed the state requirements for backup power generation. And he won’t be advocating for more,
“We have three levels of redundancy in our system, which is almost unheard of. So the concept that somehow we’d have onsite generation to handle this is just, not that this is a bad idea, it’s just not practical.”
Abilene has hired an engineering firm to prepare estimates for various options. But Hanna recently pointed out that even if Abilene invests millions in the project, there will also be maintenance costs and equipment will have to be replaced, and even then he says there are no guarantees, pointing to the city of Houston as an example.
“They have a multi-million dollar maintenance agreement, to maintain their generators,” Hanna notes. “When the storm hit, even after putting that much money into just maintenance of these facilities, 21% failed to respond.”
Hanna says he’d rather see the city invest in other projects,
“From my perspective as city manager, if we’re gonna drop $10 million to $15 million, on something that’s going to be an improvement for our community, I’d like to look at quality of life amenities, maintaining our road infrastructure. I’d rather put that money in water and sewer infrastructure such as pipe replacements that we know need to be done, complete the removal of our cast iron.”
Or maybe adding some more fountains at the splash pads.
Hanna stresses it’s not his call. It will be up to the city council to determine whether adding more backup power will be worth the investment. Hanna will present the various options and their price tags to the city council when they begin their budget process at the end of July.