Harris County Commissioner on who to blame for the Texas power failure, how residents are still digging out from the crisis, and how Houston could break free from the state grid
- Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia told Insider what residents need after the Texas freeze.
- Garcia pointed the finger at Gov. Abbott and said, "Abbott owned it in 2011. He owns it today."
- Storm Uri, alongside power grid failures and decades-long mismanagement, left millions powerless.
On Monday morning, Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia introduced a resolution at the Commissioner's Court meeting - a meeting of all four of the Harris County's commissioners, the officials responsible for the county's roads, bridges, and policy budget decisions, moderated by County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
Harris County encompasses Houston, the fourth-largest city in the US, with over 4 million inhabitants. The Houston Chronicle reported that at least 1.4 million Houston-area households were impacted by Storm Uri and power grid failures, which lasted from February 10 to February 17.
In the aftermath of the deep freeze - which incapacitated much of Texas' power grid, left millions powerless for a week, and killed at least 80 Texans - Garcia, the former Harris County Sheriff, called for the entire Public Utility of Commission of Texas to resign, and for Gov.
The Harris County Institute of Forensic Science said that at least 25 Harris County residents died during the deep freeze, with the toll expected to rise.
The PUCT regulates the Electric Reliability Council of Texas power grid. The PUCT failed to heed winterization warnings outlined by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2011, according to local news station WFAA. Garcia also said that Abbott, then-Texas's attorney general in 2011, should have acted sooner.
Garcia's resolution, which passed and was followed by harrowing testimonies from Harris County residents who lost loved ones, homes, and businesses, opened the door for conversations about how Harris County could move away from ERCOT to a new power grid system.
Insider spoke to Garcia about how Harris County is dealing with the aftermath of the freeze, and who should be held accountable. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Currently, what are the biggest needs right now for residents in Harris County at this moment?
We're working to provide a response to all of the challenges of the community. And although, we're still recovering from a winter freeze, the reality of it is - is that this is much more compounded from the fact that we were dealing with a pandemic before the winter freeze came in. So just like it was during the pandemic, the economy has been disrupted. And so providing people food, nonperishable food items, and water has been a critical mission drain almost the entirety of the pandemic.
But when you throw a winter freeze, an unprecedented historical winter freeze into the equation, now it's become more food, water, and other essentials. But a unique one is the fact that we also have to help people get their plumbing problems addressed because although the city water lines are functioning and other main utilities are functioning, the water is drinkable. It's safe. The problem is people cannot turn on their water lines at their homes. Even though they can live in those homes, they can't turn on those water lines and get drinking water to their faucets because there's lines inside their homes that have disrupted. And as a result, their homes have, or will receive water damage.
Could you explain some of the maybe less directly visible, but still ongoing crises that are kind of coming out of this deep freeze and power grid failure?
Well, it is a lot of what we've already heard is that schools are disrupted. Some of the schools also received water damage. The vaccine process has become much more complicated because people are like, well, I had an appointment to go get my vaccine today, but I'm trying to fix my plumbing at home.
And then look, the state for some reason, has it in for struggling families, because now Sid Miller, the agricultural commissioner was cutting critical funding to food banks, like the Houston Food Bank is needed in order for us to provide fresh produce and non-perishable food items to the homes of families. And so there's a lot of things that are moving that have made the overall process complicated. But these are the issues that are in the forefront of people's minds. They've got to get their plumbing fixed. They want to get their vaccines, but they also get to feed their families.
On a state leadership level, where does the responsibility lie for how everything related to the state's power grid was handled over the last few weeks, and in years prior?
Well, look. In 2011, the governor was then the attorney general, but he spoke up. He spoke up about the last winter freeze that we had in 2011. He inserted himself right in the middle of the conversation, although he was not the governor. And so the fact that he's been in state government leadership for 18 years, it's hard not to look at him and say that he doesn't bear any part of the responsibility.
And then, as attorney general, he said, we're going to look into this. We're going to keep this from ever happening again. And then, we had some explosions in 2013, refineries. And now as the governor, he said, we're going to look into this. It's not going to happen again. And now more explosions in 2020. And I'm the commissioner now. And I know for a fact that he has not reached out to our office to say, what can we do to help? Here's my plan. Here's what I'm looking to do.
So consistently from 2011 as the attorney general, 2013 as the governor, 2020 as the governor, and then in 2021, with this freeze where his campaign donors are resigning from the Public Utility Commission, his former employee has resigned from the... or used to work in ERCOT and is part of the Public Utility Commission. The governor owns this debacle, from beginning to end with failed promises, failed leadership. And so look, with the time that we all had to prepare for this winter freeze, my precinct was able to acquire generators. We were able to make a plan to stand up warming centers. We were able to get employees to staff those warming centers to make difficult decisions with their families. We were able to get food and water.
The county had a broader warming center plan, but it didn't work because those facilities did not have generators. So people who would have otherwise gone to libraries came to the precinct to warming centers because we were prepared. Imagine if I had the resources or repairs, the county had had the resources that the governor has at his disposal, what more we could have done to protect our residents? And so I'm sorry, I'm not trying to pick a fight, but the reality of it is he's the governor. He's appointed his donors. People he knows incredibly well, if not personally, to these critical areas of responsibility and leadership within the PUC. He has indicated as the attorney general that this freeze would never ever happen again. So I'm sorry, it's happened again. He owned it in 2011. He owns it today.
And in the context of the warming centers, both in your precinct and the county broadly, are you seeing or anticipating any kind of COVID-19 surges in the aftermath of the freeze?
Yes. Look, why were we telling people to think about celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's differently? Because we didn't want the co-mingling of families. And as a result, the potential for superspreaders to occur at the community level.
It's the same thing now. Look, pipes have busted. And if that had happened to my sister who takes care of my 97-year-old mother, do think I would say, sorry, go get you a hotel room? No, I would say, come on over to our house and then risk the potential, the possibility of my mother being infected. So this is exactly what we are concerned is going to happen in Harris County as a result of this freeze. Families are taking care of families. People are coming together. People are calling for, for lack of better words, strangers who are plumbers to come fix their homes. And all of this is bad. It's a bad mix for trying to control the pandemic.
I've been following your push for Harris County to leave ERCOT. So I wanted to ask you about what you think that should look like, and then what the processes in place are right now, like what's possible right now and in the near future?
Well, what it should look like is what the state government should have been looking at since 2011. We should have been thinking about how to make all counties much more resilient. But Harris County, because of our size, our place in the state and national, if not global economy, should have received some degree of prioritization. And so, we should have had a more robust winterization program and strategy, but we should have been looking at what if another major freeze to that of 2011 could have happened again.
Because that one, although not as severe as this one could have caused near similar challenges for us, if it had happened under the same details that had happened in 2011. So what this simply looks like is a robust, candid, and thorough discussion about what should the strategy look like? I'm not about doing a knee-jerk reaction to say, we're going to unplug from here. I want a strong, thoughtful, strategic conversation that provides for resiliency, that provides for our business community to have a grid that they can depend on, in particular our refineries. Many of our refineries had to undergo emergency shutdowns because it became too late for them to realize that it was not a one-day freeze, but rather nearly a week-long freeze. And this was something that they were not prepared for. So they had to undergo emergency shutdowns, which are dangerous for everyone involved. The refinery workers, the surrounding community, and our economy in particular.
I'm keeping an open mind, and I want to bring thoughtful people into the conversation to see what this ought to look like. But the fact remains at this, we have three different systems. We have the West Texas system, the East Texas system, and then we have our ERCOT. So the fact that Harris County can't think about our self-interest or that of our immediate region would be a failure. We would be doing exactly what the state has done. We would have failed on behalf of our citizens, our business community.
And look, we have seen failed promises on behalf of Attorney General Abbott, now Gov. Abbott. I'm not going to sit around and stay quiet and assume the state is committed to fixing this. So I have decided to take action here locally, and we'll see what the cost involved could be. But we got to have this conversation because we know the state's not looking out for us.
Are you bringing in experts from other states or federal regulators that work on this into this conversation as well, or is this all happening within the state?
No. In fact, I'm looking to get the federal government to be a part of the thought process. And so, I'm going to be reaching out to the Department of Energy, but I want to make sure that we're bringing the smartest academics, the smartest industry people, and bringing in some of our local leadership as well, from some of our industries to have that conversation of what this could look like.
And look, I'm not looking for a quick fix because for something of this magnitude, there is no quick fix. But imagine what we could have gotten if, for the last 10 years, the state had made a commitment to fix it. I don't know whether it's going to take us 10 more years to fix it, but we lost 10 years in net action on this issue. So I'm looking to bring those people together and see where that leads us.
And what is another crisis compounding in Harris County in the aftermath of the freeze that people should be aware of?
Well, the reason that this is critical, is because there's no doubt that there were businesses around the state, around the country that were looking to come to Harris County, Texas. Today, they may not because they cannot count on the fact that we were prone to power outages. They can deal with predictable rolling blackouts, like the East grid had. They had outages, but there's were planned in 45-minute increments. And so, they have some of the similar infrastructure that we have, but they didn't have the full power outages that we had. So the fact that the business community has to count on the light being on, on the lights working and electricity and power to fund their operations tells me that they may be rethinking the possibility of relocating to Harris County, Texas.
Secondly, I think there may be some businesses here in town saying we have flooded enough and we have had outages enough. Maybe we need to look to somewhere else in Texas or across the country to take our businesses. So to me, these are the potential long-term impacts of what has been happening here in Harris County. And look, Harris County has been under Republican control for decades, and we're now bringing action to the table because I feel very strongly that had there not been a change in county government, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation once again.
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