Political fallout from winter storm continues

Gary Borders
Special to the Bulletin
Gary Borders

As Texans across the state continue to deal with the damage from the mid-February winter storm, so does the political fallout in Austin.

So far, seven of the 16 board members of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas have resigned. CEO Bill Magness defended ERCOT’s decision to order widespread blackouts while testifying before a joint hearing of two state House committees last week. 

Meanwhile, the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, says it has opened an investigation into retail electric providers whose flexible pricing plans inflicted electric bills in the thousands of dollars on some Texas customers in the wake of the storm. In a televised address on Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott said he had ordered that Texans will not have their power shut off because of unpaid bills until the Legislature has had time to act. He acknowledged that power generation from all sources failed under the harsh weather, including natural gas, coal, nuclear, wind and solar. Abbott has made it a legislative priority to mandate and fund winterizing the Texas power infrastructure.

However, the head of Irving-based Vistra energy testified at last week’s committee hearing that winterizing power plants could backfire in summer months. According to the Texas Standard,  Curt Morgan said, “We don’t put structures around our equipment down here. Why? Because in the summer when it’s 105 degrees you’d bake inside there; the equipment would fail.”

Additional hearings are scheduled this week in the Texas Senate.

More counties added to major disaster declaration

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has added an additional 31 Texas counties to the federal disaster declaration, making a total of 108 counties covered. Abbott originally asked that all 254 Texas counties be included. Texans across the state are urged to fill out a form to help the state identify damages that occurred during the storm, which can be accessed at: https://tdem.texas.gov/warming-center/.

Free legal assistance available for low-income persons affected by storm

The State Bar of Texas, American Bar Association and legal aid providers remind Texans that free legal assistance is available through a toll-free hotline to help folks pursue government benefits, insurance claims, home repairs and other issues. The hotline — 800-504-7030 — is available in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. It connects low-income callers with local legal aid providers. 

Push to expand broadband continues

The latest issue of Fiscal Notes from the state comptroller’s office provides a comprehensive look at the issue of expanding broadband, which Abbott made an emergency legislative priority item in early February. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated demand for broadband Internet service as schools went virtual and telemedicine became more common. As of January, educators had paid for more than 4.5 million broadband devices and Wi-Fi hotspots, using funds from the Texas Education Agency, local school districts, businesses and federal funding. 

A bipartisan group of 88 Texas legislators in November recommended that the state create a comprehensive broadband plan and establish a state broadband office. Jennifer Harris is state program director of Connected Nation Texas, which partners with private and public entities to push for expansion of broadband. She noted, “The pandemic has shown everyone how important broadband is. Ten years ago, we had to tell people why broadband would be good for the community. We don’t need to tell anyone that anymore.”

After storm, COVID-19 vaccines ramp up again

Nearly 700,000 first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are coming to Texas this week, with 429,600 second doses arriving as well, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Providers quickly resumed vaccinations after power and water service were restored across the state. The state continues to provide shots for health-care workers, long-term facility residents, people over 65 and those with existing medical conditions. TDSHS says vaccines are limited to the capacity of vaccine manufacturers to produce them, and there is not enough vaccine to supply every provider every week. 

The Centers for Disease Control this week is shipping doses to 522 providers in 199 counties. As of Sunday, 3.4 million Texans had received the first dose and 1.728 million were fully vaccinated, according to TDSHS. More than 40% of adults 65 years and older have received the first dose, and nearly 20% in that age group are fully vaccinated.  

COVID-19 cases, deaths up from previous week

The winter storm likely muddied last week’s reporting, but new cases of COVID-19 in Texas totaled 55,547 in the last week, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University of Medicine. A total of 1,478 deaths were reported. Both figures are considerably higher than what was reported the previous week, but that could be a result of delayed data due to the storm. A better comparison can be made next week, with two weeks of relatively normal weather conditions. Regardless, health officials across the state are still urging Texans to wear masks in public, practice social distancing and wash our hands frequently. 

Plumes of smoke in a forest not always a sign of wildfire

When you see smoke rising from a forest, particularly in rural areas, it’s not always wildfire. It could be a prescribed burn, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. That has become one of the most effective tools for land management, according to TFS, as it eliminates fuel for actual wildfires.

Landowners interested in learning how to safely conduct a prescribed burn can get technical guidance from TFS. Grants are also available to help pay for the burns. This website provides more information: https://tfsweb.tamu.edu/PrescribedBurns/.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: gborders@texaspress.com.