Before next crisis, city must meet these disaster needs

Before next crisis, city must meet these disaster needs

Photo: Lisa Krantz, Express-News staff photographer

Before next crisis, city must meet these disaster needs

Ana Margarita “Cha” Guzman, SAHA Board of Commissioners for the Express-News
March 11, 2021

Sometimes, it takes a crisis to unveil the true spirit of a community and opportunities for growth.

Our community exhibited a unified spirit during February’s winter storm while mobilizing in extraordinary circumstances.

Like many San Antonians, I never imagined having to melt snow to flush toilets or being unable to travel because roads were impassable due to ice and snow. Like many, I mistakenly thought our state had the reliable infrastructure to prevent mass power outages and water disruptions, and to safeguard roads.

As the power outages extended beyond the brief increments communicated to us, the San Antonio Housing Authority, or SAHA, contacted the city of San Antonio and Office of Emergency Management to find emergency housing for our elderly and disabled residents.

Many of our dedicated team members were in their automobiles charging their cellphones to maintain communication to ensure the safety of the agency’s 60,000 residents and 100 properties while prioritizing the immediate needs of approximately 3,000 elderly and disabled residents.

The city responded to our request to establish emergency housing by arranging stays at a downtown hotel for our elderly. SAHA staff went door to door at those properties for the elderly that experienced the longest time without electricity and encouraged residents to go to the warm hotel. Despite our pleas, many preferred to shelter-in-place out of concerns about their pets or the risk of COVID-19 exposure.

Nonetheless, some 80 elderly residents transferred to buses provided by the city and were transported to the emergency housing, where they were greeted with food and water provided by the San Antonio Food Bank. It was a herculean effort, and together we all got it done.

The winter storm brought out the best of San Antonio in every way. From distributing thousands of hot meals donated by local and Texas restaurants, to securing donations of blankets and drinking water, numerous nonprofit partners worked incessantly to help our residents.

When water was scarce, we contacted Coca-Cola in Atlanta, which graciously delivered thousands of bottles of water to SAHA. The city followed up with additional water, and SAHA staff delivered more than 100,000 water bottles to SAHA residents.

A crisis of this magnitude creates opportunities for agencies and organizations to assess their preparedness and response mechanisms. While I believe we did the best we could with all the unknowns and limited resources in a statewide emergency amid a global pandemic, we need to ask ourselves and our city and state leaders some critical questions:

Could satellite phones have helped in coordinating the emergency response since cellular service was unreliable?

Can the city invest in emergency generators for use at properties with vulnerable populations during extreme weather, both in the winter and summer? Can the city and SAHA invest in snow chains for tires, so staff can commute in winter weather conditions?

Can CPS Energy work with the state to include vulnerable populations in the critical electric grid used by hospitals, nursing homes and prisons?

How can we recover from decades of government underfunding to ensure residents have adequate home insulation and modern infrastructure to withstand extreme weather?

There are many important questions we must ask and resolve before the next crisis is upon us. As power outages become more common, especially in the summer due to extreme heat and hurricanes, the next one is likely around the corner and so we must act quickly.

The crisis was a hard lesson for many, but it also did something quite remarkable: It reaffirmed how special our community is as demonstrated by the many acts of kindness to help SAHA residents when they needed it the most.

That’s leadership with heart. Corazón.