Drought in Texas, Plains May Persist Until 2012

11 08 2011

As written by Paul J. Weber and published by the Associated Press on August 8, 2012:

The drought that has turned Texas and parts of the Plains into a parched moonscape of cracked earth could persist into next year, prolonging the misery of farmers and ranchers who have endured a dry spell that is now expected to be the state’s worst since the 1950s.

 The U.S. Climate Prediction Center said Thursday that the La Nina weather phenomenon blamed for the crippling lack of rain might be back soon, just two months after the last La Nina ended. If that happens, the drought would almost certainly extend into 2012.

 The extreme dry conditions have been made worse by week after week of triple-digit temperatures, which have caused reservoirs to evaporate, crops to wither and animals and fish to die off by the thousands.

 “The suffering and desperate need for relief grows with the rising temperatures and record-breaking heat that continue to scorch Texas with each passing day,” state Agricultural Commissioner Todd Staples said.

Even the state’s feral hogs are hiding from the heat, postponing a new reality TV show about Texans gunning them down from helicopters.  Texas saw less than an inch of rain statewide in July, and more than 90 percent of the state is already in the two most extreme stages of drought.

“Anything below 2 to 3 inches of rainfall would be a fly-on-the-windshield type thing as far as improvement,” said Victor Murphy, a climate expert with the National Weather Service. “It wouldn’t reverse this continued death spiral we’re on.”

 Also Thursday, the state climatologist declared this the most severe one-year drought on record in Texas. Officials expected to declare soon that it has become the worst drought since the 1950s.

 In Dallas, county officials say at least 13 people have died from the heat this summer. The high temperature Thursday was expected to hit 109 degrees, which would be a record for the date.

Statewide demand for power was expected to approach the maximum Thursday for a fourth straight day. Some large industrial plants were forced off the overburdened electric grid, requiring them to shut down or rely on their own power reserves. And for the first time this summer, utilities warned residential customers of the potential for rolling outages.

Beleaguered farms and dead pastures have been hurt the most. The agriculture industry, which accounts for nearly 9 percent of the Texas economy, may be headed for the biggest single-year losses ever — potentially as high as $8 billion, according to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

The La Nina watch issued by the Climate Prediction Center warned that the phenomenon marked by a cooling of the tropical Pacific Ocean could soon redevelop. La Nina typically results in less rain for southern states, and it’s blamed for drought conditions in Oklahoma and New Mexico, too.

A La Nina watch means conditions are favorable for La Nina to return within the next six months. But Texas will probably know as early as October or November, said Mike Halpert, a deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center.  By that time, the driest places could be out of water.

In the town of Robert Lee, a rural farming community of about 1,000 in the middle of West Texas, people are worried that Lake E.V. Spence could dry up by winter and leave the town without any water.  Some residents wonder if the National Guard can haul in water. Making matters worse, a pipe that was probably busted by the dry, shifting ground began gushing water the town cannot spare. City workers scrambled Thursday to fix it.

Closer to Austin, the Llano River trickled at a rate about 95 percent slower than normal. The city of Llano already has contacted bottled water distributors about supplying residents with bottles for cooking and drinking if the river flow stops entirely, which could happen in a matter of weeks.

“It’s amazing we’re still getting what water we are,” City Manager Finley deGraffenried said. “We’re running 107 degrees yesterday and the day before. It’s unbearable.”  Texas received no significant rain in April or May, which are typically the state’s wettest months.

Lake levels are so low that earlier this week, a massive chunk of the space shuttle Columbia that broke apart over Texas in 2003 was found poking out of the receded waters of Lake Nacogdoches.

About 70 percent of Texas rangeland and pastures are classified as being in very poor condition, which means there has been complete or near-complete crop failure or there’s no food for grazing livestock.

One of the most memorable droughts occurred in the 1950s, when a decade of below-average rainfall and long dry spells actually changed the state’s demographics, with many families fleeing parched farms for cities. Experts say the current drought is nowhere near so severe, but if it continues, the scarcity of water will be painful.

In the mid-1950s, Texas had a population of 7 million.  “We got a state with 25 million now. You can see the impact would be significantly greater if we had a drought that the 1950s had,” said Travis Miller, a member of the state’s Drought Preparedness Council and AgriLife Extension Service leader.

One upside is that second La Ninas are historically weaker than the first, Halpert said. The formation of La Nina also doesn’t guarantee there won’t be significant rain. The pattern often makes for a more active hurricane season, which could lash Texas with a soaking storm. Forecasters said Thursday they still see a busy hurricane season ahead, calling for 14 to 19 tropical storms.

 “If I was in Texas, this is not great news,” Halpert said. “But it’s not the end of the world.”





Drought Conditions Worsen in Fort Bend County

9 08 2011

There has been little or no rain in Fort Bend County in recent weeks.  The little bit of showers that occurred about a week ago are now a distant memory.  The KBDI level is now well over 700 indicating that we are experiencing “absolutely dry conditions.”  And so is the rest of our region and the rest of the State of Texas.  As of today, 10 of the 13 counties that make up the Houston-Galveston Area Council have KBDI levels over 700; and two other counties are fast approaching that level.

The dry conditions are only exacerbated by the daily Heat Advisories in the County.  Afternoon temperatures will likely exceed  triple digits again for what seems like about two weeks in a row; and the upper level high pressure will continue bring well above normal temperatures and heat index values between 105 degrees and 110 degrees.  So far this week, the electrical grid seems to be handling the load, but when temperatures are this high, a strain is put on electrical demands across the area. 

Last week, rolling blackouts were barely avoided when electrical usage soared to new record heights across the State of Texas.  Temperatures are remaining very warm at night so nobody gets much relief from the heat when outside.

Cattle at Mason Briscoe's Ranch in Rosenberg

There have been some heat related deaths in the State, but fortunately not in Fort Bend County yet.  Problems persist for those in the agricultural and farming trades.  As reported by Jeff Osborne in the Fort Bend Herald on July 30th, the heat and lack of rain is devastating the ranching industry.  He writes:

Rain Hardly Helps Drought

Dave Scott of Richmond, former president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, said this year’s drought has caused nothing less than a disaster to plague area farmers and ranchers.

Echoing the comments of many others in the agriculture industry, Scott said this year’s drought is the worst he’s ever seen.

“When you have people like Hilmar Moore selling cattle that says it all,” Scott said.

And the bad news just keeps coming.

“The farmers are probably hit even worse than the cattle people,” he said. “If it stays this way, a lot of people are going to struggle and suffer.”

Scott said there’s very little hay on the market in Texas. And what little hay is available is very expensive.

“Hay that sold for $40 a roll last year costs $70 to $75 right now,” he said.

“They’re shipping some hay out of Arkansas (to Texas ranchers), but the problem with those big round bales is that you have to invest so much money in freight costs. It’s very, very expensive.”

Scott said he can’t think of anyone raising cattle who hasn’t had to sell at least some of their herd.

“We’ve had to cull 2 to 2 1/2 times more than we usually sell at auction,” he said.

“In North and Central Texas, they’re telling people not to bring their cattle to sell. They already have more than they can handle. Fortunately, we haven’t gotten quite that bad around here yet.”

Scott said recent rains might help some farmers and ranchers, “but we’re almost down to the bare dirt. The grass is gone. So people are having to lighten up on (the number of cattle they have).”

Mason Briscoe, who owns Fort Bend County Feed & Farm Supply in Rosenberg, also raises cattle.

“This drought has hurt us in a whole lot of different ways,” he said. “One of the main things is I had to sell calves 2 or 3 months early this summer. “There’s just very little grass.

“The price of cotton seed hulls has gone up a lot, and they don’t even have any available until they can harvest and process the cotton. All the feed has gone sky high, too. It’s rough.”

He said the cost of range cubes for cattle has increased $3 to $4 “and nobody can afford to feed, and now’s the time we need to feed the most, because we haven’t got any grass.”

Scott said there’s little farmers and ranchers can do, except cut their losses and hold on for better days – if possible.

“Everybody is living day-to-day waiting for the next big rain,” he said. “And even then, we wonder if it’s going to be enough.”





On This Date: March 28, 1979

28 03 2011

The Three Mile Island accident was a partial core nuclear meltdown in Unit 2 (a pressurized water reactor  manufactured by Babcock & Wilcox) of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania near Harrisburg  in 1979.

The power plant was owned and operated by General Public Utilities and Metropolitan Edison (Met Ed). It was the most significant accident in the history of the USA commercial nuclear power generating industry, resulting in the release of up to 481 PBq (13 million curies) of radioactive gases, and less than 740 GBq (20 curies) of the particularly dangerous iodine-131.

The accident began at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a stuck-open pilot-operated relief valve (PORV) in the primary system, which allowed large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape. The mechanical failures were compounded by the initial failure of plant operators to recognize the situation as a loss-of-coolant accident due to inadequate training and human factors, such as human-computer interaction design oversights relating to ambiguous control room indicators in the power plant’s user interface. In particular, a hidden indicator light led to an operator manually overriding the automatic emergency cooling system of the reactor because the operator mistakenly believed that there was too much coolant water present in the reactor and causing the steam pressure release. 

The scope and complexity of the accident became clear over the course of five days, as employees of Met Ed, Pennsylvania state officials, and members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) tried to understand the problem, communicate the situation to the press and local community, decide whether the accident required an emergency evacuation, and ultimately end the crisis. The NRC’s authorization of the release of 40,000 gallons of radioactive waste water directly in the Susquehanna River led to a loss of credibility with the press and community.

In the end, the reactor was brought under control, although full details of the accident were not discovered until much later, following extensive investigations by both a presidential commission and the NRC. The Kemeny Commission Report concluded that “there will either be no case of cancer or the number of cases will be so small that it will never be possible to detect them. The same conclusion applies to the other possible health effects”.  Several epidemiological studies in the years since the accident have supported the conclusion that radiation releases from the accident had no perceptible effect on cancer incidence in residents near the plant, though these findings are contested by one team of researchers.

Public reaction to the event was probably influenced by The China Syndrome, a movie which had recently been released and which depicts an accident at a nuclear reactor. Communications from officials during the initial phases of the accident were felt to be confusing.  The accident crystallized anti-nuclear safety concerns among activists and the general public, resulted in new regulations for the nuclear industry, and has been cited as a contributor to the decline of new reactor construction that was already underway in the 1970s.

The incident was rated a five on the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale: Accident With Wider Consequences.





2011 Texas Legislative Session – March 13th

13 03 2011

Below you will find a listing of  Emergency Management related bills as of March 13, 2011.    Information about 53  bills is noted below.

The 82nd Texas Legislature will be in session 140 days.  The first day of the session was Tuesday, January 11, 2011 and the last day of the session is Monday, May 30, 2011.  The last day to file regular bills was Friday, March 11, 2011.  Governor Perry has until June 19th to review bills passed by the State Legislature.  He can sign a bill to authorize new law, or he can let a bill become law without signing, or he can veto a bill.

HB 1  – (Pitts) Relating to General Appropriations.  Among other things, this bill would reduce expenditures for 9-1-1 Network by 27%; reduce by 48% disaster funding to state and local agencies when the Governor finds the demands on funds regularly appropriated are insufficient to respond to a particular disaster; reduce by Criminal Justice grants by 55%, impacting the number of grants awarded from an estimated 900 in FY 2011 to approximately 520 each fiscal year of the 2012-13 biennium; and eliminate funding for the Flood Control Dam Grant Program which provides operations and maintenance, structural repair, and rehabilitation needs to flood control dams across the State.

HB 614   –  (Hopson)  Relating to allowing health care providers to provide services across state lines in catastrophic circumstances.

HB 803 – (Bonnen) Relating to the penalty for failure to make a timely installment payment of ad valorem taxes on property in a disaster area.  SB 432 is identical.

HB 805 – (Callegari) Relating the requirement that certain water service providers ensure emergency operations during an extended power outage.

HB 837 – (Taylor, Van) Relating to the authority of peace officers to request thumbprints during motor vehicle stops.

HB 993 – (Rodriguez, E.)  Relating to the closure of a road or highway by certain firefighters.

HB 1030 – (Miller) Relating to the powers and duties of certain emergency services districts.

HB 1075 – (Anderson) Relating to the consolidation of certain alert system into a single statewide alert system and to the addition of other factors that will prompt an alert under the consolidated system.

HB 1092 – (Christian)  Relating to the exemption from certain construction requirements for volunteer fire departments in certain counties.

HB 1125 – (Burnam)  Relating to a study regarding the odorization of natural gas transported in gathering and transmission lines located in populated areas.

HB 1147 – (Smith) Relating to notice by a governmental entity regarding certain geospatial data products.  SB 442 is identical.

HB 1174 – (Workman) Relating to the expiration of a county burn ban.

HB 1217 – (Miles)  Relating to a residential tenant’s right to vacate a dwelling and avoid liability for rent following the declaration of a state of disaster; providing a civil penalty.

HB 1319 – (Laubenberg) Relating to the calculation and reporting of water usage and conservation by municipalities and water utilities.

HB 1354 – (Davis, S.)  Relating to liability of certain certified municipal inspector for services rendered during an emergency or disaster.

HB 1379 – (Anchia)  Relating to the purchasing of a firearm from the county by an honorably retired law enforcement officer.

HB 1476  –  (Riddle)  Relating to the grounds for revocation of an emergency medical services personnel certification.

HB 1561  –  (Orr)  Relating to the authority of a municipality to implement a photographic traffic signal enforcement system and impose civil penalties.

HB 1619 – (Orr)  Relating to emergency services districts.

HB 1711 – (Davis, John)  Relating to disaster remediation contracts; providing penalties.

HB 1750 – (Darby)  Relating to the authority of the Texas Department of Transportation to lease and contract for the operation of rolling stock during certain emergencies.

HB 1765 – (Miller, Sid)  Relating to an emergency public service messaging network.  Identical to SB 971

HB 1791 – (Kleinschmidt)  Relating to emergency services districts.

HB 1861 – (Anchia)  Relating to the continuation and functions of the Commission on State Emergency Communications.  Identical to SB 648.

HB 1878 – (Miller, Doug)  Relating to emergency service districts.  Identical to SB 917.

HB 1911 – (Bonnen)  Relating to the liability of certain persons for damages arising from training exercises to prepare the persons to respond to certain emergencies.  Brazoria County emergency management officials worked to get this legislation proposed for consideration.

HB 1917 – (Schwertner)  Relating to the removal of appointed emergency services commissioners by a commissioners court.

HB 1986 – (Turner)  Relating to the authority of the Public Utility Commission of Texas to ensure the Electric Reliability Council of Texas has adequate reserve power to prevent blackout conditions.

HB 2035 – (Hamilton)  Relating to the temporary relocation of alcoholic beverage distributor’s or wholesaler’s premises during a period of emergency and delivery of alcoholic beverages to a distributor’s or wholesaler’s premises.

HB 2040 – (Hamilton)  Relating to critical incident stress management and crisis response services.

HB 2075 – (Martinez, Mando)  Relating to certain diseases or illnesses suffered by firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

HB 2099 – (Truitt)  Relating to an alert for a missing person with an intellectual disability.

HB 2158 – (Coleman)  Relating to a prohibition against the use of a stun gun or taser by school district peace officers, security personnel, and other employees against certain public school students.  Identical to SB 1239.

HB 2239 – (Coleman)  Relating to the minimum number of county jailers necessary to staff a county jail.

HB 2257 – (Phillips)  Relating to communications during a disaster or an emergency by public service providers.  Identical to SB 1238.

HB 2369 – (Quintanilla et al)  Relating to the accreditation of training programs and examinations for certain emergency medical services personnel.

HB 2390 – (Davis, Sarah)  Relating to the types of information relating to emergency responses that are confidential.

HB 2411 – (Miles)  Relating to a residential tenant’s right to vacate a dwelling and avoid liability for rent under certain circumstances following the declaration of a state of disaster; providing a civil penalty.

HB 2462 – (Bonnen)  Relating to motor vehicles used for fire, emergency or disaster response purposes.

HB 2858 – (Gallego)  Relating to the definition of emergency services personnel for purposes of the enhanced penalty prescribed for an assault committed against a person providing services in that capacity.

HB 2979 – (Hunter)  Relating to county authority to provide certain exemptions to restrictions on outdoor burning.

HB 3060 – (Smithee)  Relating to arbitration of certain claims under residential property insurance policies.

HB 3219 – (Thompson)  Relating to intelligence data standards and protected personal information.

SB 9 – Relating to Homeland Security.  The content of this proposed legislation relates to verification of immigration status of person charged with committing offense.

SB 106 – (Davis, Wendy)  Relating to condemnation of municipal property for, and municipal regulation of, pipeline operations.

SB 319 – (Carona)  Relating to financing programs for low-income electric customers and certain other electric customers.

SB 389 – (Williams)  Relating to emergency preparedness during an extended power outage of a water service provider with at lease 250 connections.

SB 418   –   (Williams)  Relating to the carrying of concealed handguns by certain persons attending a school board meeting.

SB 617  –  (Rodriguez)  Relating a manifest system to record the transportation of certain liquid wastes.

SB 917 – (Wentworth)  Relating to emergency service districts.

SB 969 – (Nelson)  Relating to the establishment of the Public Health Funding and Policy Advisory Committee with the Department of State Health Services.

SB 1205 – (Jackson)  Relating to the application of the limit on appraised value of a residence homestead for ad valorem tax purposes to an improvement that is a replacement structure for a structure that was rendered uninhabitable or unusable by a casualty or by wind or water damage.

SB 1206 – (Deuell)  Relating to medical care and health care services provided by a health care professional in a licensed freestanding emergency medical care facility.

SB 1461 – (Lucio)  Relating to the creation of the disaster reconstruction coordination office withing the governor’s office; creating the disaster contingency account.

For a PDF listing:  billreport 3-13-11

The PDF lists the bills, and includes information on the status of each bill.  At this point, many of the bills have been assigned to committees for review.  Public hearings have been called to hear testimony on some bills.

If you know of other bills that I may have missed, please leave me a comment and let me know!  Thanks to those of you who have contacted me and made suggestions.

Also, please consider subscribing to this blog to receive the legislative information directly.





2011 Texas Legislative Session – March 5th

5 03 2011

Below you will find a listing of  Emergency Management related bills as of March 5, 2011.    Information about 42 bills is shown below.

The 82nd Texas Legislature will be in session 140 days.  The first day of the session was Tuesday, January 11, 2011 and the last day of the session is Monday, May 30, 2011.  The last day to file regular bills be Friday, March 11, 2011.  Governor Perry has until June 19th to review bills passed by the State Legislature.  He can sign a bill to authorize new law, or he can let a bill become law without signing, or he can veto a bill.

HB 1  – (Pitts) Relating to General Appropriations.  Among other things, this bill would reduce expenditures for 9-1-1 Network by 27%; reduce by 48% disaster funding to state and local agencies when the Governor finds the demands on funds regularly appropriated are insufficient to respond to a particular disaster; reduce by Criminal Justice grants by 55%, impacting the number of grants awarded from an estimated 900 in FY 2011 to approximately 520 each fiscal year of the 2012-13 biennium; and eliminate funding for the Flood Control Dam Grant Program which provides operations and maintenance, structural repair, and rehabilitation needs to flood control dams across the State.

HB 614   –  (Hopson)  Relating to allowing health care providers to provide services across state lines in catastrophic circumstances

HB 803 – (Bonnen) Relating to the penalty for failure to make a timely installment payment of ad valorem taxes on property in a disaster area.  SB 432 is identical

HB 805 – (Callegari) Relating the requirement that certain water service providers ensure emergency operations during an extended power outage

HB 837 – (Taylor, Van) Relating to the authority of peace officers to request thumbprints during motor vehicle stops

HB 993 – (Rodriguez, E.)  Relating to the closure of a road or highway by certain firefighters

HB 1030 – (Miller) Relating to the powers and duties of certain emergency services districts

HB 1075 – (Anderson) Relating to the consolidation of certain alert system into a single statewide alert system and to the addition of other factors that will prompt an alert under the consolidated system

HB 1092 – (Christian)  Relating to the exemption from certain construction requirements for volunteer fire departments in certain counties

HB 1125 – (Burnam)  Relating to a study regarding the odorization of natural gas transported in gathering and transmission lines located in populated areas

HB 1147 – (Smith) Relating to notice by a governmental entity regarding certain geospatial data products.  SB 442 is identical

HB 1174 – (Workman) Relating to the expiration of a county burn ban

HB 1217 – (Miles)  Relating to a residential tenant’s right to vacate a dwelling and avoid liability for rent following the declaration of a state of disaster; providing a civil penalty

HB 1319 – (Laubenberg) Relating to the calculation and reporting of water usage and conservation by municipalities and water utilities

HB 1354 – (Davis, S.)  Relating to liability of certain certified municipal inspector for services rendered during an emergency or disaster

HB 1379 – (Anchia)  Relating to the purchasing of a firearm from the county by an honorably retired law enforcement officer

HB 1476  –  (Riddle)  Relating to the grounds for revocation of an emergency medical services personnel certification

HB 1561  –  (Orr)  Relating to the authority of a municipality to implement a photographic traffic signal enforcement system and impose civil penalties

HB 1619 – (Orr)  Relating to emergency services districts

HB 1711 – (Davis, John)  Relating to disaster remediation contracts; providing penalties

HB 1750 – (Darby)  Relating to the authority of the Texas Department of Transportation to lease and contract for the operation of rolling stock during certain emergencies

HB 1765 – (Miller, Sid)  Relating to an emergency public service messaging network.  Identical to SB 971

HB 1791 – (Kleinschmidt)  Relating to emergency services districts

HB 1861 – (Anchia)  Relating to the continuation and functions of the Commission on State Emergency Communications

HB 1878 – (Miller, Doug)  Relating to emergency service districts.  Identical to SB 917

HB 1911 – (Bonnen)  Relating to the liability of certain persons for damages arising from training exercises to prepare the persons to respond to certain emergencies.  Brazoria County emergency management officials worked to get this legislation proposed for consideration.

HB 1917 – (Schwertner)  Relating to the removal of appointed emergency services commissioners by a commissioners court

HB 1986 – (Turner)  Relating to the authority of the Public Utility Commission of Texas to ensure the Electric Reliability Council of Texas has adequate reserve power to prevent blackout conditions

HB 2035 – (Hamilton)  Relating to the temporary relocation of alcoholic beverage distributor’s or wholesaler’s premises during a period of emergency and delivery of alcoholic beverages to a distributor’s or wholesaler’s premises.

HB 2040 – (Hamilton)  Relating to critical incident stress management and crisis response services.

HB 2075 – (Martinez, Mando)  Relating to certain diseases or illnesses suffered by firefighters and emergency medical technicians

HB 2099 – (Truitt)  Relating to an alert for a missing person with an intellectual disability.

HB 2158 – (Coleman)  Relating to a prohibition against the use of a stun gun or taser by school district peace officers, security personnel, and other employees against certain public school students.

HB 2239 – (Coleman)  Relating to the minimum number of county jailers necessary to staff a county jail.

HB 2257 – (Phillips)  Relating to communications during a disaster or an emergency by public service providers.

SB 9 – Relating to Homeland Security.  The content of this proposed legislation relates to verification of immigration status of person charged with committing offense.

SB 106 – (Davis, Wendy)  Relating to condemnation of municipal property for, and municipal regulation of, pipeline operations.

SB 319 – (Carona)  Relating to financing programs for low-income electric customers and certain other electric customers.

SB 389 – (Williams)  Relating to emergency preparedness during an extended power outage of a water service provider with at lease 250 connections

SB 418   –   (Williams)  Relating to the carrying of concealed handguns by certain persons attending a school board meeting

SB 617  –  (Rodriguez)  Relating a manifest system to record the transportation of certain liquid wastes

SB 917 – (Wentworth)  Relating to emergency service districts

SB 969 – (Nelson)  Relating to the establishment of the Public Health Funding and Policy Advisory Committee with the Department of State Health Services

For a PDF listing:  billreport 3-05-11 

The PDF lists the bills, and includes information on the status of each bill.  At this point, many of the bills have been assigned to committees for review.  Public hearings have been called to hear testimony on some bills.

If you know of other bills that I may have missed, please leave me a comment and let me know!  Thanks to those of you who have contacted me and made suggestions.

Also, please consider subscribing to this blog to receive the legislative information directly.





Texas Senate Begins Hearing on Rolling Blackouts Today

15 02 2011

In early February, some portions of Texas faced “whiteout” conditions during the major winter storm event that affected nearly the entire State.  In some places, the winter weather was very bad— snow, sleet, wind.  In other places, not so bad—- very cold weather and some ice.  Nearly all places experienced cold temperatures that are not normally felt in the southern reaches of Texas; and something else—– “blackout” conditions.

For some period of time, citizens of the State of Texas had to cope with loss of power— not only to residences and businesses, but to police stations, courthouses, and even Emergency Operations Centers.  Emergency management officials needed to work diligently to ensure that critical infrastructure was powered up— sometimes with barely any notice at all.  In the case of Fort Bend County, I learned that the County EOC had lost connection to the electrical grid at the exact same time I received an email on my Blackberry from our local electrical utility indicating that “rolling blackouts” were possible. 

The County did not experience any serious problems (the EOC’s emergency generator kicked in perfectly).  The main problem we faced was trying to get the word out as quickly as possible to let others in our County know that power loss was probable at different times during the day.  However, it appears that the problems may have caused other concerns across the State.  In the article below, written by Austin American-Statesman writers Laylan Copelin, Eric Dexheimer, and Marty Toohey, officials from the power industry and state agencies will be testifying today in Austin on exactly what caused the “blackout” conditions.  As printed in the Austin-American Statesman on Monday, February 14th:

Nearly two weeks after electric blackouts rolled across Texas, the power industry and state agencies are being called on the carpet at the Capitol today to explain what happened and why.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is also looking for explanations; it announced Monday that it is launching an inquiry into the Feb. 2 outages that left hundreds of thousands of Texans without electricity.

Texas’ electric grid is separate from the rest of the country and is ordinarily not subject to federal regulation. But the commission can ensure compliance with federal standards for reliable electric delivery.  At the Capitol today, a joint Senate committee hearing on the outages will begin at 8:30 a.m. and could take most of the day.

First up: witnesses from the Public Utility Commission ; the Railroad Commission, which regulates natural gas; the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality ; the Office of Public Utility Counsel ; and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas . ERCOT operates the grid that serves 22 million customers over 75 percent of Texas, including Austin.

ERCOT ordered the rolling blackouts to keep the grid from crashing during a winter storm. The nonprofit organization was already on the Legislature’s radar because of a critical review of spending on improvements to its wholesale market system.

At a Monday meeting titled “Lessons Learned” at ERCOT’s administrative offices in Southeast Austin, electric transmission and distribution representatives aired their concerns in the wake of the outages. Many said their main complaint was simply poor communication.

“If we could get a little bit earlier warning,” said David Wood , Austin Energy’s vice president for electrical service delivery. Like other utilities, Austin Energy got a half-hour notice of the rolling blackouts. “I’ve been beat up about, ‘Why couldn’t you tell us this was coming?’\u2009”

Wood said an earlier alert would have permitted the utility company to better adjust its staffing levels and to implement a program in which Austin Energy contacts a list of local businesses that have agreed to reduce their electricity usage in power emergencies.  About four dozen Austin-area businesses agreed to reduced their electrical usage on Feb. 2, from turning off lights and lowering thermostats to shutting down operations completely and sending employees home, said Austin Energy spokesman Ed Clark .

Dottie Roark , a spokeswoman for ERCOT, said Lessons Learned meetings are standard after any major event affecting the power grid. Recommendations from the meeting are considered for changes in rules governing electric distribution.  The storm knocked more than 80 of the state 550 generators offline, according to early explanations, primarily because of frozen or broken equipment, including safety instruments that shut down some of the state’s largest, newest coal-fired plants.

An unknown number of gas-fired generators didn’t have fuel to generate electricity because in some instances the companies had contracts that allowed their gas service to be interrupted in exchange for cheaper prices.  Also today, senators will hear from utility representatives, including Austin Energy and Luminant , the generating arm of Dallas-based Energy Future Holdings .

Luminant has reported that the blackouts cost the company $30 million when several of its generating plants broke down, forcing it to buy electricity on the open market, where prices rose from $50 per megawatt-hour to $3,000 .  No one, except possibly ERCOT and those with oversight of the organization, knows how much money other power companies made or lost on Feb. 2. ERCOT says it cannot release most of the information until 60 days after the outages because of state laws intended to guard competitive information.

But that hasn’t stopped speculation about the possible winners and losers.  Public Citizen , a consumer advocacy and environmental watchdog group, estimates that the utility companies collectively netted anywhere from $46 million to $149 million, depending on how many ran short of power.  The cost will ultimately be passed on to consumers, said Tom “Smitty” Smith , head of Public Citizen’s Texas branch.

“Before deregulation, when bad weather was coming, regulated utilities were expected to start up plants in advance and were fined if there were market shortages,” said Smith, who is planning to call for reforms at the Legislature. “In today’s deregulated market, we reward market shortfalls and allow participants to make millions.”

Others said too little information has been released to make such assessments. Among them is Ross Baldick , a University of Texas professor with expertise in the “nodal” grid management system that ERCOT started using late last year.  For instance, Baldick said, some companies agree a day in advance to sell a specific amount of power on the ERCOT grid for a specific price, in what’s known as the “day-ahead market.”

If those companies could not provide that power on Feb. 2 and instead had to buy it back on the open market during the outages, the losses could be absorbed by the companies (and their shareholders), not individual consumers.  Whether companies profited from the power shortage “depends not only on the real-time market but also the day-ahead market” and other factors that are not yet known, Baldick said.