DARK CITIES: Freeze leave thousands in the cold

Cars line from all ends of H-E-B’s gas pump, just after power was restored to the pump on Wednesday, Feb. 17. Photo by Gaige Davila.

By Gaige Davila
editor@portisabelsouthpadre.com 

Thousands of Laguna Madre households were without power after a winter storm that brought temperatures below freezing for most of Monday, Feb. 15, and into Tuesday. 

Laguna Vista and Laguna Heights had complete power loss, while portions of Port Isabel and South Padre Island had power. In Port Isabel, H-E-B and Walgreens had power, along with two Stripes convenience stores, both having lines of cars stretched down Highway 100 waiting for gas. All of Garcia Street had power, as for some portions of Gomez, Musina, Longoria, Manautou and Tarnava streets.

At least half of South Padre Island was out of power. Some hotels and condominiums retained power while others, like the Island’s iconic Sapphire towers, were dark. South Padre Island’s entertainment district was also dark. At night, most of the Laguna Madre was in complete darkness, save for the occasional candle light from a window. 

The City of Port Isabel opened the Cultural & Event Center as a shelter on Sunday night. Port Isabel’s Salvation Army branch served hot meals curbside on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Texas’ power grid collapsed after a winter storm swept through the state, freezing natural gas wells and wind turbines, the former accounting for most of the power fallout. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), estimated that half of their winter power generating capacity, mostly powered by natural gas, was offline, Dan Woodfin, senior director at ERCOT, said during a press conference. 

Power began returning to Port Isabel, South Padre Island and Laguna Vista on Wednesday evening, with more businesses and gas stations reopening. By 1 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19, AEP Texas, which serves power to most of the Laguna Madre area, restored power to 97 percent of its customers, expecting all power in Port Isabel to be restored by Friday evening. 

ERCOT, which operates 90 percent of Texas’ power usage, ordered electric utility companies across the state to halt services at 1:25 a.m. on Feb. 15, in what they called “rolling blackouts.” These rolling blackouts were issued to Magic Valley Electric Cooperative (MVEC) and AEP Texas as well, the electric utility companies that issue power in the Rio Grande Valley. ERCOT cancelled the blackouts, allowing AEP and MVEC to restore power. 

After Monday, ERCOT continued to ask electric utility companies to shut down more power, and to not turn on circuits that had been switched off. 

Demand for energy exceeded ERCOT’s predictions, the Texas Tribune reported, with 69 gigawatts being used the Sunday before the cold front. ERCOT predicted 67 gigawatts would be used. In 2011, ERCOT also ordered utility companies to reduce their power usage, causing energy companies to upgrade their systems to prevent another similar situation. However, many necessary upgrades to prevent a power grid collapse were not made, the Texas Tribune reported. 

In all, over 4 million people in the state were without power as temperatures continued dropping. In the Rio Grande Valley, 325,000 households were without power. AEP Texas documented 5,449 outages in the Laguna Madre area. In Cameron County, MVEC has documented 5,319 outages. 

“It’s definitely time for people to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” South Padre Island Mayor Patrick McNulty said during an emergency city council meeting on Feb. 17. McNulty asked residents who had power to conserve energy if they had it, and prepare to lose power if they had not already.

The City of South Padre Island and the Town of Laguna Vista declared a public health emergency, in line with Texas Governor Greg Abbott declaring a state of disaster for all 254 of the state’s counties.  

“The gist out of this is Laguna Madre Water District (LMWD) is having issues, ERCOT’s restricting AEP (Texas) from providing power to the Rio Grande Valley,” McNulty said. “ERCOT’s an antiquated system, which we’re discovering has many flaws in the state of Texas, and this is going to be a problem for the next couple of days.” 

Jared Hockema, city manager for the City of Port Isabel, also shared his frustrations with ERCOT’s ordering for shutting down power across the state. 

“It is a major failure of the state government, what’s happened,” Hockema told the PRESS. “This is an artificial outage that has been ordered by the state to address a lack of electric supply.

“The plant equipment should have been able to operate in the conditions we are having, but if the provider, the companies, do not take adequate measures, then they’ll have these failures.” 

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.portisabelsouthpadre.com/2021/02/19/dark-cities-freeze-leave-thousands-in-the-cold/

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