Storm Warning: Save Your Utilities’ Customers from a Fatal Failure to Communicate with SRT
James Barrett, Senior Manager of Quality Engineering at Qualitest and a Texas resident, shares his eyewitness account of living through the Texas storms.
In mid-February 2021, punishing storms pummeled a huge swath of the United States with snow, ice and bitter cold temperatures, knocking out power and causing life-threatening conditions for days and even weeks. Texas was hit particularly hard. The failure of the state’s electric grid to generate adequate power was worsened by the failure of utilities providers to communicate vital, up-to-date information to their customers.
James Barrett, Senior Manager of Quality Engineering at Qualitest and a Texas resident, shares his eyewitness account of living through the Texas storms. He also offers insights about how your Utility company can prepare its systems to keep the communication going even in the most disastrous weather.
One morning last February, I sat down at my laptop to start my workday. Next thing, the lights go out and the furnace makes a sound like a jet engine shutting down.
“What the heck?” I muttered to myself. Then I remembered that the previous day we had received warnings from our utility and retail electric provider asking us to conserve energy to help prevent outages during the coming storm.
We had been told to prepare for short-term, rolling power outages, so I expected only a brief interruption. But after a few minutes, I realized the power was OUT. I would have only the juice remaining in my laptop and cell phone to get me through the day.
Along with millions of other Texans, over the course of the next three days I would be reminded how vital electricity is to maintaining life, health and safety in the 21st century. I would also be continually frustrated that the updated two-way communication vital to protect lives and property in this kind of emergency simply wasn’t there.
Over 4.5 million customers in Texas – about 70% of the population served by the main grid – were without power for an average of 42 hours.
Out in the Cold. Kept in the Dark.
From working in the Utilities industry, I knew that I should be able to go to my utility’s website to report an outage, see a map of outages, and maybe (if I was lucky) learn an estimated outage restoration time. This time was different. The outage webpage on my utility’s website had only a message that it was unavailable.
So I figured I’d go the old school route and try the phone. I looked up the number to report an outage and hit Dial. But instead of the expected robotic message about my being in an outage area, I got a busy signal. I tried again. Busy again. And again and again, all day long.
Hours later I got the voice response robot. Joy! I listened carefully to each of the prompts and made my way up the tree to report an outage. The robot said: “One moment please…” And then, “Sorry, your request cannot be processed at this time. Please try again later.”
So much for web and phone. Normally when there is an outage, my utility will text me to let me know about the situation and when power will be restored. No text messages this time. I looked at Twitter and local news sites for updates on the power situation, but saw no indications of when our power would come back.
At least 151 Texans died of storm-related causes, the majority from hypothermia.
Making Do and Doing Without
Over the next few hours, the batteries in my laptop and phone drained. The sub-freezing temperatures, so unusual in Texas, plus freezing rain made it very dangerous to leave the house.
Our family layered up to stay warm, huddling under blankets and working as long as our batteries lasted. However, the situation was far worse than anyone had imagined. These were not rolling blackouts. These were power cuts lasting for 18-20 hours at a time. Power would come back for 2-3 hours (without warning) and we’d charge up our phones and laptops, until the power went out again (without warning).
We charged our phones in the car in the driveway, cooking whatever we could on top of our gas stove and using candles and flashlights in the dark. We learned to make do without running water, using bottled water to cook and drink, and flushing our toilets with water from a friend’s pool.
Storm damages and economic losses could rise as high as $200B.
The Human Costs of Utilities’ Lack of Preparation
We were lucky to have these options. Many fellow Texans did not. For hundreds of Texans, the power outages had terrible consequences. Houses burned down and people died of carbon monoxide poisoning as they tried to keep their homes warm. Others died from hypothermia, or prolonged exposure to the cold.
According to reports, more than half the Texans in the state grid regulator’s service area had difficulty obtaining bottled water and lost internet service. Three-quarters couldn’t easily find food or groceries. While our local utility may not have caused the situation, how prepared they were to respond to it is still a matter of local and governmental interest.
Our power was restored three days later. We received text messages from the utility only after the lights had come back on. Maybe too little too late, but we were very grateful to have made it through.
Communications Failure: Frustrating, but Fixable
As a power customer, what I found most frustrating is that we didn’t have a way to communicate with our utility, and they were unable to communicate with us to let us know about the situation and advise us when our power would be restored.
Even more frustrating is that I know that the communications part of it is fixable. We can’t control nature, but we can use technology to be ready when it does its worst. You can make sure your mission-critical Utilities systems will be ready for the next big storm with Qualitest’s Storm Readiness Testing service.
I don’t know if the Texas utilities did any testing to ensure their critical systems would be able to manage the situation and stay in communication with customers. But I hope they will do so in the future – and that you will too.
Severe weather events are on the increase. Talk to a Qualitest SRT expert now to see how you can protect your utilities’ customers before the next big storm strikes.