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Councilwoman claims Galveston's West End was neglected during storm

GALVESTON

A city councilwoman is frustrated over what she calls a lack of attention for the West End last week during the Texas freeze.

Power to many West End properties was restored later than on other parts of the island, and owners, like others across the island and Texas, likely will be dealing for weeks with cold-weather damage such as pipe breaks.

District 6 Councilwoman Marie Robb on Monday said there had been a lack of communication from Mayor Craig Brown.

“We should have been having conference calls every morning because no one knows better what’s happening in their district than the district councilperson,” Robb said.

Brown said he communicated with council members during the freeze week but conceded he might not have gotten messages out Monday as quickly as he should have.

“Communication can always be better,” Brown said.

Galveston residents across the island went without power for days last week when dangerous, subfreezing temperatures left many shivering in the dark. The prolonged cold almost crashed most of the state’s power system, prompting grid manager the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to mandate electric providers cut demand by 25 percent.

While local officials were prepared to handle rolling blackouts by CenterPoint Energy, which supplies much of the energy in the county, the prolonged blackouts caught residents and leaders alike by surprise.

‘FEEL LEFT OUT’

After Monday, Brown issued morning and evening updates to council members, and city management was communicating with council members throughout the week, he said.

“I think one of the frustrating things to the West End was power was not restored initially,” Brown said.

Many West End residents went a day or two longer without power than did many residents on the East End.

Despite being disappointed with what she said was a lack of communication by Brown, Robb praised the work of city management and the Galveston Fire Department for keeping residents updated.

Robb felt the West End was left out when other residents were getting help, she said.

“They were getting help,” Robb said. “They had heating centers. When you pay 60 percent of the residential taxes on the island, you expect someone to respond to something.”

Many elderly residents who need help live on the West End, Robb said. Residents rallied to shut off water and help their neighbors, but they should have gotten more help from the city, she said.

Brown didn’t think he was leaving out the West End, he said.

At a brief Galveston City Council meeting Monday, Robb pointed out there weren’t any water distribution centers west of Scholes International Airport.

The city had handed out water at four locations over the past week: the airport, McGuire-Dent Recreation Center, the Island Community Center and Wright Cuney Recreation Center.

The city moved water to the Sea Isle subdivision Monday.

Sabrina Walker, who lives in Campeche Cove, agreed with Robb. Walker had wanted more from the city for West End residents during the freeze week, she said.

“I completely feel like the West End was left out,” Walker said.

‘BIGGER BANG FOR THEIR BUCK’

Walker was lucky to have avoided burst pipes at her home, but many of her neighbors weren’t, she said.

But there were issues all over the island, East End resident Erin Ceccacci said.

When Ceccacci walks up and down her street, there are at least a few houses with busted pipes on each block, she said.

Ceccacci was drinking bottled water Monday because of a broken pipe. The plumber keeps pushing back the day he’ll go to her house because he’s so overwhelmed by pipe repairs and jobs, she said.

Neither Brown nor Robb had a clear answer why power was restored to West End residents later than many other island residents.

CenterPoint Energy, not the city, determines when and where power goes off and on.

Brown said he still didn’t know why CenterPoint had taken Galveston offline for so long but had been seeking answers, he said.

The best guess was that Galveston’s electricity demand is relatively high and it was an attractive place to cut a lot of demand, Brown said.

“They got, for lack of better description, a bigger bang for their buck,” Brown said.

Many residents across the island were dealing with pipe breaks Monday, a challenge that could last for weeks with plumbers slogging through a backlog of work orders and plumbing supplies in short supply.


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FEMA aid and other help is available in the aftermath of winter storm

GALVESTON

With President Joe Biden’s declaration that last week’s winter storm was a major disaster, Galveston County homeowners and renters can apply for individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help cover damage and other expenses.

Residents can apply online at www.disasterassistance.gov or call toll-free at 800-621-3362 (TTY: 800-462-7585).

A phone call is best for residents who don’t speak English or who otherwise need assistance with their applications, said Joe Compian, a La Marque city councilman. The application process takes about 20 minutes, he said.

Anyone applying for aid should have readily available a current phone number, the address where the damage occurred, a current address, Social Security number and a general list of damages and losses. Insured residents must provide policy numbers or agent/company names.

Uninsured, underinsured and fully insured residents can apply, but insured applicants must file claims with their insurance companies. By law, FEMA cannot duplicate benefits for losses covered by insurance. If insurance doesn’t cover all the damage, applicants might be eligible for federal assistance.

Disaster aid might include financial assistance for temporary lodging, home repairs, low-interest loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs that help people and business owners recover from disasters.

It’s important that locals be clear and specific about the help they want, Compian said.

“Don’t be shy about expressing what you need,” Compian said. “If you have a need, address it.”

FEMA recommends residents take photos of any damage incurred before cleaning up and starting repairs.

FEMA has provided 69 generators, 10,000 gallons of winterized diesel and 10,000 gallons of gasoline, 845,350 gallons of water, more than 126,900 wool blankets, 50,000 cotton blankets and more than 226,000 meals for the state of Texas as of Feb. 21, according to the agency.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, recipients to apply for replacement benefits for food ruined by the severe winter weather.

FEMA will not reimburse food lost because of the power outages but potentially could refund residents for money they spent on hotels, Compian said, adding it’s important to keep the receipts for FEMA.

Residents should keep receipts of repairs as evidence of damage, said Lynda Perez, director of Galveston County Long Term Recovery Group and the Mainland Community Partnership.

Galveston County residents who want to apply for FEMA in person can go to the recovery group at 2000 Texas Ave. Suite 601 in Texas City.

The recovery center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday by appointment only, Perez said. But staff members are willing to sometimes stay later to assist residents who work within the center’s hours, she added. Local residents can call 409-643-8240 to reach the center. 

After applying, residents must be ready to respond to calls from numbers they don’t recognize and keep their phones charged and unmuted to be ready for correspondence from FEMA, Perez said.

Residents who need help coping with the stress of the winter storm can call or text 1-800-985-5990 to connect with a trained crisis counselor. The distress helpline is toll-free, multilingual and confidential.


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After the deep freeze comes the big bill for many power consumers

LEAGUE CITY

Texas power consumers on variable-rate plans, many of whom might not even know they’d been switched from fixed-rate contracts, got caught last week in a supply-demand vise that might be costing them big long after most damage from last week’s big freeze is repaired.

During the coldest days last week, the wholesale price of electricity skyrocketed to almost $9,000 a megawatt hour from less than $50 before the storm.

Most consumers are on fixed-rate plans, under which the price per kilowatt hour is locked in and they’re billed based only on how much they use.

But about 25 percent of consumers are on variable-rate plans, said Rebecca Bridges, chief marketing officer for ElectricityPlans.com, a company that compares electric rates. Those consumers either opted for variable-rate plans in effort to save money or were switched to those plans when their fixed-rate contracts expired, she said.

Another group about to get hit with extremely high power bills is people buying electricity at wholesale prices through companies such as Griddy, she said.

Companies buying power wholesale from generators are facing severe price spikes and budget shortfalls and might look to those customers to make up the difference, she said.

GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION

That might put tens of thousands of workaday Texas power consumers on the hook for bills running into many thousands of dollars for electricity they used during the winter storm and in the days since.

Worry about consumers getting bills for thousands of dollars inspired Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this weekend to announce that protecting consumers from spiking energy costs would be a high priority. Abbott said he’d held an emergency meeting with legislators to work on solutions.

Meanwhile, both Republican and Democratic state lawmakers are talking about dipping into the $10 billion Economic Stabilization Fund, widely known as the rainy day fund, to buffer the blow through some sort of government subsidy. That would be a rare move. The Texas legislature has declined to use that money to deliver aid after disasters such as hurricanes.

Likewise, the Public Utility Commission of Texas issued an order to prevent providers from disconnecting people for non-payment of their electric bills and strongly encouraged providers to delay invoicing residents and small businesses. The commission governs the state’s utilities.

But thus far, the measures do little to actually fix the steep increases some residents are facing with their electric bills.

AGE OF ZEROS

“My friends have told me to just shut off the power and leave my house,” said Jonathan Randolph, a League City resident. “But my sister lost power and my parents’ pipes burst, so I can’t just pack up and shut the power off. And I might end up paying $1,000 because of it.”

For some others, a single power bill for a mere $1,000 might not look all that bad, however.

“This is a giant disaster that was created by politicians that did not have basic contingency planning, and the result will be devastating to families who have already cashed in their savings,” said Seth Alford, another League City resident who estimates he’ll owe $1,000 a day for electricity. “I’m embarrassed for our state.”

ENTICING PRICING

The utility commission last week ordered the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to raise wholesale energy prices to reflect “the scarcity of supply,” which permits price hikes to entice generators to provide more power.

ERCOT oversees a grid supplying about 24 million power customers, about 90 percent of the state’s market. It’s a membership-based nonprofit corporation, governed by a board of directors and subject to oversight by the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the Texas Legislature.

Both Randolph and Alford rely on a Houston-based energy provider, called Griddy, for their electricity.

Griddy services about 30,000 customers across Texas and charges a $10 monthly fee to sell electricity at wholesale prices, Bridges said. Usually, that amounts to savings when energy costs are low.

“A lot of people think of it as just a way to get cheap electricity,” she said. “Or a lot think of it as a way to get away from the big energy companies.”

Officials with Griddy on Monday placed the blame on state agencies and leaders for the skyrocketing electric bills.

‘PRICE MANIPULATION’

“The price manipulation from the PUCT has resulted in widespread market distress,” said Lauren Valdes, a spokeswoman for Griddy.

If Griddy receives any financial relief from the legislature, the company will immediately pass that on to customers, Valdes said.

Company officials as early as Feb. 12 realized how expensive wholesale prices might become and began urging customers through emails and texts to switch providers and kept a running blog about other providers that were allowing same- or next-day switches, Valdes said.

But both Alford and Randolph said they had been unable to escape their variable-rate plans.

“I was told that ERCOT is not allowing transfers right now,” Randolph said. “They told me they were sorry that I can’t switch over. It’s insane. It’s like being held hostage.”

BIGGER PROBLEM

The 25 percent of electric customers on variable-rate plans doesn’t include Griddy customers, Bridges said.

“Most people on variable-rate plans were on fixed-rate plans,” she said. “They didn’t renew their contract and they end up charged a higher price.”

Most of the time, the difference isn’t significant, she said. The average customer in the Houston/Galveston region might have a fixed-rate plan guaranteeing electricity and delivery for about 11 cents per kilowatt hour.

The same customer on a variable rate might pay 18 cents, she said.

“There’s a lot of discretion in what they charge,” Bridges said.

INDUSTRY HURT

Much like the customers, electric companies also are facing extreme strain over the spike in electric prices last week, Bridges said.

Just Energy, a publicly traded natural gas and electricity retailer, on Monday announced it could lose about $250 million from the Texas deep freeze and that it would delay its fourth-quarter financial statement.

“Some of the smaller players will go under,” Bridges said.

Most electric companies purchase power when signing up a new customer, but others prefer to play the market, Bridges said. That will hurt them now.

TXU Energy officials this week reassured customers they were insulated from extreme changes in the market and said residents could reach out about price protection, payment flexibility and customer support if they had any questions.

League City Councilman Justin Hicks heard from enough residents seeking relief that he decided to take to social media searching for answers.

“My hope was that maybe a lawyer or someone who knew about this energy stuff might know how to fight this or get some relief,” Hicks said.

State Rep. Mayes Middleton on Sunday called for those that engaged in unlawful pricing activity to face prosecution.

“Texans depend on fair and stable energy prices to stay warm and make a living during this trying time,” Middleton said in a prepared statement. “I hereby request that the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division investigate actions of the PUC, ERCOT and electric providers for possible price gouging during the declared disaster.”


Coming Soon

Local school districts assist families still struggling to overcome effects of the winter storm.


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With hospitalizations down, COVID restrictions on businesses ease

GALVESTON

The number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in the region fell far enough for long enough last week that businesses can welcome more people inside and bars that at least theoretically had been closed can legally reopen for the first time since the end of December.

Fewer than 15 percent of patients in Trauma Service Area R were being treated for COVID-19 from Feb. 14 to Feb. 20, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The streak means restaurants and retail stores in Galveston County and eight other counties in the region can return to 75 percent capacity. Bars can reopen to 50 percent capacity.

Although the change might have little practical effect for businesses, some operators hope it inspires people to go out more, they said.

Capacities had been lower, and bars completely closed, under pandemic emergency orders Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued in effort to preserve hospital capacity to treat people with the virus.

Abbott issued the orders in October, but the region including Galveston County didn’t hit the 15 percent trigger until late December, when cases began a steep, sustained climb during the holiday season.

“We weren’t really enforcing them, but I’m glad business owners have a chance to get more back to somewhat normal, although it’s still not normal,” Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said Monday.

County leaders, including Henry, initially criticized the measures because the 15 percent or more regional hospitalization rate was driven by places other than Galveston County.

County leaders sought an exemption because the COVID hospitalization rate here was relatively low. They even tried to join a different trauma service area — the one that includes Harris County.

The same rules went into effect in Harris County just days later, however, and the state declined to consider an exemption.

Restrictions would go back into effect if the region once again breaches the 15 percent hospitalization rate for seven consecutive days.

Local officials hope that with thousands now vaccinated and everyone familiar with COVID precautions, there won’t be another serious spike in cases, they said.

The easing of restrictions might not be all that noticeable because many businesses had adjusted their practices to accommodate them.

Kelly Railean said she changed the type of permit her business, San Leon-based Railean Distillers, operates under to stay open. Terms of the permit meant Railean had to make more than 51 percent of her business’s revenues from something other than alcohol sales.

She began offering cheese platters and held craft nights and a campfire s’more cookout.

Railean said she didn’t want to risk just ignoring the rules, as some bars had done.

“I don’t want to be harassed by TABC,” Railean said. “I don’t want my license pulled. I don’t want to be that person out there that has complaints against them.”

Other businesses that have been open might still be limited in the number of customers they serve because of social distancing rules, said James Clark, president of the Galveston chapter of the Texas Restaurant Association.

“The capacity difference, while great to have, is actually minor while still observing the 6-foot table spacing,” Clark said. “The biggest excitement is the hopeful reduction of fear to go out to eat and safely socialize more and more.”


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