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Health

Medically vulnerable Texans tell the state to keep their power on in the next emergency

A rusty electrical transformer on a telephone pole with ice-covered power lines
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Ice on trees and power lines in South Austin during February's winter storm.

For many Texans, a power outage is something to be endured. While it may mean spoiled food in the freezer, or even burst pipes in the walls, it won’t immediately threaten their lives. But for some medically vulnerable Texans, a blackout can become a death sentence.

They and their supporters are calling on the state to do more to protect them.

The push comes as the Public Utility Commission of Texas works on replacing rules for how electric companies plan for power outages.

After last February’s big blackout, state lawmakers passed a law to beef up readiness for the next emergency. In response to that, officials at the PUC proposed an overhaul of the rules governing how utilities and other power companies create and maintain emergency action plans.

Under the proposal, power companies would need to meet new standards for things like how often they run emergency drills, how they keep track of essential personnel, and how they ensure that they have equipment to respond to an emergency.

But the proposal falls short when it comes to ensuring the safety of residential customers who are medically dependent on electricity, according to some of those very people and their advocates.

While utilities are not supposed to cut power to facilities that care for critical patients in times of emergency, “residential customers integrated into the community, even if they are critical care or chronic condition, are subject to service interruptions,” the Texas Legal Services Center and Disability Rights Texas noted in a letter it submitted to the PUC.

There are 10,530 such customers “in areas of Texas where there is retail electric competition," the letter states. "There is no reporting requirement for municipal utilities, electric cooperatives, and regulated privately owned utilities.”

“I was lucky in this past [February] storm because my parents are still alive,” Amy Litzinger, who is quadriplegic and requires an electric lift to get in and out of bed, told the PUC in a hearing Tuesday.

Litzinger works for Texas Parent to Parent, a group that advocates on behalf of people with disabilities and other health care needs. For those without live-in care, she said, "if an electrical outage or other emergency begins in the night, there is nobody coming to assist you. You can't go get to warmer clothes, medicines, food or water. You are stuck without help until someone can come by.” 

Other speakers recounted stories from last February of trying desperately to find ways to bathe their severely disabled children after their water service broke down, and debating whether to try to transport their loved ones to hospitals on icy road.

“I cannot begin to express in words the terror that we experienced because of the lack of power,” Lora Taylor told the commission.

Taylor said her daughter Julie is “not ambulatory” and requires machines to help her breathe. She said when their power went out in Katy they needed to use their cars to charge her breathing apparatus.

“During the 72 hours, we were frantically trying to keep really warm and perform her breathing treatment,” she said.

Some who spoke asked that the state mandate that utilities keep an updated list of where medically vulnerable customers live, have a plan to check in on them, and ensure their power stays on or backup power is available.

Carol Biedrzycki, a longtime ratepayer advocate who is working with Texas Legal Services Center on the issue, said that one challenge is figuring out how to get utilities to maintain lists of people they should visit in times of emergency, while respecting medical confidentiality laws.

“We should be able to work something out in these plans to overcome that hurdle,” she said, ”if we know that there are people who need help and there are other people who want to get to them.”

The hearing this week was the last opportunity to provide public comment to the commission as part of its rule-making process.

A spokesperson for the PUC said there was no “time certain” on which the rule would be taken up by commissioners, but state law says utilities should start filing the new emergency plans next year.

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