Lessons on Communication in a Time of Crisis

I lost power in my Texas home on Saturday. Normally, that would be an inconvenience; instead, it became an ordeal for me and for my neighbors on our block. It was 107 degrees that day with heat indices that reached 110; it became unsustainable to try to stay at home and tough it out. Luckily for my family, I had the ability to get us (including two very spoiled dogs) to a hotel for a few days. But – many without the same resources and privilege made decisions to tough it out at home in the Texas heat, which ultimately became exceptionally dangerous for anyone stuck in their homes without power.

Beyond the intrinsic issues stemming from failure of our Texas grid, crumbling infrastructure and an early June heat wave, the biggest issue we experienced was communication with our electric provider. Over the course of 36 hours, I received 21 notifications from Oncor, the service provider. Each one was a repeat of the last one; they were aware of a possible outage, additional repairs were needed, and they provided a new estimate about 3 hours later that it would be fixed. These messages continued about every 3 hours over the course of this period from Saturday evening through Monday morning, when power was eventually restored. They lost their trust with me after the second update.

At first glance, the fact that I was receiving text messages seems like a good idea, right? However, the core of the issue with their communications came down to 2 things that must be addressed – that should be guideposts for any emergency communications plan.

  • Transparency about the root cause of the issue Was it a systemic grid failure? A blackout or brownout? Were these rolling outages, etc? The generic wording in these updates provided no information about what was causing the problem, and therefore what we as homeowners could realistically expect to get the power restored. If we had known it was systemic failure and they had to replace equipment, we may have made different decisions to bring families, pets, etc. to stay with friends vs. trusting in hope that 3 hours more would do the trick. It’s like having a flight cancelled; if the issue is weather, you make one alternate plan; if the issue is that a pilot is coming in on a plane 20 minutes delayed, you make a different plan.
  • Setting realistic expectations about the fix. Staying inside and trying to keep cool wasn’t an option; it was, in fact, really dangerous when inside temps reached over 90 degrees. We were lucky enough to have the ability to go stay at a hotel or with friends; some of our neighbors were choosing instead to tough it out. If Oncor had simply communicated – like they would in the event of a hurricane or similar emergency – that we should evacuate to keep ourselves safe, would people have made different decisions not to stay and tough it out and instead find an alternative like many of the cooling stations that had been set up around our city?

My story has a happy ending, because I was lucky enough to find a place to stay where we had access to AC, water and food. I am speaking up about this and telling my story so that, next time, Oncor can get this right without endangering lives.