AUSTIN (KXAN) — “I would die. I mean, I can’t breathe without it,” said Kathie Anderson.
About a year ago, she was diagnosed with Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and is dependent on a machine for oxygen 24/7.
“It continuously cycles the oxygen… it has electricity, so if the lights go out, the electric goes out, that will shut off. There’s no backup to it,” she said.
Anderson has a couple of backup portable tanks but each one is only good for two hours, she said.
“I called them to have them deliver me some more,” she said of her oxygen tank supplier. “They’re not going to deliver anything until the first because of the roads.”
As Texans brace for potential power outages during this week’s ice storm, an outage poses a particularly dangerous threat for anyone like Anderson, relying on oxygen or other medically-necessary, electrically-powered equipment.
“I can’t be the only one on oxygen. It can’t be the only one sitting in this building worried about this. But yet, nobody came here to tell us what we could do. Nobody sent us emails,” Anderson said.
That’s why she reached out to KXAN.
Anderson lives in Georgetown, which we found out has a list of medically vulnerable people. We also found out Williamson County does, too, through the state’s registry. A county spokesperson said folks can also call 211 for resources.
Anderson plans to sign up for both the city and county lists.
“That would help out a lot. It would give me peace of mind to know that somebody out there might check on me and, and if I am having an issue, they can help,” she said.
Local and state officials urge anyone in this situation to call 911 if they lose power and need assistance.
KXAN investigators discovered state emergency officials, certain power providers and many Texas municipalities keep lists of medically vulnerable residents in their areas — in order to track and respond to the most at-risk residences during storms and disasters.
Explore the resources and ways to register for these lists below, based on your location.
The Texas Department of Emergency Management (TDEM) operates a free program called STEAR, or the State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry, to help local emergency planners and first responders track the needs of individuals in their communities.
TDEM encourages the following Texans to register:
- People with disabilities
- People who are medically fragile
- People with access and functional needs such as:
- People who have limited mobility
- People who have communication barriers
- People who require additional medical assistance during an emergency event
- People who require transportation assistance
- People who require personal care assistance
Registering does not guarantee any specific service during an emergency or ensure that registrants’ power will stay on, TDEM says on its website. Services offered from being on the registry vary by community.
Nearly 100 of the state’s 254 counties currently participate in the program. More than 120 cities also participate. To check whether your community is involved, click here.
To register or get more information, click here.
The Public Utility Commission of Texas, which regulates utility providers, has certain consumer protection rules that require certain customers to be eligible for special designations. Residential customers can be labeled as either Critical Care or Chronic Condition Customers.
A spokesperson for Oncor Energy told KXAN it keeps a list of these critical customers, but they also reminded people the designation does not guarantee power.
The company “works hard to prioritize” these customers when their power needs to be restored, the spokesperson said, but “unfortunately it is still possible for a power outage to occur, especially during potentially severe weather like what we’re currently experiencing.”
To learn more about how to register for these designations as an Oncor customer, click here.
Pedernales Electric Cooperative, which serves areas north, west and south of Austin, offers a Medical Necessity Program where people rely on life-sustaining electrical equipment. According to its website, “when planned outages or service interruptions for nonpayment are scheduled, we will attempt advance notice so preparations can be made.”
To learn more about this program and register, click here.
The City of Austin and Austin Energy keep a registry of utility customers with a long-term disease, ailment or critical illness. This does not include nursing home residents or hospital patients, but rather residential customers in their homes.
Customers eligible for the program receive more time to pay their bills and special attention from city staff and partnering social service agencies — especially during storms and disasters. A spokesperson for Austin Energy told KXAN investigators its staff works with customers in the program to create an emergency plan, including backup power sources or a safe location to relocate, along with an emergency contact.
“We’re doing wellness checks to all our [medically vulnerable] customers, making sure the lights are on everything is okay, and everything is going as planned for them,” said Ronnie R. Mendoza, Austin Energy customer assistance program manager.
He said his team of about 16 is activated during this storm, calling customers and going door-to-door, if necessary.
“We collaborate with all our other city departments and our counterparts to make sure that we can get people to a safe place,” Mendoza said.
He said if one of those medically vulnerable customers’ power goes out, his team gets a notification and will reach out to them.
In January 2022, Austin had 190 registered in their Medically Vulnerable Registry.
This year, Mendoza said they have around 300, with another 100 who are “pending,” meaning they’ve applied but haven’t been approved, yet. He said they are checking in on those customers, too.
He said they update their list and contact information every quarter.
To register or for more information, click here.
In the event of power or water outages, the City of Bastrop keeps a medical registry. A spokesperson told KXAN the city’s Fire Chief directs personnel to check on these residents to determine and assist them in getting to a better location with available utility services or providing a loaner generator.
The spokesperson said people in Bastrop can register by calling the customer service office at 512-332-8830 or emailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org. They can also register and get more information here.
A spokesperson for the city of Cedar Park pointed residents to the Medical Necessity Program through Pedernales Electric Cooperative, the electric provider in the city.
The spokesperson also recommended people with vital medical equipment call 9-1-1 if they lose power because “our first responders can often help them with their equipment over the phone, and crews stand ready to respond with additional help and resources if needed.”
A spokesperson for the city of Georgetown pointed residents to the application for PUC’s Critical Care or Chronic Condition designations. For more information, click here.
A spokesperson said the City of Kyle and Hays County pulled recent STEAR data, in order to contact “all medically fragile registrants as needed.”
They also pointed residents to Pedernales Electric Cooperative’s program, since the city doesn’t own and operate our electric utility. For any “life-threatening service interruption,” they recommended people call 911 or relocate to a medical care facility by other means.
The spokesperson also reminded residents they offer warming centers, in case of widespread power outages, that they recommend “for those with less acute needs.”
For more information on resources in Kyle, click here.
According to TDEM records, Leander participates in the STEAR program. A spokesperson for the city also referred residents to the Medical Necessity Program through Pedernales Electric Cooperative, the electric provider in Leander.
The spokesperson added, “Since this program does not guarantee electrical service restoration, eligible residents are also advised to identify other power sources, such as either battery or generator backup, or in the case of oxygen specifically, to have backup oxygen bottles on hand.”
The spokesperson also reminded residents they can access power and heat at its temporary warming center located in the Leander Activity Center at 11880 Hero Way West, Ste. 600 through Wednesday.
A spokesperson for the city of Pflugerville acknowledged that power outages can be “especially concerning” for residents that depend on medical devices. They echoed others in asking these residents to call 9-1-1, saying, “EMS will determine the best course of action on a case-by-case basis.”
The spokesperson also pointed people to the PUC’s Critical Care or Chronic Condition designations through Oncor, the area’s power provider.
The city of Round Rock also gets a list of residents who have indicated that they need assistance during an emergency from TDEM and the STEAR program, a spokesperson told KXAN.
Additionally, the city has identified residents with similar needs through its Community Risk Reduction program. The program works to help identify, mitigate and prevent life safety risks, such as fires, according to the city’s website. To learn more about this program, click here.
A spokesperson for the program said if / when there is a widespread power outage, firefighters go into the STEAR database and try to focus in on that area affected, identifying neighbors by their addresses.
He said they call those neighbors to check in on them and see if they have any physical or medical immediate needs.
They can also take their trucks, which have inverters, to temporarily recharge battery-operated medical devices, he said.