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Winter Storm 2021

After Texans died during winter storm, Harris and Travis counties launch investigations into power outages

Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee said operators should have been prepared after 2011’s hard freeze. Travis County District Attorney José Garza told local media that his office will determine whether criminal charges should be filed against any person or entity.

Electrical workers repair a power line in Austin on Feb. 18, 2021. Many Texas residents are still without power and many don…

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Officials in Travis and Harris counties are launching separate investigations into the events that led up to last week's massive power outages. Harris County will be probing decisions made by the board that operates the state’s power grid, energy providers and the Public Utility Commission.

“Members of our community died in this disaster, and millions of Texans languished without power and water while suffering billions in property damage,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a Tuesday statement. “Harris County residents deserve to know what happened, who made which decisions and whether this could have been avoided or mitigated.”

Separately, Travis County District Attorney José Garza told KVUE and the Austin American-Statesman that his office had launched a criminal investigation to determine whether charges should be filed against any person or entity. The move came after state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, earlier on Tuesday called on Garza's office to launch "a thorough outside investigation to determine whether acts and omissions of state officials violated the law.”

"The state cannot investigate itself," Martinez Fischer said in a statement and urged his House colleagues to call for similar investigations in their districts.

Spokespeople for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and the Public Utility Commission could not immediately be reached for comment.

Dozens of Texans died because of last week's winter storm, which caused damages throughout the state that experts say could cost billions. Gov. Greg Abbott blasted ERCOT for its handling of the emergency. He declared reform of the organization an emergency item for the 2021 legislative session.

Garza did not indicate whether ERCOT would be a target of the investigation, KVUE and the Statesman reported.

"Lives were lost, homes were lost and it will take weeks, months and – in some cases – years for some people to be made whole again," Garza said. “We will not forget the horror our community experienced.”

Meanwhile, five ERCOT board members on Tuesday announced their resignations and a candidate for another position on the board withdrew his application. The vacancies will not immediately be filled.

Menefee will request authorization to take legal action on behalf of Harris County during its Commissioner’s Court meeting Friday. He said he is willing to collaborate with independent state agencies’ investigations as well.

He said operators should have been prepared after 2011’s hard freeze that exposed weaknesses in Texas’ electrical grid system.

“There was nothing unpredictable about this last freeze, and everyone had plenty of notice it was coming,” he said. “But, the people running the grid were woefully unprepared and failed to take immediate action and warn folks of what could happen.”

If the county seeks litigation, it is unclear what power it could wield over ERCOT or the PUC.

"I can't think of a time in recent history where you've seen an investigation from a county to an actor that was acting statewide," Menefee told The Texas Tribune. "But what we do know is that we have legal authority to pursue civil matters on behalf of Harris County and in fact, we have the duty and the authority to represent Harris County in all civil matters."

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