Customers Say Oncor's ‘Rolling Outage' Message Left Them Confused, Angry

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In an exclusive interview, NBC 5 Investigates spoke with Oncor’s chief operating officer to ask if the company could have done a better job of telling Texans what to expect in the first hours and days after the winter storm that left hundreds of thousands without power.

The message from Oncor that most families woke up to in the early hours of Monday morning was to expect rolling power outages and the company said those typically last 15-45 minutes. 

Many families told NBC 5 they stayed in place thinking they would get brief bursts of power soon.

When that didn't happen, for days in some cases, the frustration and anger set in as people rode out the storm in dark homes, in the freezing cold.

“Our intent was, our plan was, to have more of a rotating outage…but the grid conditions, the generation shortages snowballed so fast,” said Jim Greer, Oncor’s Chief Operating Officer.

Oncor says 12 hours after the power first went out early Monday morning it did issue another message on social media telling people, "the length of these controlled outages have been significantly extended".

That message added that the outages "could be required through Tuesday".

But by Tuesday, NBC 5 Investigates interviewed another Oncor executive, who still couldn't say when power would be restored.

“I wish I could tell you. you know, that's the challenge,” said Debbie Dennis, Oncor’s Chief Customer Officer.

By Thursday night, four days after the storm, more than 145,000 customers in Oncor’s service area were still without power.

Oncor says it has been at the mercy of ERCOT, the statewide agency which ordered the outages to prevent a bigger crisis.

“This is about saving the grid. and so, unfortunately, over a fairly short period of time, our rotating outages became much longer and more of a planned or controlled outage,” said Greer.

The company told NBC 5 it has tried to be clear with customers and that it will review its messaging to see if it could have been more clear.

“I'm from Minnesota, so I know it doesn't have to be this way,” said Sue Thiers Hesseltine, executive director for Our Friends Place.

Hesseltine runs the nonprofit “Our Friends Place” where young women come to escape homelessness and abuse.  Both of the agency’s group homes lost power and one suffered water damage after the pipes busted.

When the power first went out, she heard Oncor saying to expect rolling outages lasting less than an hour.

But that's not what she saw at either of her shelter locations..

“No rolling. It was out the entire time. The other one we had a few hours on, but not much,” said Hesseltine.

Unsure of what to do, she kept the young women she cares for in place thinking power would come back on at any time.

“They literally were in the van trying to stay warm one night. And that's no way for anybody to live.” said Hesseltine.  “That's how they lived before they came to us. That's what being homeless is.” 

She says clearer communication would have helped her better plan what to do.

Her concerns are shared by many across North Texas who emailed us saying they were confused by the rolling blackout message. 

Hesseltine hopes this won’t happen again.

But if it does, she hopes for information that will help her decide more quickly how to act.

“There's no way to make a plan to keep people safe, our young women are counting on our friends place. They're counting on me. And I don't know what the future holds because I'm not getting the information,” said Hesseltine. 

Hesseltine eventually moved her young women to a hotel and then the power went out there too.

Power has been restored at one of the agency's homes now, but the other with water damage will take much longer to repair.

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