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City, county pour staff and materials into helping flood victims

Monday, November 4, 2013 by Jo Clifton

On Sunday morning, In Fact Daily Editor Jo Clifton accompanied Council Member Laura Morrison on a drive to the flood-damaged Onion Creek Neighborhood.


Residents of the hardest hit areas of this Southeast Austin neighborhood continue to sort ruined belongings from what may be salvageable after the devastating flood of Oct. 31. Meanwhile, 50 members of the city’s Code Compliance Department moved from house to house assessing the level of damage and, in some cases, issuing red tags to show that the houses were too dangerous to re-enter.


As we drove along Onion Creek Drive, we saw smashed cars and ruined walls. We could see a water mark on some of the houses indicating perhaps three to four feet of water had engulfed the neighborhood. House after house bore a red tag and no one appeared to be at those homes. But in other yards, residents were obviously working hard to recover.


We also went to the Dove Springs Recreation Center, where those who cannot use their homes may spend the night. City staff from various departments and members of the Red Cross – including volunteers with a truck full of clothing from the Seventh Day Adventists – were ready and willing to help victims of the flood.


After seeing the damage and talking to staff, Morrison issued the following statement:


“This flood has had a devastating impact on so many of our Austin families,” she said. “As they work through the challenges of the damage and destruction to their homes, the City, the Red Cross and other organizations have well-coordinated resources in place to serve both immediate and longer term needs, and both physical and emotional needs. My hope is that our whole community will understand the challenges our neighbors face and come to their aid as they are able.”


Morrison added that “the dedication of our staff is moving. As one told me, ‘This isn’t work; this is my passion.’”


During a Sunday news conference, Austin and Travis County officials said that the floods adversely affected some 1,100 homes in Austin and another 260 in county jurisdiction. Officials say Code Compliance officers red tagged homes that were deemed uninhabitable, and yellow tagged others with less severe damage.


The city Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department reported that Code Compliance fenced some of the properties issued red tags in the wake of the floods. Officials say red tags mean major damage and yellow means affected in some way less than red.


Officials say the inspectors are using the FEMA guidelines to evaluate the damage. City officials indicated that 12 structures would be declared uninhabitable as of Sunday afternoon. Code’s Travis County counterparts, meanwhile, issued a preliminary report noting “200 wet structures recorded to date…48 with major damage.”


Mario Ruiz with Code Compliance explained that the inspectors “were doing two types of inspections, the first inspection was a structural assessment. The second…to determine the water level. If the walls were destroyed ….they told us to put a red tag to show there was structural damage.”


A second inspection is being done to indicate the level of water in the houses. Ruiz said that some houses had very little water inside. “But the majority of houses I was inspecting had a level of 30 inches or in excess,” he said.


Ruiz and others stressed that no decisions have been made about what will happen to any of the houses. Although city inspectors are doing the inspections and issuing tags, it will be up to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to make a determination about the future of those homes.


Sara Hensley, director of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, was in the thick of things Sunday, at the Dove Springs Recreation Center.


“Our team and city staff will help move food and clothing to the Onion Creek area,” she said. “The bottom line is this is the hub for people who need assistance with Red Cross and sheltering.”


She said Austin Resource Recovery was trying to get as much debris as possible picked up and put in containers on Sunday. City and county departments reported that they have collected more than 125 tons of materials to date. They are removing debris, animal carcasses and hazardous materials.


Hensley said while there is a language barrier with some of the residents in the affected areas, it does not stop officials from providing them services.


“You have some people who are not English speaking, not necessarily (legal) residents,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter. Our mission is to take the services to people. At the end of the day, we at least want people to come over here and register so at least we will know they are there and get them the services they need. We don’t care whether they are here legally or not. We just want to help them.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell also toured the area on Sunday and put out a news release saying that the city and county were working together to get federal assistance for the flood victims.


Marty McKellips, chief executive officer of the Central Texas Red Cross, would not speculate about what would happen to the houses that were damaged so severely they were red tagged.


“We’re going to help the people whatever happens,” she said. “The people may be able to go home. We do a damage assessment and the government does a damage assessment. We determine which homes are livable and which are not. Then we meet with each individual family to determine what their plan will be going forward and what their needs are.”


McKellips said the Red Cross, in a disaster like this, engages the entire community, which includes other non profits and government agencies, to fill any gaps that people may have.


“We sort of surround them with the community and make sure no one is left out,” she said. “FEMA help is always desirable. Sometimes we reach the level where FEMA will assist us and sometimes not. If not, it might just be a little bit tougher but we will get through it.”


McKellips also emphasized that the Red Cross needs more people to sign up as volunteers. Since volunteers must be trained, it would not be helpful for people to simply show up and offer assistance. After a few hours of training, some of it online, she said, a volunteer will be ready to accompany an experienced worker to learn more about the work.


She said the best way to help the Red Cross is still to make cash donations. McKellips said just go to and follow the links. Those who wish to donate food, should take it to the Oak Meadows Baptist Church, 6905 S. I-35. Police Chief Art Acevedo said the community response teams would take the food to be given to people in the devastated neighborhoods.


There is a large police presence to protect residents from looting but various officials stressed that there has been no trouble on that front.


Relief workers are keeping their eye on the sky: weather forecaster say there is a 30 percent chance of rain on Monday and a 50 percent chance on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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