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Local leaders file disaster declarations in hope of federal assistance

Tuesday, November 5, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, and Hays County Judge Bert Cobb have each filed local disaster declarations in the wake of massive flooding that struck Central Texas last week. The move could preface action by Texas Gov. Rick Perry that could also lead to a federal disaster declaration.


In a letter delivered to Perry on Monday, Leffingwell set the stage for federal involvement. “I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that an effective response is beyond the City of Austin’s capability to recover without supplementary state and/or federal assistance.”


Meanwhile, Austin officials and staff continued to have their hands full with clean-up efforts. Indeed, Leffingwell abbreviated this week’s scheduled Council deliberations by cancelling this morning’s work session and calling for a shortened Thursday agenda.


In a memo sent to his colleagues Monday, Leffingwell noted that the shortened week would “allow our City departments to focus their efforts on recovery support for the affected neighborhoods.”


“Any of you who have toured the affected neighborhoods will know just how critical our support is to these residents,” Leffingwell continued. “The effort put forth by our staff, local non-profits and volunteers has been exceptional in the first few days of our response. Postponing nonessential Council activity this week will allow that work to continue uninterrupted.”


City spokeswoman Samantha Park told In Fact Daily Monday afternoon that City Manager Marc Ott “whole-heartedly agrees” with the Mayor insofar as placing “a priority on those impacted by the floods.”


State Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) told In Fact Daily Wednesday evening that he is involved in an effort to gather construction aid for residents of the Onion Creek area who may not necessarily have the ability to rebuild on their own.


State Senator Judith Zaffarini (D-Laredo) – whose district takes in part of Central Texas – said  her office is working to help her constituents.


“Recent flooding severely has impacted hundreds of my constituents in Caldwell, eastern Hays and southeast Travis counties,” she said. “Many families lost their homes and belongings, and they will need our support as they begin to rebuild and move forward. Accordingly, my staff and I are in close contact with aid organizations, local governments and state agencies to hasten the recovery process and to address environmental concerns.”


Should Perry sign off on the disaster declaration, it would open the door to federal assistance for the region through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


Leffingwell’s memo notes that zoning cases set for Thursday’s agenda would likely be postponed, thanks to noticing requirements, until the last Council meeting of 2013 – set for Dec. 12.


Ott – through Park – noted  that city staff could, if Council members decided to overrule Leffingwell, provide Council with support Thursday. It seems unlikely, however, that anyone will differ from the notion that the city’s focus should remain on Onion Creek.


In a Monday memo to City of Austin employees, Ott notified staff that management would reach out on an effort to supplement ongoing disaster work. “In addition to public safety or normal emergency response and community services employees, we are asking a select number of other City of Austin employees to be temporarily re-assigned to assist in the distribution of critical information to residents,” Ott wrote.


According to the memo, those duties would include information distribution, calls to be “visible and sympathetic to the needs of residents,” and active efforts to “(c)apture questions and concerns from residents.”


Ott’s memo was sent to staff at 3:12 Monday afternoon. He noted that City Human Resources Director Mark Washington would contact “all Department Directors and Human Resources Managers within the hour to request a list of employees who will be approved for re-assignment during this emergency period.”


Ott added that he expects recruits to be needed for the remainder of this week.


Also Monday, In Fact Daily learned that Kevin Anderson of the Austin Water Utility Center for Environmental Research informed utility officials Thursday that last week’s Onion Creek flood was, as Leffingwell said last week, historic. “The flood today on Onion Creek has set a new record – exceeding the 1869 and 1921 floods,” Anderson wrote in an email.


It all could get worse as the region prepares for more rain today and tomorrow. As of deadline, KXAN meteroligists were calling for an 80 percent chance of rain Wednesday.

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