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Wednesday, September 6, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Austin helping cities hit by Hurricane Harvey

City Council unanimously approved mutual aid agreements with the cities of Houston and Victoria at a special called meeting on Tuesday in the wake of devastation from Hurricane Harvey. Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Leslie Pool and Greg Casar were attending to other business.

As of Monday night, a city official said there were only about 250 guests in Austin’s Met Center, the shelter for those evacuated from Houston and other cities inundated by Harvey. The state had originally asked Austin to shelter 7,000 evacuees, but that number dwindled as people went to other places and returned home.

Still, Austin found itself as a very much-needed partner for those cities in other ways.

After the Category 4 storm passed last week, Victoria officials found that only two of their approximately 80 traffic signals were operating properly, according to Austin Transportation Director Rob Spillar.

Spillar told Council that Victoria was in desperate need of help to fix its signals and had asked for assistance from the state. That assistance was on its way to Victoria when it was diverted to Houston, so Victoria turned to Austin, he said.

According to emails between Spillar and Donald Reese, Victoria’s director of public works, Spillar and his crews, 18 total staff members, went to Victoria last Thursday. By Tuesday, Spillar said they had repaired about half of those signals, and city of Austin employees are due to come home this Thursday.

Describing the devastation, Spillar said he saw a stoplight “hanging from a pole. It looked like a piñata that had been hit by a baseball bat,” he said.

Spillar concluded, “There’s certainly been a lot of on the ground training and back-and-forth communication so I think both cities will leave Victoria for the better.”

Juan Ortiz, Austin’s director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, explained that Austin must submit a record of its costs to Victoria and then Victoria will repay Austin. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will ask Victoria for documentation of its expenses and then it will repay Victoria for 75 percent of those costs.

Interim Police Chief Brian Manley said his department had sent 50 officers to Houston to help patrol the streets on Saturday. When those officers return this Saturday, the Austin Police Department expects to send another group of 25 officers, he said. APD spokesperson Anna Sabana said that the department did not yet know how much it was spending on the assistance but Houston will provide reimbursement.

As residents of Houston and Victoria return to flooded homes, they are piling wet carpet, furniture, plasterboard, wooden floors and other debris that were part of their homes and possessions into their yards and streets. The debris itself could lead to a public health emergency.

Officials with Austin Resource Recovery are currently working out the details for sending assistance to Houston and surrounding areas affected by Harvey, according to department spokesperson Susanne Harm.

Austin Energy is doing its part to help utilities impacted by the storm. According to spokesperson Jennifer Herber, the Austin utility has dispatched a number of its contractors to help fellow utility AEP Texas, primarily in Rockport and Corpus Christi. Austin Energy is providing this assistance through the Texas Mutual Assistance Group, which takes in requests for assistance and matches those requests with the utilities who have the resources to help, she said. In this case, Austin Energy will not be paying the bill. The contractors will be paid directly by the utilities they are helping.

Austin’s shelter for people fleeing Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath is at the Met Center in Southeast Austin. The city leased 96,000 square feet of the building for $61,440 per month, according to homeland security’s Helena Wright. The city also got a sublease for 64,000 square feet at $53,120 per month for a total of 160,000 square feet for $114,560. Both leases are on a month-to-month basis, she explained. The state is expected to reimburse the city.

Photo by SC National Guard170831-Z-II459-003, Public Domain, Link

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.

Austin Police Department: the law enforcement entity for the City of Austin.

Austin Resource Recovery: Formerly Solid Waste Services. The department in charge of handling solid waste disposal, recycling, and--in what is still a pilot program--curb-side composting for the City of Austin.

Transportation Department: This city department is responsible for municipal transportation planning including roadways and bikeways.

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