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City of Austin releases update on climate resilience plan

Monday, April 13, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Resilience is a word that seems particularly relevant as Austin closes public spaces and dining institutions and limits gatherings in response to the spread of Covid-19. Although the city has yet to develop a holistic resilience plan that prepares the state’s capital for extreme weather and response to crises, there is a climate-related resilience plan in the works.

Following the Environmental Commission’s unanimous vote in March to recommend the development of a holistic resilience plan, the Office of Sustainability released a memo outlining its existing efforts as well as additional options to create a comprehensive and communitywide climate resilience strategy.

In conjunction with several other city departments, the city is focusing on the ability of communities and individuals to survive the impacts and adapt in the face of shocks and stressors related to climate change. Other cities, including Houston, El Paso and Dallas include climate change resilience as part of larger plans that include components for social, economic and unforeseen disasters – such as Covid-19.

Amy Petri, the communications manager for the Office of Sustainability, told the Austin Monitor, “While the recommendations in both of our memo responses are focused specifically on climate resilience, the city of Austin has a number of initiatives underway to increase community resilience.” These strategies include resilience plans for small businesses, people experiencing homelessness, affordable housing and transportation. Climate resilience though remains the focus.

In its memo, the Office of Sustainability outlined nine climate-focused initiatives that are underway. These include the Austin Water Forward plan, a reduction in wildfire risk, flood mitigation planning, an air quality assessment and the creation of a digital atlas that identifies populations vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

In addition to current projects, the Office of Sustainability listed a menu of efforts that will lead to further infrastructure hardening or community capacity building. These nine supplemental initiatives will require four new positions at the city, including a resilience officer.

Although City Council has not allocated funding for these efforts, the Budget Office has instructed departments to submit an inventory of climate-related spending to create a databank of information that will be a part of budget discussions for 2021. The memo also outlined other potential funding sources from outside city coffers, including expanding Colorado River Flood Recovery grants, applying for community development block grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and seeking land management grants from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

This additional money will assist Austin as well as surrounding municipalities since “extreme weather does not respect jurisdictional boundaries, nor is it always presented in a single disaster event,” according to the memo.

Within the city, the Office of Sustainability recommended smaller-scale initiatives such as piloting emergency response teams in three communities determined to be most vulnerable to climate impacts and extreme weather. The teams will be responsible for collecting quantitative and qualitative data through engagement activities to better understand the specific impacts of climate shocks and stressors. The response teams will then distill the information into an educational format.

The Office of Sustainability additionally recommended implementing Resilience Hubs to provide organization, facilities, resources and tools of empowerment to communities faced with disaster.

Whether these additional programs are implemented to build out Austin’s resilience will depend on budget discussions for the upcoming fiscal year.

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