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Council critiques Uri response – and looks ahead to future disasters

Friday, February 26, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

On Thursday, City Council launched a wide-ranging review of the city’s response to the devastation wrought by winter storm Uri, beginning the long, complex work of preparing for the next storm – even as the current crisis persists for many.

“I appreciate the beginnings of how we approach this looking back (on the crisis), ” Mayor Steve Adler said. “But we still have a lot of people that are without water tonight, and without food.”

Council adopted a resolution directing City Manager Spencer Cronk to implement policies that will help those still suffering, review the city’s response to the crisis and develop a comprehensive plan to prepare for future winter storms. The vote was 10-0 with Council Member Leslie Pool off the dais.

Cronk will come back next week with potential actions for Council, though some actions could be taken sooner. Cronk was originally given a month to form recommendations for Council, but Adler pushed the date up.

The mayor and other Council members offered many considerations. Adler made several suggestions, including finding more long-term housing for people experiencing homelessness and finding short-term housing for those with extensive damage to their homes. He also suggested creating an online “one-stop shop” for all disaster recovery resources available to residents: local, state, federal and nonprofit.

Council Member Greg Casar moved to protect homeowners and renters whose homes have been damaged. It is important, he said, “to support those moderate and low-income homeowners through the repair process and … make sure that there’s tenant voice in that process.”

Disaster communication to elderly Austinites, particularly those in nursing homes and other facilities, needs to improve, Council Member Ann Kitchen said. Council Member Alison Alter agreed, saying there were “a lot of seniors that were in trouble, that we needed to deliver support to, and our systems for identifying and understanding how to notify people especially as power was down for some phone systems, etc., were very limited.”

Some Council members focused on Austin Water’s response to water outages. Council Member Paige Ellis said the utility needs to improve its public communications by giving “more timely warning notifications, more localized, real-time outage information, and estimates of when water service will be restored.”

“Some sort of understanding of how long people would be waiting (for water) would have been extremely helpful for this past week,” Ellis said. Casar that there should be a map of specific water outage locations.

Last week, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said Austin Water had no way of knowing where the “tens of thousands” of leaks that plagued the city’s pipes were until residents reported them. Smart water meters, which are currently being rolled out, will allow the city “to tell, essentially in real-time, which meters are operating and which ones are not operating in terms of flow,” Meszaros said Thursday.

Council Member Kathie Tovo said Council should conduct hearings to understand why power and water went out and assess the city’s response and preparedness. She also suggested forming a community task force to get feedback from the public.

For now, Adler said, Council will stay focused on the present. “When the dust clears … we’ll look back,” said Adler. “But the focus right now is on the continuing crisis.”

This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper Madison was present for the vote. Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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