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County rose to weather crisis challenge – but it’s not over yet

Wednesday, February 24, 2021 by Seth Smalley

As the weather warmed and the snow and ice began to thaw, Austin Water and other utilities in Travis County began to discover breaks in water mains. On top of rolling blackouts, the depressurization of water lines created the need for a boil-water notice and a subsequent demand for clean drinking water throughout the state. On Tuesday, local officials briefed Travis County commissioners on the impacts of the severe winter weather and the county’s response to the crisis.

“Since this entire storm started, public information put out over 40 Facebook posts, over 49 Twitter posts and updated our website eight times,” said Hector Nieto, a county communications official, underscoring the need for fresh information for the duration of the crisis.

“If water was running out in one location, we would update the list to make certain that people had the most up-to-date information.”

The breaks were in homes and apartment buildings, according to Charles Brotherton, the county’s emergency services manager. Water line breakages, in addition to the deliberate running of faucets at the behest of utility companies, contributed to a widespread drop in water pressure. To boot, blackouts brought on by an overload on the Texas energy grid created the need for cold weather shelters to be opened throughout the county.

Having coped with a similar crisis in 2018, Austin’s emergency operations quickly responded and 1 million gallons of drinking water were ordered by Thursday of last week, bringing 120 semi-trailers full of 16-ounce bottles.

In addition to addressing the water shortage, county services scrambled to assist residents affected by the cold.

“We had 14 overnight shelters, including a major one at the Palmer Events Center in downtown Austin,” Brotherton said. “Shelters consisted of rec centers, local schools and seven churches in the region.”

Officials set up 18 water distribution sites, using the expo center as the chief distribution hub, and 2.1 million bottles were distributed by the following Monday.

“As systems depressurized, demand will diminish, but as of now we know there are still people impacted out there and we will continue distributing water,” Brotherton said.

All the cold-weather shelters, with the exception of the Palmer center, have now closed.

“The sheltering effort was a success, and the water distribution effort was a success,” Brotherton said.

County Judge Andy Brown spotlighted other local nonprofits and officials offering their aid during the disaster.

“There have been some other really great groups: Obviously, Central Texas Food Bank, Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, Workers Defense, Council Member Greg Casar, Mayor Pro Tem Harper-Madison, BASTA … there’s no end to the community groups that are making sure we’re getting to all the groups that aren’t able to get to the pods.”

Despite the outwardly successful relief efforts, Eric Carter, the county’s chief emergency management coordinator, warned the commissioners, “It’s not over. Even as the city comes out of their boil-water notice, there are a number of senior citizens’ homes and apartment buildings that have experienced property damage.”

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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