Photo by city of Austin
Monday, April 12, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

City to create disaster-relief hubs

Spurred into action by Winter Storm Uri, City Council has moved to establish emergency hubs across the city where residents can go during a natural disaster to find food, water and shelter – belatedly acting on plans from two years ago.

The city, working with community groups, will pilot six of these “community resilience hubs” before eventually setting up one in every neighborhood. The hubs will be located at schools, libraries, rec centers and other gathering places, and will be able to maintain power and water during outages.

In a resolution, Council directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to develop plans, a timeline and a budget for the pilot hubs by June. 

The city gave similar guidance in its 2019 Climate Emergency Declaration, but plans stalled due to the pandemic. The winter storm showed that the hubs are sorely needed.

“It’s something that we’ve been talking about for years,” Council Member Greg Casar said on Thursday, “and now I think more than ever, we can very clearly see why these resiliency hubs are so critical.” 

Though several impromptu hubs were set up during the storm, the lack of planning left them disorganized and short on supplies. Some even succumbed to water and power outages.

“I worried about communicating to too many people that these hubs were available,” Casar added, “because we didn’t always know if we had enough people or supplies.”

Casar shared how his staff used their connections in city government to find port-a-potties for one warming center that lost water. “I appreciate them stepping up and doing that,” Casar said, “but it shouldn’t be City Council aides making sure that there are bathroom facilities at our resilience hubs.”

Council members apologized for the city’s lack of preparation. “We really dropped the ball,” Council Member Pio Renteria acknowledged.

“It is not okay that we are letting this type of policy direction go by without actual, tangible movement on it,” said Council Member Vanessa Fuentes – who was not on the dais in 2019. “Lives are at stake.” 

Council Member Alison Alter told the city manager to explain to Council by May how the 2019 plans could have made a difference during Uri. 

Once the hubs are established, they will serve communities not only during natural disasters but during non-emergencies. The city envisions the hubs as community spaces, similar to the roles schools, churches and libraries already play, Council Member Kathie Tovo explained. “This is really just enhancing what is already a wonderful asset that we have here.” Tovo also emphasized that planning for the hubs “has to be community driven.” 

“The time is really right, while all of us have that emergency in our mind,” she said, “to really look to those … facilities and see how we can equip them to have the kinds of resources in place that we need.”

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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.

City of Austin Climate Protection Plan: Austin Energy’s plan to make the city the lead in the fight against global warming. The plan’s goals included powering all city facilities with renewable energy by 2012 and making the city fleet carbon-neutral by 2020.

Winter Storm Uri

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