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Public, Council members push for new emergency plan after winter storm

Friday, May 14, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

The head of the city’s new task force examining the impact of Winter Storm Uri says the city must create an updated and far more robust emergency response plan.

Sareta Davis, chair of the Winter Storm Review Task Force, also wants the city to study the work done by community organizations such as Austin Mutual Aid and the Community Resilience Trust to provide water and other essentials to residents who lacked the basic services for several days. The storm brought single-digit temperatures to the Austin area and strained the state’s power grid to the point of near collapse, causing days-long blackouts in addition to making many roads impassable due to snow and ice.

Davis told the Austin Monitor that City Manager Spencer Cronk’s prior experience in the cold-weather climate of Minneapolis should have helped him make the city more prepared for the impacts of severe cold weather.

“Must-haves are an actual emergency response plan,” she said. “I found it very concerning that we have a city manager who was in the city of Minneapolis and should definitely know what it’s like to deal with extreme weather, and also have unhoused individuals, yet there was no response plan here.”

The task force’s main responsibility is to coordinate a series of online community listening sessions to let residents from Austin and other affected areas share their experiences from the storm. The second of five sessions takes place today at 6 p.m. at The remaining three sessions are May 28, and June 11 and 23, all beginning at 6 p.m.

The March resolution that created the task force also called on the city auditor to examine the city’s emergency preparation steps, response and coordination during the storm, recovery efforts in the aftermath, and steps the city has taken so far to provide critical services during a similar emergency in the future.

The city’s current emergency response plan was last updated in 2016 and contains one paragraph about the prospects of winter storms, acknowledging the impacts of ice accumulation on utility lines and trees and stating that Austin typically experiences one winter storm event per year.

Davis said part of the next emergency response plan should include training medical and public safety teams to drive safely in severe weather conditions so they will be able to reach residents in trouble.

“A major city like Austin, Texas, was brought to a complete stall and individuals couldn’t even leave the city due to roads not being clear and being unable to get gas,” she said. “Staff from city departments and emergency services need to learn how to drive in extreme weather. I don’t think anyone here thought our emergency response system would stall because they wouldn’t know how to get to us in that weather.”

City Council held a special meeting this week focused on issues related to the winter storm. Cronk is working on an after-action report, and along with the heads of many departments spent much of the meeting recounting the steps the city took to provide services despite widespread lack of basic utilities.

Mayor Steve Adler said Council members need to have individual plans of action for their own districts since residents often first reach out to their Council member when looking for emergency assistance.

“This event showed us the training that’s necessary goes beyond the vision or mission that is contained in our emergency plans. If there’s just a briefing for us on emergency plans, I’m not sure that gets to the questions of what really is the role of the Council offices in an emergency … people in the community, their Council office is often the first place they go, and a Council member trying to do right by their district wants to be able to immediately go out and get to doing something about it.”

Photo by David Kitto, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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