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City eyes $3M for two resiliency hubs to aid weather emergency response

Tuesday, August 17, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

City staffers are recommending a pilot project to create two facilities to act as tryout resiliency hubs that would provide basic utilities and services to nearby residents during climate emergencies and other extreme conditions.

A memo released last week by chief sustainability officer Lucia Athens and climate program manager Zach Baumer suggested creating two hubs within the next two years so the city could study the operational steps and other issues related to a recent City Council resolution directing the city manager to create a plan for building the facilities.

The April resolution pushed for the creation of a communitywide plan by June that would lead to the creation of six hubs. The urgency was driven by February’s winter storm that disrupted energy and water utilities in large portions of the city for up to a week.

Due to severe ice and other unexpected weather challenges, local emergency services couldn’t travel to entire sections of the city, creating health and safety emergencies and causing community groups to set up food and water outreach in hard-hit neighborhoods.

The city has committed $3 million from its American Rescue Plan funding toward the project, with the memo suggesting $2.4 million would pay for the setup and opening costs of two initial resiliency hubs. Another $350,000 would pay for the creation of a larger plan for the hubs, though there would need to be further action taken to provide annual operational funding for the sites, which have not been selected yet.

The memo also notes that the Austin Independent School District, Central Health and other organizations have expressed interest in providing facilities or other resources to create resiliency hubs to help vulnerable populations. The groups are expected to help determine the best way to improve those facilities and create a larger network throughout the city.

“Once several initial resilience hub pilots are completed, and a plan has been delivered, more information will become available regarding additional funding needs for AISD, the city of Austin, and other partners. At the same time, additional resources and partners will continue to be sought. Staff will continue working diligently with internal and external partners to determine the best near-term opportunities to deliver two resilience hubs,” the memo reads.

In addition to the proposed hubs, the city is taking other steps related to climate and weather emergencies, including spending $12.8 million for Austin Fire Department’s wildfire prevention program, $298.2 million over five years for flood control projects and $2.6 million for public awareness around emergency preparedness.

City Council and assorted community members began intense discussions following the winter storm to identify ways the city could improve its utilities and create robust community assistance programs to keep residents from losing access to food, health care and other basic needs during disasters.

In April, during discussion on the resolution related to resiliency hubs, Council Member Alison Alter said city staffers had been directed in 2019 and other times to create a comprehensive plan to prepare for and respond to the effects of climate change. She said the lack of action on that front led to large portions of the city falling into crisis.

“We called for this work in August of 2019, and had it been in place it would have served us well. Whether the city can get stuff done within (the new) time frame remains to be seen, but I think it’s important,” she said. “In reviewing the climate declaration, there are a lot of other pieces that speak to some of the things that are relevant for the kind of climate emergency that we experienced when we have an extended cold period like we did with Winter Storm Uri. We need to make sure that we are taking the actions that have been directed.”

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