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Council takes hard look at what went wrong during winter storm

Wednesday, August 25, 2021 by Elizabeth Pagano

After taking in an extremely critical report about the city’s response to Winter Storm Uri, City Council members stressed the need to prepare for the next inevitable disaster. 

“There’s nobody here that didn’t fight long and hard and sleeplessly and in the cold, and didn’t experience heartache during the course of watching our infrastructure quite literally fail all around us,” Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison said. “As a private citizen, I was also disappointed in my city’s response.

“This is me extending an official apology on behalf of this body,” she said. 

On Tuesday, members of the Winter Storm Review Task Force laid out key findings of their report, which was compiled after holding five listening sessions earlier this year and receiving written testimonies from the public. 

From its very first line, the report focuses on the lack of a clear communication system and the dearth of communication modes:

“While social media is an effective form of communication, the use of social media during the storm to provide sporadic updates was problematic. Most people had no ability to charge devices or connect to the internet in order to connect on social media. Facebook meetings held by city departments were not helpful, as participants could not ask or hear questions. Televised reports were problematic for the same reason.”

The report notes that there was a need to disseminate information more quickly and more accurately. Incorrect and inconsistent information in the days leading up to and following the storm led to a loss of community trust in authorities, task force member Jeffrey Clemmons noted. 

“We were all being told to work together to conserve energy so power could start to be restored safely, while (Mayor Adler) was on camera flagrantly doing the opposite. I remember this viscerally, because at the time I was under three blankets, except for the hand holding the phone. To my knowledge, he never apologized or commented on his action in that moment of severe crisis,” said Lawrence Williams, who was quoted in the report. 

The confusion and misinformation continued when it came to city services, with warming centers that shut down at night and weren’t ADA-compliant and confusion about who to call for the many emergencies that occurred throughout the crisis. In many cases, the report says, communication and service gaps were filled by community members, mutual aid networks and community groups that sprang into action.

“I look at it as a strength of our city that we have so many different types of people and different organizations and groups that stepped up. That is what needs to happen in a disaster, but it doesn’t have to be willy-nilly. … It can be structured and nurtured and the ecosystem can be cultivated over time, so that if there is a next time, we are ready,” Council Member Alison Alter said. “And there will be a next time.”

City Manager Spencer Cronk kept his remarks short during Tuesday’s meeting. He told Council members that a formal after-action report from the city will be available by the end of September, and it would be informed by the task force report. He said Austin Energy, Austin Water and emergency operation departments were also doing their own internal reviews.

“Things are changing, so I don’t know that we know these things will be low-probability any more,” task force member Sareta Davis said. “Something we do know is that we’re at the mercy of our state elected officials and ERCOT for an electrical grid. So whether it’s extreme heat or extreme cold, we must have emergency plans and be prepared. We believe in you, we believe in the city manager, Spencer Cronk, and we know that you will implement a plan going forward and that this will never happen to us again and things will be better.”

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