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City presents long-awaited follow-up on Winter Storm Uri

Monday, November 8, 2021 by Kali Bramble

As Austin prepares for colder temperatures, a coalition of teams led by the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has finalized its after-action report on February’s Winter Storm Uri.

Staying well past 10 p.m. last Thursday, City Council ended its meeting with a briefing on the report’s findings. The briefing, which included presentations from the city’s water and energy utilities, outlined an ambitious set of recommendations based on the shortcomings of the city’s response to the disaster.

“I’ve been involved in the field of emergency management for over 27 years … in over 15 presidential disaster declarations … (including) floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes,” Juan Ortiz, director of HSEM, began, “and I will have to say that the events we experienced in February of 2021 required me to muster all of this previous experience.”

Uri, which brought 164 hours of freezing temperatures and broke the record for consecutive days of grounded snow, left up to 40 percent of Austin residents without power, with some outages lasting as long as 72 hours. As pipes burst and roads froze, many residents were stuck in dangerously frigid homes without access to food or water.

Staffers noted that the overlapping pandemic, which was already straining city resources, severely challenged storm response efforts. Having invested in extensive Covid shelters and vaccine rollout programs, the city was caught scrambling to reorganize and meet more pressing demands.

“City departments currently do not have adequate staffing models for multiple-response operations,” said Allan Freedman of Hagerty Consulting, who assisted with the report. Noting the likelihood of future “overlapping disaster events,” the report recommends a major bolstering of the city’s disaster-response infrastructure.

The report contains a total of 132 recommended actions, including expanding HSEM, developing staff training programs, investing in weather-resilient shelters and transportation, and improving critical communication lines such as 311, 911 and the Warn Central Texas notification system. It proposes the creation of a new emergency management plans officer charged with overseeing a FEMA-informed “mass care plan” for the distribution of shelter, food and water in times of crisis.

Ortiz noted that work on several of these recommendations is well underway, including a plan to organize and expand a network of emergency shelters that secured Council approval back in April.

The reports from Austin Energy and Austin Water identified communication systems and system maintenance procedures as key areas needing improvement. Both departments said they had begun improving their outage map technology, citing the importance of sharing real-time information with the public. 

“When you have a large-scale outage, it’s very information-intensive, and the public wants to know what’s going on,” Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said. “Up until Winter Storm Uri, we had never had a widespread outage … we are very good at the technical side, but people want to know, where’s my water? When will it be on? Show us a map.”

Meszaros also shared that the department’s winter storm working group had sprung to action to better organize incident response roles, weatherize infrastructure and develop better communication tools. One of the more significant changes will involve modifying the utility’s maintenance and repair program, which historically has been scheduled for the winter, to accommodate year-round capacity threats. The department has also increased its emergency water reserves tenfold and supplemented its electrical system to sustain longer outages.

Ortiz said that HSEM will immediately begin a formal implementation of the recommendations, returning to update Council in the next several months. City staff will also prepare for a winter weather preparedness seminar slated to take place on Nov. 17.

“Winter Storm Uri is very much a precursor to future events,” Freedman warned, stressing the urgency of these changes. “Climate change is impacting these events … and we need to be prepared for a fundamentally new reality.”

“This can be an inflection point for the city of Austin,” consultant April Geruso suggested. “The key is to spend money on infrastructure ahead of time to reduce the impact, to invest in staffing to a level where they can plan ahead and act effectively. The moment of disaster is too late to become resilient.”

In the interest of time, Council members held off questions on the report for a later work session, which has yet to be scheduled. 

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