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Council members pose tough questions about city’s storm response

Thursday, November 11, 2021 by Jo Clifton

During Wednesday’s City Council Audit & Finance Committee meeting, Chair Alison Alter and fellow committee members Kathie Tovo and Mackenzie Kelly praised city staffers’ heroic efforts as Winter Storm Uri ground the city to a halt in February. But those heroic efforts were not enough and Council members had many questions after hearing the city auditor’s report on the city’s lack of preparedness for the storm.

Alter said city officials had fair warning that the storm was coming, but failed to inform citizens in a timely manner – and in their native languages. Staff had received numerous recommendations on what they could do better to get ready for such an emergency. But when that emergency came, they had not followed up on recommendations from FEMA in 2020, for example. And probably because they never imagined a winter storm hitting the city with such ferocity for so many days, they were unprepared. In addition, all eyes were on the Covid-19 pandemic, which left many city employees isolated from one another.

Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Juan Ortiz explained that his staff was activated in March 2020 in response to the pandemic. That has taken all their time and they simply could not focus on planning for additional emergencies. As the city auditor’s disaster preparedness report pointed out, the HSEM staff consisted of only 15 people and they were focused on the pandemic. The audit reported, “While the storm was unprecedented, the city’s lack of preparedness for Winter Storm Uri led to a less effective and disorganized response. … By acting on disaster preparedness and community resilience now, the city may be able to improve its response in future disasters.”

Ortiz told committee members, “The frequency of disaster events has gotten in the way of planning.”

Jessica King, leading the communications team, tried to explain why warnings in languages other than English did not go out at the same time as warnings in English. The answer boiled down to a complicated system for translating at the time of the emergency, coupled with a lack of power and access to the internet.

Alter said, “We need to do better, and I have to say as chair of the Audit & Finance Committee … I have never seen a management response that was so defensive in light of the magnitude of the challenge that’s before us and the real possibility that something like this will happen again.” City management “owes it to our employees” to do better, she said, adding, “The audit speaks very eloquently to the numerous recommendations and reports on how we could be better prepared … and it’s my hope that city management will take these recommendations seriously.”

One of the major problems presented by the electric grid’s rotating blackouts was that city employees who might have been able to help were stranded at home without power. Alter told staff, including Ortiz and Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano, “We need to address sheltering for winter weather … we need to do an exercise involving not having any electric power. We need non-operational departments to help operational departments. We need long-term staffing. ”

Audit team member Maria Stroth told Council the most important thing that staff needed to do was to “prioritize your next actions.” Only three of 62 community facilities have backup power in case of an outage. The climate resilience action plan of 2018 directed the city to create an inventory of city resources available during emergencies. It also recommended that the city establish basic disaster response and recovery training for elected officials and city leadership. That has apparently not happened. Only Tovo said she had participated in a training through the emergency operations center while Alter, Kelly and Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who also attended the meeting, have not.

Tovo, Kelly and Fuentes expressed frustration with the city’s failure to communicate sufficiently with them during the storm. Tovo said despite the consistent efforts of one particular staff member to help with her constituents’ needs, city management never told her who she should be contacting with her questions. She later learned that the staff member helping her had lost power and was calling from a car.

Kelly said she was particularly concerned that the city was unprepared to move forward with recommended changes at HSEM. She had heard that “HSEM has an entry-level employee with no authority in the department or the city to enforce compliance with corrective action plans.” Instead of assigning that task to a lower-level employee, Kelly suggested it be given to one of the deputy directors “who have authority to enforce those plans.” When asked to address the question, Ortiz said, “We’re going to be looking into that and making some adjustments in responsibilities.”

Council has allocated $3 million for experimental resiliency hubs, and staff members have started testing them. Council is planning to schedule a special called meeting to discuss the audit and the after-action report.

Alter said the conversation about the city’s response to Uri would continue at the December committee meeting. One likely topic of conversation is adding to HSEM’s staff, as that department has only 15 full-time people. Alter said she was concerned that the department was not planning to hire more people until Fiscal Year 2023, and perhaps Council would need to direct the manager to come up with a budget amendment to address that sooner rather than later.

Mayor Steve Adler did not attend the meeting because he is participating in COP26, the climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Council Member Leslie Pool appeared briefly before taking off for a Capital Metro meeting.

Photo by Viktor Lapinskii, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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