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Scathing audit finds city unprepared for Winter Storm Uri

Tuesday, November 9, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Austin city auditors found the city was unprepared to respond to the impacts of Winter Storm Uri because planners failed to adequately consider the risks of a severe winter storm, leading to widespread disaster. That was a major conclusion of an audit released Monday. Although the city faced a cascade of dangers, auditors found that the city might have fared better if management had acted on recommendations going back to at least 2011. While auditors did not criticize city employees who worked tirelessly to help assist others in the emergency, they said the city lacks an effective process for ensuring that a sufficient number of staffers are available and trained to respond to a disaster.

The audit noted that there were 21 deaths within the Austin city limits, 16 of which were attributed to hypothermia.

The audit and management’s response will be a major topic of conversation at Wednesday’s Audit & Finance Committee meeting. While Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the city agency tasked with oversight of many emergency functions, agrees with most of the audit’s recommendations, officials disagree with specific conclusions, in particular the idea that they have not done sufficient training.

According to the lengthy report, the city has not prioritized or sufficiently funded disaster preparedness or community resilience initiatives. In addition, the audit states that the city failed to communicate effectively with residents in the days leading up to the storm. Not only did the city fail to adequately communicate the urgency of the situation or prepare residents for the possibility of prolonged power and water outages, city officials failed to express those warnings to Spanish speakers and other non-English speakers.

The city’s first communication about the storm was in English via Twitter on Feb. 9. The city used Twitter to warn residents in Spanish, but not until Feb. 15, four days after the beginning of the storm. A second communication in English appeared on the website, but its first communication in Spanish was also Feb. 15, the same day the Electric Reliability Council of Texas called for rotating power outages. Austin Water tweeted information about a boil water notice in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Arabic, the audit says, “but did not do so until Feb. 18, a day after the notice took effect.” Evidently this was due to delays in getting the translations completed.

As a result of failures in disaster planning, auditors said the city does not have an emergency supply stockpile or inventory, and lacks an effective process for ensuring that staffers are available and trained to respond to a disaster. Auditors reported that the city’s plans are not specific enough to help serve the populations that need it the most. Also, the city lacks a good way to measure its outreach efforts and does not know whether it is reaching the most vulnerable members of the community.

The audit report, ordered by Council in March, was considerably more critical of the city’s response than the consultant who reported to City Council last week.

According to the audit, the city should prioritize and implement initiatives to “increase disaster preparedness and community resilience, including establishing resilience hubs and improving disaster preparedness education.” The city’s disaster response should specifically address equity in emergency preparedness planning and should develop a strategy for involving the community in training and preparation.

Auditors wrote, “In order to ensure the city is prepared for significant or catastrophic events, including severe winter storms, the director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management should work with staff to plan, train and conduct exercises for these events. These efforts should be done in collaboration with key internal and external stakeholders, such as Austin Energy, Austin Water, Public Works, the Communications and Public Information Office, and Travis County,” and include events that are regional or statewide in nature, events that include continuous widespread power or water outages, and how to communicate during significant or catastrophic events.

Management responded that they agreed trainings are critical, but disagreed “with the insinuation that these are not already being conducted.”

In addition, they said, “The combination of week-long, below-freezing temperatures, two ice storms that paralyzed the transportation system and effectively isolated communities from one another for days, the near collapse of the state power grid, the boil-water notices for most Texans all during the height of a 100-year pandemic and before vaccines were widely available is an event of such enormous complexity that no training system would have reasonably anticipated.”

And according to the management response, in order for the director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management “to properly staff, plan, train and conduct exercises at the scale noted above, HSEM will need significantly more resources. This includes additional skilled personnel to provide the necessary organizational structure and to build the department’s capacity to continually analyze all emergency threats and develop training and response plans accordingly.

“HSEM is currently staffed at 15 full-time positions. The staffing level has not significantly changed in more than 20 years,” while the city’s population has doubled. “The current staffing level is not adequate to respond to a simultaneous crisis and/or plan, conduct exercises, train, or provide for continuous improvement efforts to internal and external key stakeholders.”

The Homeland Security department proposes to work with the city manager’s office to address its various needs, according to the audit response.

A city spokesperson told the Austin Monitor via email, “We have received the auditor’s report, which supports the findings of our own After-Action reports published last week. As we said just a few days ago, the city of Austin, like the state of Texas, was unprepared for a historic natural disaster layered on top of an international public health crisis. But we came together as a community to help each other. With every unprecedented event like this, there are lessons to be learned about our preparation, planning and response. We intend to learn those lessons and make improvements, and many of those improvements are already underway.”

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