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City races to prepare for the next emergency

Thursday, January 20, 2022 by Jo Clifton

City Council’s Audit & Finance Committee received an updated report Wednesday on the city’s efforts to prepare for what Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano has described as “complex, cascading disasters,” like the city faced last February during Winter Storm Uri.

The committee heard a scathing report from the Office of the City Auditor in November, outlining a wide variety of deficiencies in the city’s preparedness. As a result of the audit, as well as work by city employees, staff members have received a multitude of recommendations on improving their response.

Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter, who chairs the committee, and Council Member Kathie Tovo have posed numerous questions to city staff about what happened and how they will address future emergencies. At the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Alter said she had learned that staffers had requested funding for emergency preparedness in previous budgets, but those requests were never presented to Council. “We can’t expect our staff to do work if they don’t have the resources to do it,” she said. Likewise, Council members can’t be expected to guess what departments need if they never receive the information.

She suggested that there need to be changes to the way the city prepares its budgets so that Council is advised about departmental requests. Alter indicated she would be in favor of a midyear budget amendment to add funding for emergency preparedness, expressing particular concern about the city’s preparedness for wildfires. Alter represents District 10, which contains a considerable number of properties bordering on undeveloped land most susceptible to wildfire.

At the end of a lengthy report from Arellano and representatives of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department, Alter noted that staff members have identified 132 recommendations that should be implemented in the near future for dealing with cold weather disasters.

But Alter said she was concerned that “we’re fighting the last war,” not the one that’s coming, saying it’s “our responsibility as a city to be able to pivot and prepare.” She asked for help understanding how current planning would help “in other disaster situations and what we are doing.”

“I’m obviously particularly focused and very concerned about wildfire. As you know, this is going to be a really risky year if we don’t get water. It’s going to be a potentially risky month – in January of all months, not the summer, January, February – if we don’t get precipitation,” Alter said.

HSEM Director Juan Ortiz responded, noting that disasters can happen any time of year. In fact, he said, the department had scheduled an executive-level seminar on a complex response to a disaster involving wildfire and “cascading other disasters, impacting power, impacting water utilities and transportation.” Unfortunately the seminar had to be rescheduled because the trainers got Covid.

Arellano sent out a memo to Mayor Steve Adler and Council on Wednesday outlining the actions different departments had taken to prepare for future disasters. Here is a partial listing:

  • The Communications and Technology Management Department has purchased a mobile generator to be deployed “to serve as a critical network hub.” In addition, funding for generators at the Manchaca and Carver libraries has been approved.
  • The Combined Transportation, Emergency & Communications Center is storing nearly a week’s worth of food and water.
  • The Public Works Department has added snow removal from critical streets to its workload, including clearing streets and bridges to provide access to Austin Water treatment plants; police, fire and EMS stations; and hospitals. It has also purchased tire chains for its vehicles.
  • The Parks and Recreation Department has stationed “containers with emergency management supplies in strategic locations for immediate shelter activation,” and the Homeless Strategy Division of Austin Public Health has allocated American Rescue Plan Act funding to hire a temporary staffer to implement recommendations related to “mass sheltering and other services.”

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