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Council hears of progress on resilience hubs, planning for winter weather emergencies

Wednesday, November 29, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

With the National Weather Service advising local leaders of the high likelihood of a significant ice event this winter, City Council received an extensive update on weather preparation efforts on Tuesday. The update from the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department attempted to consolidate the city’s many steps to recover from winter weather disasters in 2021 and 2023 that wiped out power and other services to much of the city.

HSEM Director Ken Snipes outlined the work involved in planning, communications, hiring and infrastructure upgrades identified as needed to help the city reduce the impacts of future severe weather events.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said Snipes and other city staff need to look at improved coordination with Travis County to assist areas like Del Valle in her district that don’t have easy access to a city resilience hub.

“When I think about preparing our community, to me Del Valle is an area of interest given the vulnerability index level that we have,” she said. “The last update that I got to the resolution that I passed specifically asking for the coordination between the city of Austin and the county for an emergency shelter in the Del Valle area, staff is recommending not doing it because of funding, because of not suitable locations. I want to push back on that because our Del Valle school district has already identified that they are willing to participate with the city and the county to provide a shelter.”

Staff reported work is underway to have 14 resilience hubs operating in time for cold winter weather to provide heating and cooling, food and water, and some shelter capacity. These will be concentrated downtown and in Austin’s “eastern crescent” region, historically home to the city’s most vulnerable population and more recently the site of the highest rise in housing costs. Six community centers that served as pilot resilience hubs are having their electrical systems backed up with additional generators.

HSEM is also offering a toolkit for local churches and other organizations that wish to make their facilities available to assist during weather emergencies. A resilience hub manager will be hired early next year, and the city is working with the University of Texas for a platform to organize and coordinate emergency hub operations.

Asked about efforts for people who have no home to shelter in during a weather emergency, interim homeless strategy officer David Gray told Council that a central embarkation center will be open with social service providers to assess the conditions of those seeking shelter, with a third-party vendor likely used to transport inhabitants from various homeless encampments across the city. Gray said from there, Capital Metro would provide transport to shelters with available capacity.

Council Member Alison Alter asked Snipes to ensure the city was moving forward with hiring all approved positions related to resiliency and emergency management in a timely manner. She also asked staff to prepare an update on the city’s process of receiving approximately $45 million in disaster relief funds already approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said the city needs to improve its planning on availability and management of meals made available at shelters during emergencies, including finding ways to harvest items from commercial kitchens that owners wish to give away rather than allow to spoil due to inoperable refrigerators and freezers. Harper-Madison also pushed for more coordination with local organizations that were operating redundant aid efforts across the city.

“From a resilience perspective, we had all these mutual aid organizations and community-led organizations and operations trying their best to help us out, trying their best to be productive in the community. For lack of a better word, it was redundant. We ultimately wasted a lot of people’s time and a lot of people’s resources with them trying to help, but the efforts were duplicative,” she said.

Photo by David Kitto, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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