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Report Identifies Issues in Austin’s Disaster Preparedness

In light of last winter’s week-long freeze, which took out many city services, Austin’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management released 132 recommendations on how the city should prepare for future disasters.

(TNS) — The weeklong, record-breaking February freeze this winter led to crises of power, water, food, shelter, medical care, transportation and emergency response throughout Texas —and Austin was no exception.

A lengthy report published by the city on Thursday identified a myriad of issues the community experienced that week and offered 132 recommendations about how to be better prepared for the next disaster.

The freeze "was an overlapping emergency with overwhelming and cascading community impacts," says the report, written by the city's Homeland Security and Emergency Management departments with the help of Hagerty Consulting.

The American-Statesman has previously highlighted issues that arose, such as the fact that no crew members on site knew how to operate a gear switch that would have restored power to the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant the week of the freeze. When the plant went down, it cut off roughly half of the city's potable water production.

Crisis of Crowded Shelters

The report reviewed the city's entire response to the weather event and subsequent crises, identifying lapses in training and coordination, as well as supply-chain failures and neglected communities.

"City and county leadership sought to move expeditiously to provide life-sustaining services," the report says. "These included activation of shelter and warming centers, coordinating medical operations and distribution of drinking water. They faced significant obstacles in loss of infrastructure, staffing shortfalls, and availability of volunteers."

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic meant that resources were already stretched thin, the report says. Some elected officials and volunteers set up services in response to shortfalls in departmental services.

More than 400 people without permanent homes were put into hotel rooms after volunteers with Austin Mutual Aid and Survive2Thrive started booking rooms to get people temporarily off the streets during subfreezing temperatures, the American-Statesman reported in February. Bringing everyone to shelters would have been more efficient and less expensive, but the city's shelters filled up quickly, so they had nowhere else to bring people, said Bobby Cooper, founder of Austin Mutual Aid.

Cooper said he was glad to bring aid to these people, but he was also frustrated that the city of Austin didn't do more, especially when it came to getting more people without homes out of subfreezing temperatures.

"Days before the storm got here, they could have gotten unhoused people off the streets and into shelters or hotels," he said.

One of the top recommendations in the city's report is that officials identify a list of medical shelters and general shelters with durable infrastructure that can accommodate large groups, backup power and water.

While officials set up temporary overnight accommodations that week, shelters lacked proper infrastructure, a steady supply of food and water, and medical support, the report said. The shelters' staff also lacked sufficient planning in mass care.

Eighteen months before the February freeze, the Austin City Council established a plan to open "resilience hubs" for residents in the event of extreme weather, but the city's staff did not open those hubs ahead of February's winter storms, the Statesman reported.

"Both county and city staff worked tirelessly during the storm," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a statement Thursday. "Still, there are many lessons to learn. So, in the future, we better recognize, support and institutionalize the important and necessary grassroots aspect of our community's emergency response."

Medical Resources Strained by Outages

Hospitals and other medical services also were in dire straits that week.

"Water outages caused hospitals to relocate patients and affected boilers and heating," the report says. "Icy and impassable roads reduced access to medical resources. ... Loss of residential power exposed vulnerabilities in electric-powered medical equipment. Sufficient medical and health services were not immediately available at shelters."

Hospitals and other medical facilities, such as nursing homes and dialysis centers had contingency plans, "but not for the duration and unprecedented impact of the storm."

The report notes that patients and those with power-dependent medical equipment turned to already stressed hospitals for lifesaving support, but records obtained by the Statesman show that several people in Austin lost their lives because of those needs.

Suffering from late-stage kidney failure, 71-year-old Diana Martinez Rangel of Manor needed dialysis treatments three times a week. But her dialysis center shuttered due to a lack of electricity. The day before Satellite Dialysis in Mueller reopened, she died.

A total of 28 people in Travis County died as a result of the freeze, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. However, experts said the true victim count is likely much higher.

Martinez Rangel's cause of death is listed as chronic kidney disease on her death certificate, and the document does not mention that she was unable to obtain dialysis treatment that week as a result of the winter storms.

The Department of State Health Services has refused to confirm whether Martinez Rangel is listed among the 28 victims in Travis County, citing health privacy laws. The department also has declined to release the names of the victims.

The city's report this week does not say how many lost their lives. The Travis County medical examiner's office has released reports about those who died that month, but it has declined to say how many of those deaths are because of the weather, power or water crises.

The city and county need to develop early plans for winter weather to allow hospitals time to pre-stock resources, the report recommended. Officials also need to look into upgrading water infrastructure at hospitals and identify locations that can function as medical shelters.

First responders also faced significant transportation challenges that week.

"EMS, fire and other emergency responders lacked necessary equipment to traverse snow and ice conditions," the report says. "A shortage of all-wheel drive vehicles compounded challenges in accessing workplaces and service delivery."

City and county officials need to upgrade public safety vehicles for weather disasters and implement a better road-clearing plan for winter storms, the report recommended.

©2021 Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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