How does Austin protect vulnerable residents in case of summer outages?


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Paul Sebastian remembers his Winter Storm Uri experience all too well.

“We were without [power and water] for almost four days straight,” said the Austin resident.

Calls by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to conserve power last week have prompted concerns about the possibility of summer blackouts. The grid operator rescinded those calls at the end of last week.

In case of outages this summer, Sebastian said he’s shopping for a generator as a backup power source.

“I definitely looked into it,” he said. “I’ll probably get something but waiting until the buzz is over, when the prices drop again.”

We wanted to know how the City of Austin plans to protect its most vulnerable, should the power go out for an extended period of time. The use of cooling centers to provide residents relief from the heat is a large part of its plan.

The city told KXAN the cooling centers, which include recreation centers and libraries, were activated during outages in parts of the city over Memorial Day weekend. Now, they are on standby. How the centers are used varies; the city said a widespread heat advisory may prompt the opening of cooling centers all over the city, or the city could open certain centers close to areas that are experiencing power outages.

“Making sure we have a good list of facilities that are unlikely to lose power, because they’re on critical infrastructure grids is something that we’ve been maintaining,” said Bryce Bencivengo, who works for the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department.

The city opens the centers as needed; it sent us a list of 36 cooling centers. But two-thirds of them (24 locations) are not available every day due to summer camps and other activities. Officials asked us not to publish the list for that reason.

“We would hate to send someone to a location or even worse, somewhere not safe during a disaster,” he said.

Bencivengo said the city has several ways of letting residents know when cooling centers will open, even during a crisis situation. These include via media release, social media, 311, texts or calls through Warn Central Texas and emails through Austin Energy.

He added the city also would give this information to partner agencies, who can reach those who are most vulnerable. He used Meals on Wheels as an example.

Other cities take a different approach. In San Antonio, a map of cooling centers is available on the city’s website. Emergency officials there said the city has 29 centers, which were activated on Monday.

A City of San Antonio emergency management spokesperson noted it has a lot of vulnerable residents who don’t have air conditioning.

City staff to give update on resilience hubs

In the meantime, the City of Austin is making a broader effort to open “resilience hubs,” which could shelter residents during an emergency. The hubs would be similar to neighborhood centers and would have backup power, emergency food and water and be close to public transit.

Citing February’s winter storm, Austin City Council members in April asked City Manager Spencer Cronk to return by June with budget recommendations, funding strategies and a timeline for creating a community-wide resilience hub plan during emergencies.

In a memo sent to council earlier this month, city staff said it would need more time to give an update on the plan, which would feature six pilot hubs.

Staff said it expects to provide an update on a pilot program by July 10. Council is currently on its summer break.

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