AUDIT: City leaders didn’t make 11 changes that may have helped during February’s winter storms, audit says

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — According to a new audit, the city didn’t implement several previously recommended changes that may have improved their response during February’s historic winter storms.

That includes suggestions related to planning for extended emergencies, improving language access, and making sure city facilities have backup power so that they can be used as shelters.

A draft of the audit was published Monday, and in a press release, the Office of the City Auditor (OCA) said it plans to present it to council members on the Audit and Finance Committee Wednesday morning.

“It is an experience that I do not like to travel back to. It was an experience that I’m still processing through,” said Yasmine Smith, a native Austinite.

She still lives with reminders of the storm — like parts of her coffee table that she had to tear apart to feed her fireplace when power went out.

“I looked around and my … inside of my home was under 30 degrees,” she said. “I didn’t have water, I was running out of food.”

Ultimately, the woman who was helping rescue others through her position at the Austin Area Urban League, ended up having to call in her own rescue.

Months later, every time her lights go out briefly during a storm, she still feels triggered.

“Those first few moments are terrifying. You almost get into, ‘Oh no, it’s happening again,'” Smith said.

The auditor says the city knew about lessons learned from past disasters, like Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Hurricane Laura last year, but the status of those recommendations made in corrective action plans isn’t known because the city hasn’t been tracking them.

The office also points to after-action reports following the Colorado River flooding event in October of 2018, saying that, according to the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s (HSEM) tracking log, only 19 of the 159 recommendations were implemented.

A graph on page 10 of the audit indicates that the city only implemented 12% of the suggestions made after the Colorado River flood.

The audit goes on to document a February 2020 FEMA winter weather training that city and county leaders attended — including the mayor, city manager, department leaders, and operational staff.

That training, the report says, pointed out “several specific issues with planning, training, and staffing,” that the city did not end up implementing.

“The overall goal of the course was to discuss and help prepare the community for a high-consequence winter weather event before it occurred,” the report reads.

This chart on page 11 of the audit shows the different issues identified after the city’s winter training with FEMA that the city did not implement.

The audit notes that staff said the lack of implementation was due to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting right after that training.

“I think it was probably the worst week in working in any of our medics’ memory,” says Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association.

Xie says she’s not surprised about the city’s track record; she says they’ve had a slow response to their demands in the past.

“We used to have winter boxes that had cleats, de-ICER and all sorts of things– extra blankets, and they stopped doing those years ago,” Xie says.

It all resulted in extreme anxiety for her and her colleagues, she says.

“It was very very harrowing for many of my medics. A lot of them told me that they thought that they were going to die that day, driving these large ambulances in the snow,” she says.

Xie says her department falls under planning from HSEM.

The audit includes responses from HSEM leaders, who said a lack of funding and staff have made it difficult to make changes and offer more trainings.

HSEM also agrees with all 10 recommendations at the end of the audit, although pointing out that some training has already been happening.

KXAN asked HSEM if they’ll act differently on recommendations after the storm, last week, 132 of those were released.

A spokesperson says specific lead and secondary agencies have been assigned to each of those suggestions– some of which have already begun.

He also said HSEM plans to create a taskforce to tackle past corrective actions they’ve missed.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office sent KXAN the following response:

“Last winter, we were tested like never before. In a natural disaster of such a large scale, we saw how important it was for our community to come together and help one another – separate and in addition to the actions of public entities. Both County and City staff worked tirelessly during the storm. 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.” 

Austin Mayor Steve Adler

Xie and Smith say they are anxious and nervous about the coming winter season, but they are seeing some change.

Xie says her department is working on those big issues, bringing back winter boxes, ambulance tire chains, and making sure stations have working power generators.

Smith says the Austin Area Urban League has helped push city and county leaders to allocate funding for resilience hubs, which would have emergency resources for the public.

She says they will continue to put pressure on leaders, even as they make their own preparations to step in again, like undergoing Red Cross disaster response training.

“At this point, especially with the human loss and what we saw, boots on ground, I’m very confident in saying that we will be at every door, at every step, at every juncture, to make sure that that happens,” Smith says.

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