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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Communication difficulties between city and county staff, translation service mishaps and shelter security issues were some of the necessary improvements flagged in the City of Austin and Travis County’s winter storm after-action report.
The report evaluated the city and county’s response to the extreme winter storm that slammed the region in late January and early February 2023, leading to thousands without power and ice coating the greater Austin area.
The report reviewed six key areas of emergency response efforts:
- Planning and preparation
- Operational coordination
- Resource and asset management
- Technology and infrastructure
- Shelter management
Pre-storm communications thrived, but broke down following ‘hurricane-level’ ice storm
The report noted strong efforts from both city and county personnel to share general information on the storm, stress winter preparation efforts to residents and used news interviews, releases and social media to help inform the public. During the recovery and restoration phases, city and county incident command teams provided around-the-clock updates to help sustain recovery efforts.
There were also concerns flagged with translation services for non-English speaking residents, with the report recommending city and county staff develop pre-scripted communication messages for different emergency situations that can be updated as needed. It also advised officials to create a comprehensive list of people with different language skills who can be tapped to assist in an emergency event.
However, once the storm hit, the report noted redundancies in communities internally. The report also determined the city and county were both unprepared for a “hurricane-level” ice storm and the impacts it would have on communication methods.
“The magnitude of damage caused communication barriers and breakdowns immediately after the storm,” the report read. “For example, due to the complexity and volume of the outages, Austin Energy and other utility providers could not provide its customers with accurate estimated times of restoration.”
Pre-positioned emergency supplies eased efforts, but power response efforts waned
The City of Austin’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management communication teams helped develop pre-storm disaster preparedness resources, such as a marketing campaign on the storm. Critical supplies, or mission-ready packages with coats, blankets, food and water, were pre-positioned to serve in shelter areas.
Once the storm hit, there were uncertainties on daytime shelter operations and not specific designations for 24-hour operational shelters, shelters for families, those for unhoused residents and facilities that would service those with animals.
The report recommended city and county officials develop a plan that categorizes and documents different types of available city and county shelters, as well as the amenities and assets they provide. It also stressed city and county leaders need to continue hardening buildings and adding backup power, air conditioning and other amenities to facilities poised to serve as shelters in an emergency scenario.
During power response and restorations, the report determined some restoration crews experienced threats and acts of violence. The report said it’s critical for the city and county to find ways to protect utility response and restoration crews and to provide field-level security to them.
Too many communication channels led to operational coordination issues
The city was able to restore thousands of power outages daily during the winter storm event, as well as used resources like the Austin Fire Department’s brush trucks to respond to a variety of calls. The use of AW’s Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant was also a successful means of establishing a public drop-off site for vegetation debris, clearing up roads and yards more efficiently.
However, too many communication channels led to confusion and disconnect between staff and field crews, the report found. It recommended a formalized communications tool plan be created and all personnel involved in emergency operations be trained on it to effectively utilize it during an incident.
On the transportation end of things, some city and county staff said they didn’t feel trained to safely transport residents in government vehicles during the storm. The report recommended a risk analysis of those transportation methods, as well as consideration of any safety and liability issues to help determine best steps for inclement weather response.
Many departments winterized facilities in advance, but some still went without power
Prior to the winter storm, the report found many departments successfully worked to winterize facilities, with no issues reported beyond some small pipe leaks. Sidewalks were sanded and sprayed down to help prevent possible slips and falls, and both city and county vehicles sustained little to no damages.
However, many first responder facilities were determined to have gone without power for various periods of time, affecting their living conditions as they worked 24-hour shifts or more in a row. The report advised city and county officials to prioritize first responder facilities for generator installation and to track which facilities have power at any point in time, as well as that facility’s available capacity.
It also found employees required to work during the winter storm received the same compensation as many employees who didn’t work. The report recommended additional monetary compensation for those mandated to work during an emergency event or city closure.
Security issues at shelters were also prevalent. The report advised city and county officials review, document and implement specific plans for security needs at shelters and to have those resources contracted and in place ahead of a disaster.
Some of these shelters also lost power during the storm or didn’t have generators in place, resulting in shuffled shelter guests from one facility to another. The report said city and county staff should prioritize using shelters with generators and excess space first and then building out a system to winterize other facilities.
Inaccurate data, language translation issues impacted community knowledge during storm
The report found public-facing maps employed by Austin Energy, Austin Resource Recovery and the Austin Transportation and Public Works Department weren’t always accurate, and the report advised city departments to evaluate their technological procedures and possible data limitations in the maps.
ATPWD’s communications system also lost contact with 51% of city traffic signals, with it unknown whether those signals were offline, flashing or operating as normal. The report suggested ATPWD explore different technological avenues that can notify the department’s mobility management center when a traffic signal loses power.
Language translation services were found to have lacked at shelters. The report recommended city and county officials use Voiance Interpreter or Cyracom Interpreter — as employed by the city already — to offer virtual interpretation services at shelter facilities.
Separation between different shelter offerings is a necessity
While HSEM, Austin Public Health, the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services and the Austin Public Library worked well together on coordinating shelter activations and pre-positioning supplies, there is a massive need for different shelters and separated services.
The report stressed distinctions among shelters for unhoused residents, emergency shelters, warming and cooling centers and those for residents with animals or who are medically vulnerable. It also recommended the city and county harden those buildings to include backup power in the event of an outage.
Capacity issues also plagued shelter services, with the report noting only three shelters were initially planned. The report said officials need to address capacity and staff levels and to expand on current cold weather shelter contracts to build up a more robust response effort.
Next steps for local leaders
KXAN asked Mayor Kirk Watson about how he plans to use the report prior to it being released.
“You will see me almost immediately pushing to implement changes,” Watson said. “There will always be things that we wish we do better as you chase whatever the next disaster is, but when you’ve got a report that tells you how you messed things up on the first one, you better be trying to fix things in the next one.”
February 2023 winter storm
Tens of thousands of Austinites were without power for days, some more than a week. The ice storm of late January and early February 2023 was the worst icing event in the region in more than 15 years.
Camp Mabry, Austin’s official weather reporting site, recorded 0.69″ of ice, enough to down trees areawide and plunge hundreds of thousands of Central Texans into the dark, KXAN reported earlier this year.
KXAN published a full gallery of the storm here.
Previous after-action reports
The City of Austin also published an after-action report following the February 2021 winter storms, which included more than 100 recommendations for improving emergency planning and response systems for future events.
The report identified communication as a major area of improvement — within agencies, with community groups responding to the disaster and with the public.
It also found several city departments did not have updated emergency operation plans and did not have the right equipment to appropriately respond.
The report found “numerous” city departments didn’t have enough access to tire chains, broadband, food, water and other resources during their response and that “generators failed or were inoperable at fire stations due to poor maintenance.”
Austin Energy and Austin Water also published their own of their own studies of internal challenges during the winter storm in 2021.
- You can read the Austin Energy February 2021 Winter Storms After-Action Report here.
- You can read the Austin Water Winter Storm After Action Report here.