AUSTIN (KXAN) — A year and a half ago, city staff scrambled to get food, water and shelter to Austinites left in the dark and freezing. Now, the City of Austin is getting ready to launch resilience hubs to be prepared for future emergencies.
It left community groups like ProyectoTEATRO to fill in the gaps. The nonprofit theatre company turns unique spaces into places for art.
“We are an unconventional theatre company,” said Luis Ordaz Gutierrez, executive director. “We’re really focused on ensuring arts accessibility to the immigrant community.”
That mission took another unconventional turn during the February 2021 winter storm, serving their cast members and audience and beyond in a different way.
“We activated unconventional spaces to transform them into distribution centers,” Gutierrez said.
He said they distributed thousands of bottles of water, hot meals and food to about 6,000 people per day.
“I never thought as a theatre director, I would know how many bottles of water in a pallet of cases of water!” Gutierrez joked.
An after action report by the city auditor found when the February 2021 winter storm crippled most of the Lone Star State, Austin didn’t “effectively serve all residents,” like those experiencing homelessness or seniors. Twenty-one people died within the city limits, according to the report.
The report also found the city’s warming centers, shelters or resilience hubs weren’t prepared, without supplies on hand and losing power after being set up.
“Staff reported the City had cots and blankets, which were stored for hurricane evacuees, but these items were not accessible because they were stored in a centralized location that was difficult to access due to road conditions,” the report read.
On Wednesday, the city announced a network of resilience hubs, with six pilot locations expected to launch by the end of the year.
The hubs are supposed to be prepared to help Austinites, focusing on the most vulnerable, during different emergencies like a winter storm or flooding, drought, extreme heat and wildfires.
What they’ll look like
Resilience hubs are supposed to supplement emergency responses, according to the City.
Laura Patiño, Austin’s chief resilience officer, said the six pilot hubs will be in city- and county-owned buildings in east Austin.
She said while they’re still working on specific locations, the focus areas were based on equity and areas at-risk for disaster.
“Areas that folks would normally gravitate to… aspects like schools, community centers and other Travis County locations were also taken into account in order to identify the initial first six areas,” she added.
Communities in Focus Area 6 (zip code 78744) can weigh in on where they’d like to see a resilience hub during a meeting Thursday from 6-8 p.m. at the Dove Springs Recreation Center.
Patiño said the goal is to have 30 hubs by 2025 and even more beyond that.
“My vision is to have as many resilience hubs as possible, both privately, and community and agency-owned,” Patiño said.
That means partnering with community groups like churches and nonprofits to use their buildings or even their staff to help run hubs, she said.
Patiño said groups involved in planning are also paying attention to accessibility of these hubs via public transportation and future Project Connect lines.
What they’ll offer
The City said each hub may offer something different, like shelter, food and water, information and cell phone charging areas.
Patiño said they’re still working out security plans, which will differ based on hub.
“It will depend based on whether they are full-scale shelters, or they are just providing food and water and distribution,” she said.
According to the city’s press release, some locations are being evaluated to house backup power in case of a power outage, like on-site generators, solar power or battery storage.
“…As well as making use of rainwater or potable water cisterns, so they can operate independently and reliably to sustain operations during an extended power outage,” according to the release.
Where the resources will come from
According to the city auditor’s after action report following the February 2021 winter storm, council members directed staff to start these resilience hubs back in 2019 but never allocated funding.
After the storm, the audit stated city council approved $3 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year budget for hub pilot projects.
A City spokesperson also said about $522,000 was allocated in the 2022-23 budget for partial funding for six positions to support resilience hubs.
You can find more about how to get involved in the conversation or ask if your group can help become a hub at this website.
Gutierrez said his group will step in again, if needed, and is open to partnering with the city on future resilience hubs. But for now, he’s glad to get back to being able to focus on their original mission.
“We have to get back to what we do, and we train and inspire children in the beautiful world of theatre in dance,” he said.