Report: ‘Inconsistent and incorrect information’ led people to distrust Austin officials during winter storm

Austin

People carry groceries from a local gas station on February 15, 2021 in Austin, Texas. Winter storm Uri has brought historic cold weather to Texas, causing traffic delays and power outages, and storms have swept across 26 states with a mix of freezing temperatures and precipitation. (Photo by Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A summary of community feedback on Austin’s response to the winter storm shows Austinites, especially those who do not speak English or are disabled or elderly, were not satisfied with the city’s communications during that time.

The summary was compiled by the Winter Storm Review Task Force, which was created March 2021 and is made up of 11 members from commissions representing different demographic groups, like women, seniors, veterans and minorities. The report was released Friday in a memo sent by Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano.

The task force held five public feedback sessions between April and June and heard from 27 speakers and received 20 written testimonies, the memo said.

The task force asked community members about communication and transparency from the city during the winter storm as well as infrastructure issues, water, food and essential supplies and access to safe shelter and lodging.

Social media left some groups out

From community feedback, the task force found social media was not a good way to provide updates during the storm, because residents without power could not charge their phones or connect to the internet. Updates aired on television were also not seen by people without power.

On top of that, information wasn’t translated into many other languages other than English, and those with disabilities could not read or hear communications about the crisis.

Feedback recommended in the future, “communication via radio, and the provision of emergency portable radios, would be most efficient,” since not everyone uses social media or has the apps for it.

The feedback also recommended communication with the elderly, non-English speakers and visually or hearing impaired individuals be improved, too, which could be done by utilizing community organizations and leaders who are equipped to reach their own communities to send information out.

Inconsistent information

The feedback pointed out “inconsistent and incorrect information led people to distrust authorities, a problem that has long-term consequences even outside of an emergency event.”

“It was jarring for citizens to see broadcasts from city leaders in well-lit, heated environments when they were without power and water in their homes, or to see unoccupied downtown offices and parking garages lit up when residential neighborhoods were dark and cold,” the report reads.

The feedback suggested people have more trust in leaders of faith-based and community organizations and schools, and information could be spread using those outlets.

The feedback did highlight that nonprofit, community and faith-based organizations stepped up during the winter storm, and the city needs to coordinate with them more.

Other feedback summaries

Water, Food and Essential Supplies: Community feedback said there was no organized distribution method for supplies, and road conditions made it difficult for people to get food. Recommendations made by the public suggested an emergency dispatch operation be created that can help nonprofits provide help to those who need it. Emergency supplies of food and water were also recommended.

Infrastructure: Feedback said there was a lack of equipment to clear the roads and even emergency personnel were getting stuck in the snow and ice. The report recommended the city gain access to snow/ice removal equipment, generators and more four-wheel drive vehicles, and that a transit system be installed for seniors and people with disabilities.

Access to shelter/lodging: Feedback pointed out hotels were charging hundreds of dollars over normal rates, and warming shelters were only available during the day, so people had to find different places to spend the night. The community suggested more accessible emergency shelters and transportation to them.

The Winter Storm Review Task Force will brief city council on the report during the August 27 council work session. The city auditor is also expected to analyze the city’s response to the winter storm and will present separate results to the mayor and city council.

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