Travis County hardening emergency response plan heading into winter

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After the February winter storm, which caught many Texas agencies and local governments off guard, Travis County is taking steps to make sure the county is more prepared should something similar happen again.

Last month, Travis County commissioners directed county staff to come back to them by Dec. 9 with an update or a solution to several shortfalls they saw in the county’s response to the winter storm.

Some of those items, Chuck Brotherton, county executive for emergency management, explained, would have to be long-term projects that were built into the next budget cycle. Other items are being addressed now, heading into the winter.

Changes being made for this winter

Food and water

County staff members are purchasing large amounts of food and water that can be stored for long periods of time, staff reported Thursday. They’ve also identified a warehouse that will house those items until they need to be distributed before a potential emergency.

Portable generators

Commissioners asked county staff to look into the possibility of portable generators that could be moved around as an emergency hit, but county staff believe efforts would be better served identifying current facilities that need backup generators, like community centers.

“Right now it’s a handful [of community centers]; we need to expand that,” Brotherton said. He noted the county did not yet have a budget for those changes, but staff are working on it.

Chains and other road equipment

The county is finalizing an ‘ice and snow response plan’ that includes the purchasing of pre-treatment for roads. The focus for that treatment would be bridges, curves in roads and intersections.

They also identified several dump trucks that could put the treatment on the roads, and staff who would be able to do that work.

The challenge, county staff said, is going to be accessing some of the more rural parts of the county that even dump trucks won’t be able to get to.

County facilities and staffing preparations

Travis County is designating staff that would be available to respond to help with an emergency and find places for them to work and sleep.

They’re also looking at county buildings by doing things such as inspecting plumbing, heat, checking power generators and having de-icing supplies.

Guidance to community

While the county is working to beef up its response to a possible disaster, they’re asking the public to start thinking about preparedness too.

Starting next week, the county will be launching a campaign asking the public to take steps like having a plan, signing up for emergency alerts and having a preparedness kit.

“We do want them to start making preparations now,” Hector Nieto, one of Travis County’s public information officers, said.

Longer-term preparations

Brotherton said he suspects it’s going to be “a year of change” as the county moves out of the pandemic and can shuffle money in its budget to other things. Here’s what staff recommended, in part:

Emergency notifications

Staff plan to enhance the use of ‘Warn Central Texas,’ the area’s emergency notifications system. Brotherton said they’re working with the City of Austin to build a policy that will guide when and how the system is used, involving stakeholders.

Staffing for communications

Travis County staff recommended keeping a six-person call center that was established during the pandemic to distribute COVID-19 information and making it a permanent, year-round call center for emergency response.

“We would then need to find them a full-time home, they’ve been working out of a conference room,” Brotherton noted.

Staff also recommended an emergency public information officer be added to the communications team to help craft emergency language and prepare the public for possible emergencies. That could potentially be part of the fiscal year 2023 budget process.

Shelter and warming stations

The county is working on identifying buildings that could be used as gathering and relief centers. Several buildings have been identified as places the county could let people warm up or grab supplies. Those buildings would need updates.

None of the community centers in Travis County meet the criteria to serve as overnight shelters, staff reported.

Ensure equitable access

The county is working to tap more local partners to make sure future responses to disasters is equitable. They’re looking at mental health experts, assisting people experiencing homelessness and language access.

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