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Task Force Report on Austin Flooding Prioritizes 'Life, Safety and Property'

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Jorge Sanhueza Lyon/KUT
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A file photo from Memorial Day flooding last year at Ninth Street and Lamar Boulevard.

UPDATE: After our story was originally published, we heard from several members of Flood Mitigation Task Force, who disputed the assertions made by some task force members, including the group’s chairman, who said the final report lacked prioritization.

An executive summary of the report, not available at Monday’s meeting of the Council's Public Utilities committee, whittles down the nearly 200 recommendations into 19 high priority ones. Topping that list is the creation of a city-wide policy that prioritizes life, safety and property when it comes to flooding. The task force recommends that the city then consider this when making upcoming budget decisions.

In conversations with other members of the task force, some took issue with chairman Matt Reinstra’s presentation of the report to the Public Utilities Committee. At that time, he did not present the executive summary to council members because it had not yet been finalized by the task force.

“Many of the things he mentioned as recommendations were very minor things that were in there,” said task force member Ken Jacob. “We’re trying to come forward and say this is important. This is something you, the council, needs to pay attention to and the city needs to pay attention to because it’s a big issue.”

Jacob also cautioned against considering too heavily the report’s note that, at the city’s current rate of improvements, it would cost $2 to $4 billion to address local flooding issues.

“The numbers are just estimates [staff] were able to pull out there,” said Jacob. “And they’re going to have to do more work on that to finalize it.”

ORIGINAL STORY: Nearly a year after floodwaters wrecked businesses and homes in Austin over Memorial Day, members of the city’s Public Utilities Committee heard a rundown of a report from the city’s Flood Mitigation Task Force.

It’s a 89-page document bursting with nearly 200 recommendations for city staff – among them, suggestions to replace aging storm drainage systems and enhancing public outreach by the city’s Watershed Protection Department. According to the report, the total cost of these recommendations ranges from $2 billion to $4 billion.

Council Member Leslie Pool congratulated the group’s 22 members on Monday.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought you would have nearly 200 recommendations,” she said. “That really speaks to the level and diligence and concern that everybody brought.”

But others, like member Rob Henneke, had a different take.

"The process has missed its mark," he said. “The end result is a voluminous, cumbersome compilation of 160 to 200-some recommendations. Anything that anyone wanted to say was just lumped into this big, voluminous document.”

Henneke said that while members worked hard, the objectives approved by council resolution back in June were too broad and the group was given too little time to complete their report.

The result, Henneke said, is a rambling list of recommendations with no prioritization.

Task force chairman Matt Rienstra agreed.

“We probably need a lot more time to really drill down on this, have the debate amongst ourselves as to what we should ultimately come down as policy recommendations with some possible tactical recommendations from those policies,” he said.

But when it comes to flooding in Austin, many will say too much time has already been taken. At a city council meeting in November – specially called because of flooding in Dove Springs just days before – residents told stories of being stranded in flood-prone areas while the city worked to buy these homes from owners.

At the sign of a couple inches of rain, Dove Springs resident Yvette Griego said that she prepares herself for the worst.

“I pack my dogs,” she told council members in November. “I have a box with all my important papers and I have my clothes. And I leave like that, and I live like that. I’ve lived like that for two years.”

Several of the report’s recommendations include speeding up the city’s flood buyout program.

Council Member Ann Kitchen announced Monday she will give her colleagues a chance to address this on Thursday, with a resolution asking the City Manager to find $5 million to buy homes in the city’s Upper Onion Creek area. As of May 2, roughly 150 homes in the Onion Creek area have yet to begin the process of being bought by the city.

This story was produced as a part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.

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