Mayor Watson promises change, better results next time after poor 2023 ice storm response
The City of Austin and Austin Energy have promisedbetter and faster communication in emergencies after an ice stormearlier this year left thousands of people without electricity for days — and without clear messaging about when power would be restored.
Warmer weather may make the ice storm feel like a distant memory, but questions linger about what went wrong and who is ultimately responsible. After-action reports from the City of Austin and Austin Energy are due out in June.
KUT talked with Austin Mayor Kirk Watson about the city's response to the ice storm, including the time lag between the onset of the storm and the city's first official briefing, which came more than 24 hours after the onset of the storm.
On why there was a time lag between the onset of the ice storm and power outages and the first official communication briefing from City of Austin officials:
Mayor Kirk Watson: From the time that we said, "okay, this is bad enough that there are going to be certain things done" until the time that there was a briefing that actually occurred I think is a good example of how the city was not built to get results and not set up in a way to succeed. I think that that period of time is an example of where there was a failure on the part of government. ...
The reason there was not good communication is the city was not set up. Everybody's siloed. There were multiple communications departments. It was almost as though Austin Energy wasn't part of the City of Austin. And so there had to be a real push. And it was the push that led to the briefing the next morning.
On why the City of Austin wasn’t set up to respond more quickly to manage and communicate about the developing ice storm emergency:
Watson: One of the reasons I ran for mayor was — and I said this all the time I was running for mayor — is that I believed this was a problem, that the city was not set up to get good results and have success from a management perspective. It was a failure of management. I said that all during the campaign, that when I got in, I was going to shake things up and we were going to do better at providing the basics of service. Unfortunately, we had a horrible event within about three weeks of my getting into office that demonstrated in some graphic ways how we were not set up for success. The siloed communications. … One hand didn't know what the other hand was doing. And so you got mixed communication and, in my opinion, poor communication as a result of that.
Now, I want to be very clear about something. That's going to change. It's already in the process of changing. I've already been involved in making some decisions up here at City Hall in the last few weeks that show how committed to action I am on this. ... One of the key things that will need to happen in preparation for the next event is making sure that we learned from the past event.
On the role of the mayor of Austin and city manager during emergencies:
Watson: The management of the operations of the city on a day-to-day basis are done by the city manager. The mayor and council set policy. The mayor has some specific obligations that need to be carried forward. But the day-to-day operation, the structure of how the day-to-day operations work, including this sort of event, is the job of the city manager subject to policy positions taken by the council.
On who is ultimately responsible for what happened:
Watson: One of the weaknesses, I think, in the form of government is that people vote for people and they expect them to have the immediate ability to pull a lever. When in fact it's the manager's office that is in charge of certain parts of that under the charter, under our constitution. There’s kind of a division of powers, if you will. …
You run for office to talk about how the city will be managed, but it's the manager that has certain powers and certain controls. The mayor and council are responsive to the people. But the manager is responsive to the mayor and council. And ultimately, if the manager is not succeeding in terms of providing the services and meeting the organizational structures that we have, then the buck stops with the mayor and council to get a different city manager. And of course, that is part of what has happened in a very short period of time.
But I want to be really clear about something. I'm the mayor of Austin, Texas, and so I own the results of what occurs. I am ultimately responsive to the people. But that is also part of the reason you see me being very biased toward action.
On whether the City of Austin had a plan for this type of emergency:
Watson: The city has an emergency operation center. It can be an impressive operation to make sure that the city is responding in the right way to emergencies. The city has planning situations where you can reach out to others the way they reach out to the City of Austin, where Austin Energy is in a position to reach out to other utilities to get help in certain situations. I was in touch with the Texas Division of Emergency Management, the state emergency management system, and the chief of that, Nimm Kid. And they provided assistance, including state forestry services.
There's planning in place. But a couple of things about that: One is, in my view, while it was followed, in some respects, it was not followed in the way that even intuitively might get you to better results, communication being key among them. But the second thing ... it appears to me is not taking the time to learn from past situations enough. ... And that's where you will see significant change, I believe. ...
We had many, many, many hardworking public servants, city employees and others that we had called in from other places. They were out there working in life-threatening conditions to try to restore people's power. And there's a real difference between what they were doing, and we ought to salute them and thank them for what they were doing, and what I saw is some of the failures of management.
On the process and timetable for bringing in the next City Manager:
Watson: [Interim City Manager Jesus Garza] made clear he's not going to do this permanently. And we do need to hire a permanent city manager. But we're going to take our time. There's a couple of things about that. One is, we're not in a rush because we have a first-class manager who is already demonstrating that he's doing a great job. The second is that my goal for the next city manager is to be able to hire someone that the minute they start the job, they're looking forward. They're not having to fix the problems of the past.
And so what we're going to do is we're going to take some time. We're going to fix some things. We're going to stabilize city hall, or local government in a more general sense of saying that. We're going to get those things in a stable condition so the next city manager is looking at how you manage this governmental body and in the day-to-day operations of the city, looking at what we want to be in the future and not, "oh, I need to come in and fix things." We need to get those things fixed first.
On the main lessons the City of Austin learned from this winter’s ice storm:
Watson: I would start with communication, and I would say a number of things are lessons learned under communication. One is to be proactive, and I think you've already seen us be a little more proactive just in in thunderstorms coming and things of that nature. But be prepared on the front end so that you can communicate better.
I would also say be accurate and be consistent. We had situations where one entity was saying one thing and then there'd be a tweet from Austin Energy saying something different than the information that was being put out.
I would say that under communications we need to engage everyone, and that means we need to use all types of communications, not just a press briefing, but use all sorts of social media, radios, any sort of communication where we can reach everyone, engage everyone. And then we need to speak with one voice. And of course, pretty much everybody has a phone in their back pocket or in their purse. And we ought to use that in a way. The first thing would be your communications.
The second thing I would say is we need to prepare by building the infrastructure, the emergency operation infrastructure, in a way that can be nimble and be responsive even to cascading events that might be occurring and be competent. …
My commitment is that we will be better prepared and it will be different and better next time. It will not meet everyone's concept of perfection. It will not be perfect for certain. And there may be things that fall through the cracks. Just when you're dealing with a city of this size and the number of people and the disparate ability to get communication. But my commitment is that we will learn from this and we will even practice in anticipation of events like this happening.
On concerns about what the City of Austin’s ice storm response means for its reputation:
Watson: One of the reasons I ran for mayor was because we need our local government to get back to doing well on taking care of the basics. There are going to be things where we get national news. Weather events sometimes are out of your control. They have impacts. But the stuff we can control, we ought to control, and we ought to be able to control it with competence and urgency. Austin city government needs to get back to taking care of the basics and be organized so that we can achieve success.