Communication issues continue to hamper city's disaster response, report on 2023 ice storm shows
A new report – or an after-action report – detailing the City of Austin’s shortfalls during this year's winter storm identifies six areas where the city can stand to make improvements: communications, planning and preparation, operational coordination, resource/asset management, technology and infrastructure, and shelter management.
Nearly 80 recommendations were laid out in the report, compared with 132 identified in an after-action report following 2021's winter storm.
February's crippling ice storm caused widespread power outages that left hundreds of thousands of residents without power, some for as long as two weeks. Some critics have also pointed to communication issues and other failed response protocols during the storm, like the Austin Energy power outage map being inaccurate and delayed.
An after-action report addressing the February 2021 freeze also highlighted the city’s flawed communication and response to emergencies. Findings in the new report indicate the city failed to address many of the same issues two years later.
Mayor Kirk Watson, who had only been in office a few weeks when this year's ice storm hit, told KUT that it is "unfortunate, too bad and embarrassing" that some of the same issues were repeated. But he promised that the city will do better this time around.
“You are already seeing a large number of things that have been done to make improvements even before the after-action report was complete” he said. “It ought to be seen as a road map; it ought to be used as a road map. And it's one thing to be willing to recognize where mistakes were made, but it's another to get them fixed, and we are going to get them fixed."
There are a number of areas where the city can improve. Here are four takeaways from the report:
1. Communication is still an issue.
Effective and clear communication, including in languages other than English, is crucial during city-wide emergencies. The 2021 report found that the city did not effectively communicate with residents during the storm. This year's report found similar issues, saying, “communication did well in some areas and poorly in others,” including emergency communication plans internally and with the public – especially with power restoration times.
2. Planning and preparedness could use more improvements.
After the 2021 winter storm, having critical supply kits and emergency response units in place was recommended. The city did make some strides in these areas but still struggled to prepare emergency shelter operations and overall general response protocols, such as establishing a chain of command across the city’s departments.
“The City of Austin emergency operations center should create and share clear organizational charts establishing command and control for disaster related events that involve more than one department addressing a specific issue,” the report states.
3. Poor tree maintenance contributed to power outages.
Thick ice buildup on overgrown tree limbs fell onto and damaged power lines, causing power outages across the city. The fallen tree limbs and utility poles also restricted some roads and sidewalks. The city has put some efforts into improving vegetation management, but a recent audit found Austin Energy “is behind on their current goal to trim trees on a seven-year cycle, a goal that is already two years longer than industry standard.”
Additionally, the report said the “city and county should collaborate with arborists to educate the public on property owner responsibility regarding proper care for trees that are not near power lines but could pose a risk during extreme weather events.”
4. The city’s emergency shelter management needs work.
According to the report, the city did not do a good job managing coordination and training ahead of an emergency:
“The city and county should implement a program or system to categorize and document the different types of available shelters to include each facility’s amenities and assets… In addition, the city and county should harden buildings identified as possible shelter locations to include back up power. They should also develop a staffing plan with multiple contingencies and backups to ensure smooth operations."
Watson says the city has taken action to fix a few things, including:
- Firing former City Manager Spencer Cronk and naming Jesús Garza as the interim.
- Naming a new general manager, Bob Kahn, to run the city’s utility company after former general manager Jackie Sargent retired in March.
- Upgrading the Austin Energy outage map to be more accurate and improving communication methods for restoration times.
- Purchasing and installing emergency generators at city facilities, shelters and EMS and fire stations.
- Implementing a mutual aid agreement that will allow the city to tap neighboring utilities for help with restoration efforts in the event of another emergency.
But the mayor believes “there is still work to be done," saying it would take persistence and vigilance and that the city will ask for continued reports from city departments to ensure changes are being made.
Watson said he feels the city will be better prepared for the next disaster – although he warned that response won't always be perfect.
"I am not making the promise there won't be outages. The truth is, when you have extreme weather conditions, things happen, and we will have outages," he said. "But we are all working, and we are going to be vigilant and make sure things that have happened aren't repeated."