Austin and Travis County officials say they are ready to respond to major winter weather
Austin and Travis County officials said Friday they are prepared to respond to major weather events this winter, including freezes or ice storms, but urged residents to also be prepared at home.
Friday's update was the first of the season. Communication was one of the major shortfalls identified in two after-action reports following the city's response to winter storms in 2021 and 2022. The update is part of the city's plan to be more proactive in communicating with the public ahead of extreme weather events.
Mayor Kirk Watson said the city has made several changes this year so that mistakes made in the past are not repeated. He acknowledged that previous issues were not addressed after the 2021 winter storm.
"There has been a lot of work this year to do things in a way, and prepare in a way, that when we have a big weather event we will be ready," he said. "One of the things I'll highlight is the better coordination between the different departments, and better training around communication, not just out to the community but within the city."
Even with the adjustments, Watson said it won't be perfect.
“Let me be clear, there will be things that are unexpected,” he said. “There will be things that happen that we wish had happened differently or we had a better response. But we will work very hard to be the kind of resilient city that we need.”
Here is what you should know:
Water, power and street crews are ready
The city’s power and water utility companies said Friday that equipment and staff are prepared to respond to a winter weather emergency.
Bob Kahn, Austin Energy’s general manager, said crews have weatherized and inspected equipment and that staff are better trained for emergencies.
“We expanded our emergency management team and have mutual aid contracts ready,” he said.
Earlier this year, the city implemented mutual aid contracts that allow Austin Energy to call on neighboring energy companies to help with recovery following an emergency.
Kahn said vegetation management crews continue to focus on tree trimming around poles and equipment. A recent report found the city is still years behind in vegetation management citywide.
Customers can also be prepared by signing up for emergency text alerts. Kahn said customers will receive updates on power outages and other information there.
Anna Bryan-Borja, the assistant director of business services for Austin Water, said the utility company’s pipes and water plants are winter-ready so that the distribution center can withstand extreme weather. Staff are also prepared and have the ability to respond to issues quickly.
“We have procured safety equipment so that our field crews will be able to work through extreme weather,” she said. That equipment includes hats, gloves, spiked boots and shelter-in-place supplies at each plant.
Residents can help by learning how to drip faucets properly in their homes and covering exposed pipes and water heaters to prevent waterline breaks, Bryan-Borja said.
Street crews are already working to make the roads safer in the event of a big storm by equipping streetlights with backup batteries to prevent outages at intersections. They also have plans to apply anti-icing and de-icing materials on roads and bridges, city officials said.
Emergency services have increased staffing
Robert Luckritz, the chief for Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services, said EMS paramedics and teams have learned many lessons in the last few years.
“We feel we are more than adequately prepared for anything that may come out of this winter weather season,” he said.
EMS and fire stations have been weatherized for winter, and he said crews have the resources they need to respond, including backup generators, tire chains and proper clothing. In the last storm, some fire and EMS stations lost power, and crews had limited equipment to drive and work in the ice. Crews will also be prepared to connect with people who are unhoused and ensure they have information on shelters and warming centers. They will provide transportation if needed.
Paramedics will also increase staffing and resources with their telehealth program at the 911 call center so that people who need help can receive it. The 911 call center has been plagued with staffing shortages, but Assistant City Manager Bruce Mills said the center will be better prepared this year.
“We’ve have made significant improvements at the 911 call center," Mills said. "We are not 100% staffed but we will be close to 100% staffed in the next two to three weeks."
Luckritz encouraged residents to stock up on prescription medications, oxygen tanks, and backup batteries for medicinal devices as part of their at-home preparedness plans.
Be prepared, be proactive
Watson said that while the city is doing what it can to be prepared, he asked residents to make the necessary changes in their homes to be ready in the event of power or water outages this winter.
Ken Snipes, director for the city's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said this will be crucial heading into winter and for years to come as climate change affects weather patterns.
“You may lose electricity, water or gas for several days and this is the reality of today’s disasters,” Snipes said. “We are here to help you understand what to do before an emergency, so you can be more prepared to withstand the impacts.”
He said the department is holding pop-up events to help educate residents about how to be prepared, but acknowledged that having additional resources at home can be difficult for low-income and elderly residents. Snipes said the city is working with local organizations to distribute supplies to those in need before storms.