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Energy & Environment
Central Texas experienced historic winter weather the week of Feb. 14, with a stretch of days below freezing. Sleet followed snow followed freezing rain, leading to a breakdown of the electric grid and widespread power outages. Water reservoirs were depleted and frozen pipes burst, leaving some without service for days.

Travis County Judge: Biggest Concern Is Reaching People Who Need Water But Don't Know How To Get Help

WaterDistribution_GP_Feb21.jpg
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Volunteers load water into cars at a water distribution at Austin Community College's Pinnacle Campus on Sunday.

Austin Water lifted the boil-water notice for most customers on Monday. But thousands of people in Austin and Travis County still remain under a boil-water notice or are without water completely.

KUT's Nadia Hamdan spoke with Travis County Judge Andy Brown to get an update on the county's relief efforts so far.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown: We've been working on trying to get water from around the country, from as far away as Florida. And we have got it coming in. We're working on the pod distribution system for today, right now, to make sure that we're getting bottled water to everyone.

But the more clean drinking water that we can provide from Austin Water, the better. And it will let us focus our efforts on those who don't have water because of water main breaks or things like that. I still see us probably at least through Friday, even if the boil notice is lifted city- or county-wide, I think we're still going to be providing bottled water, at least throughout this week to parts of the county.

KUT: And can we talk a little bit about the general update on county relief efforts? Where are we at right now in terms of how much water we're able to provide to those without?

So, we have a pod system set up for the second day today and a lot of trucks came in last night. And so we're providing it everywhere from from Del Valle to Lago Vista and everywhere in between. We still have more trucks coming in today. There's donors that I think are sending like something like 15 more trucks tomorrow that we just talked to yesterday. So, water remains the most urgent issue.

Yesterday, for example, in Lago Vista and Leander, we actually used STAR Flight to send out boxes of water to people out there because it turned out that there are people who still just had no water at all. So, we sent several loads on STAR Flight and then we sent a truck out with, I think, 20 pallets late yesterday. And I got a video actually from the STAR Flight pilot that showed the line. I mean, it looked like literally half a mile long. It was a very long line of cars out there. So, the need in some areas as recently as yesterday was very urgent, so I think there's still a great need for water in the community.

Why did it take so long to get water supplies into the county for distribution?

You know, this storm, it wasn't like a hurricane. It wasn't like a fire. It was this thing where snow was coming, which people normally associate snow with fun and recreation and, you know, kids love it. But then it turned into a complete disaster. ... I remember one day we thought there wouldn't be any problems. We're hearing from Austin Water that there would not be any problems. And then it just hit us very quickly that next day that there were big problems.

And so the city and the county sprang into action to buy as much water as they could from private providers, I think they bought something like a million gallons worth from suppliers in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi that have been trucking it in. And a lot of that came in already. But some of that is still coming in. We got pretty quickly two trucks from Texas Department of Emergency Management that came in, but it was still hazardous because the roads were still icy and it was not easy for those trucks to get here.

Because of that, they actually put a truckload on a C-130 that flew down here, and that had, frankly, some mechanical problems. It did come back later that night and delivered a truckload. But I guess it was not maybe something that FEMA or TDEM expected us to need in that great of quantity, but it was slow going getting water here. But I know they got us what they could. And I'm really proud of the Travis County and Austin staff in the emergency operations center that was able to get those million gallons from across the country.

What are you most worried about as you look to the next steps in this recovery?

There's a few things. The most urgent need is still, I think, making sure that we have water everywhere. Like yesterday, we had an event where Beto O'Rourke actually came here, and we sent out about 200 volunteers to houses of people who said they needed water and were homebound. So we literally took water to their doors with those volunteers. In doing so, we found, for example, there was a Quality Inn that had no water. There were about 100 people living there. They had no water. So we ended up taking them, I think, about 200 water bottles to get something to those people. We took that there immediately.

So, what concerns me the most is finding these pockets of people who aren't raising their voices and who maybe still need water. That's the thing that concerns me the most.

I think once we get water to everyone, the biggest need is food and food insecurity. And I am so happy about the Central Texas Food Bank. We've been working with them. They're ramping up their operations. They obviously had had to shut down because of the freeze, but they got everything back up and running on Friday, and we did a food distribution with them. And there's a huge need for food, for meals to give to people. And so that to me is the next most immediate crisis in these next few days.

I guess the other issue, though, is just the prices of the utilities. And I know that people are concerned about utility costs. I saw that Abbott had done, I think, maybe paused electrical bills from coming, which I think is great. But I think we need to also make sure, and I plan on requesting to ... Austin Water that we not base this upcoming year's water bills based on water usage this month. I think that would be unjust.

And I also think that we need to give people a break from energy and water costs over these past few days because we can't hit people with a huge electric bill when they're struggling to find water and food and just get by in these next couple of weeks.

What is the most helpful thing people can do right now? Donate? Volunteer? What are you asking people to do? Those of us who maybe have electricity, have water. What's most helpful right now?

There's two things I would ask people to do. The first is to check on your neighbors. Check on your neighbor to the left, to the right, across the street. Maybe four neighbors around you, make sure that they have water. If you have water, especially if your boil notice has been lifted, see if you can help provide your neighbors water who maybe don't have any because of a water main break.

The second would be volunteering with the Central Texas Food Bank and donating to the Central Texas Food Bank. That is an organization that that runs on volunteers. It runs on donations. I know that local grocery stores are supplying them with food. And I think they will need help in these coming days and weeks to prepare the food boxes and get those out.

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