Auditors say City of Austin was not prepared to handle the February winter storm
Because the City of Austin did not prioritize emergency preparedness, its response to the deadly freeze earlier this year was inefficient and chaotic, according to a report from the Office of the City Auditor released Monday. The report will be presented to City Council members on Wednesday.
“While the storm was unprecedented, the City’s lack of preparedness for Winter Storm Uri led to a less effective and disorganized response,” auditors wrote.
In the report, auditors acknowledge that other major Texas cities were just as unprepared for the February storm and that the City of Austin had no control over the amount of electricity ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, asked it to cut.
Nonetheless, the audit points out multiple decisions the City of Austin could have made leading up to and during the winter storm that may have resulted in better outcomes for the city’s residents. About 220,000 Austin Energy customers lost power, and according to a state agency, 28 people in Travis County died as a result of the February freeze — more than in Dallas, Tarrant or Bexar counties.
Auditors point out that prior to the storm, the city wrote a disaster response plan, but its authors had not anticipated a winter storm like the one that hit.
“The plan identified the possible severity as ‘limited,’ meaning a short-duration event with no loss of life and limited disruption to critical facilities and City services such as electricity and water,” auditors wrote.
Failing to predict such a deadly storm meant the City of Austin did not adequately prepare for one. City staff told auditors they lacked certain supplies to weather snowy roads, such as tire chains and snow plows. (According to the City Auditor, Austin still does not own a snow plow.)
Items like cots and blankets, which the city could have used in shelters it set up for people to get warm, had been stored in a location that was hard to access because of road conditions, auditors said.
Auditors also wrote that the City of Austin did a poor job communicating with the public about the storm and the resulting power outages and loss of running water. This was particularly true, according to the report, when the city attempted to provide information in languages other than English.
For example, English speakers who had signed up for Warn Central Texas, which sends residents text messages about local emergencies, received information about the winter storm on Feb. 11. But Spanish speakers received the first text message about the storm four days later, on Feb. 15.
“According to the City’s Language Access Policy, all emergency messages sent through a public alert system, such as Warn Central Texas should be sent in Spanish and reasonable efforts should be made to send the messages in additional languages,” auditors wrote. “However, the City did not send all messages sent through Warn Central Texas in Spanish and messages were not sent through Warn Central Texas in additional languages.”
Ultimately, auditors said, the city’s poor storm planning meant that people more vulnerable to its impacts — such as those living on the streets — suffered greater, and that the city should do a better job of building relationships with community groups who can reach more people in times of crisis.
“Additionally, the lack of formal agreements and strategic partnerships with legitimate community organizations, increases the risk that resources could be diverted, poorly used, or not maximized during disasters,” auditors wrote.
The city’s emergency management department said it agreed with many of the auditors' criticisms and recommendations. But in their response, which was attached to the audit, department managers wrote that no disaster training could have prepared staff for what happened in February.
“The combination of week-long below freezing temperatures, two ice storms that paralyzed the transportation system and effectively isolated communities from one another for days, the near collapse of the state power grid, boil water notices for most Texans, all during the height of a 100-year pandemic and before vaccines were widely available is an event of such enormous complexity that no training system would have reasonably anticipated,” managers with Austin’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department wrote.
Auditors said they will be writing a second report focused on how the city handled shelters during the winter freeze.