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An ice storm hit the Austin area the week of Jan. 30. Hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses lost power as ice-covered trees toppled power lines across the city.

Austin and Travis County issuing disaster declarations in wake of winter storm

Ice-coated tree branches in the middle of a road
Michael Minasi
Tree branches pulled down by ice contributed to dangerous driving conditions in the city.

The City of Austin and Travis County are issuing disaster declarations in the wake of this week’s winter storm, which caused downed trees and power lines and left hundreds of thousands of people without power.

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson and Travis County Judge Andy Brown said they will both sign disaster declarations Friday. Making an official disaster declaration can help the local governments access funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, for recovery efforts. It will also allow for additional state support, Brown said.

Brown said signing the declarations is just the first step in accessing these funds. He said the threshold for the county to access FEMA funds is $5.7 million in recovery expenses. If that amount is met, FEMA will reimburse 75% of overall expenses. Those expenses can include things like the cost of debris removal and damage to county or city-owned property.

“That $5.7 million is a high threshold, but my understanding is we can combine with what the City of Austin may do and with neighboring counties as well for this region to meet that dollar amount,” Brown said.

Nearby Hays County issued a disaster declaration earlier Friday, and Williamson County issued one on Tuesday.

“We’ll reach out to all of them and see how we can combine efforts best to seek funding,” Brown said.

Brown and Watson said this additional funding could be able to help citizens with personal expenses as well, like those who lost income because they couldn’t get to work and people whose homes have been damaged.

“If somebody has some personal expenses, meaning to their household as a result of needing to reconnect and needing to hire an electrician, some of this money can go for those kinds of things as well,” Watson said.

If this federal assistance is made available to the public, Juan Ortiz, director of Austin’s emergency management office, said the city will notify the community.

“We will also be looking at establishing a multi-agency resource center so that information can be made available,” he said.

The winter storm covered Austin’s many trees with hundreds of pounds of ice, causing branches to crack off and full trees to fall over themselves. Brown said he surveyed the county today from a helicopter and that it appeared most roadways had been cleared of fallen trees. But debris will still be an issue for a while.

“I know from the Transportation and Natural Resources Department, they estimate there are months and months of work to do to clear debris,” Brown said. “That’s where it could come in handy to be able to contract out with a third party to help us do that.”

Another enduring problem is the power outages; some 110,000 Austin Energy customers were still without power Friday afternoon. Another need, Brown said, is food. He said the Central Texas Food Bank plans to hold food distributions on Saturday for those in need.

Marisa Charpentier is KUT's assistant digital editor. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.
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