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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.

CapMetro should have stopped bus service sooner during winter storm, unreleased after-action report says

The 801 drives down Guadalupe during a winter storm on Feb. 18, 2021.
Julia Reihs
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KUT
The 801 drives down Guadalupe on Feb. 18, the same day Capital Metro resumed service after a historic suspension of all bus operations.

During last February's deadly winter storm, Capital Metro workers sheltered shivering Austinites and drove dialysis patients along treacherous roads to life-saving treatments.

But the agency had unrealistic expectations of how long it could operate in the worsening conditions, frustrating passengers and leaving buses abandoned on frozen streets.

Those are some of the details in an independent analysis of CapMetro's performance that was produced in August but not released to the public.

Keeping the report under wraps "was a misstep," said Ann Kitchen, a Capital Metro Board member who also represents Austin City Council District 5. "I don't think it was deliberate, but I do think it was not best practice."

An image of "handling instructions" from the report that reads: "The title of this document is Capital Metro February 2021 Winter Weather After Action Review. The information gathered in this document is For Official Use Only (FOUO) and should be handled as sensitive information not to be disclosed. Reproduction of this document, in whole or in part, without prior approval from the Capital Metro Public Safety and Emergency Management is prohibited."
Capital Metro February 2021 Winter Weather After Action Report
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These "handling instructions" are included early in the report. A subsequent review by Capital Metro found the analysis did not contain sensitive security information.

The agency said it didn't release the after-action report to the public because the analysis was originally intended to inform internal operations and may have contained sensitive security information. However, CapMetro acknowledged an internal review found there was no sensitive information in the report.

"It's something that we weren't philosophically opposed to making public," CapMetro deputy CEO Dottie Watkins said. "We just hadn't thought of it in advance."

The after-action report by North Carolina-based IEM, an emergency management consultancy, portrays an agency that adopted an "all hands on deck posture" to provide service during unprecedented conditions for CapMetro.

But because the storm was so severe and lasted so long, the agency struggled to keep running. Pipes began bursting at operations centers. As parking lots froze and the power went out, operations ground to a halt.

"Service-restoration timelines communicated to the public were too optimistic for the weather conditions," the report outlined in one of many critiques of the agency. "To maintain trust and establish clear expectations with the public, Capital Metro should have been more conservative with communicating restoration times."

The report found that employees camped out at CapMetro facilities during the storm didn't have enough supplies, including cots, sleeping bags, food and water.

"Many interview participants noted that their departments used to have supplies of cots and Meals-Ready-To-Eat (MREs)," IEM wrote, "but these items were not accessible or no longer available for use in the incident."

But, overall, IEM said Capital Metro launched a strong, centralized emergency operation to coordinate response activities. The agency brought people to warming centers, transported patients to critical medical appointments, distributed cases of water and regularly checked in with employees to make sure they had essential services.

"Capital Metro employees who were able to report to perform their duties provided exemplary support to the agency and community," the report found.

In one vivid example, the team behind PickUp — CapMetro's on-demand transit service — immediately realized the impact power outages would have on some clients and started regularly contacting dialysis centers to see if they were open.

"By and large, I think the public can be very proud of the role that CapMetro played in responding and trying to ease the suffering in our community," CapMetro board chair Wade Cooper said.

"There's always room for improvement," Kitchen said. "The recommendations made will make CapMetro stronger and more able to support the community during an emergency and a disaster."

CapMetro says it's already begun implementing some of the report's recommendations. The agency is beefing up its decision-making process on when to suspend service. It's also buying snow equipment like chains to put on tires. Some recently purchased maintenance trucks can be equipped with snow plows if necessary.

"We were quite proud of our ability to [respond to emergencies] during the winter storms," Watkins said. "I'm hopeful that if this ever hits us again, we'll be able to do even more."

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