Council: It’s Floodin’ Down in Texas

Special Sunday meeting addresses latest Onion Creek disaster

In an unusual “special-called” Sunday afternoon session, City Council confirmed the state of emergency, waived fees and permits for immediate repairs, recalculated the buyout provisions – and heard a litany of desperate tales of yet another Halloween flood.

Aftermath of the 2013 Halloween flooding of Onion Creek (Photo by John Anderson)

Special-called Council meetings for various unexpected purposes are not exceptional, but a Sunday afternoon session heading into the holiday season is virtually unprecedented. But so are the now recurrent Halloween flood events that have hit especially hard in Southeast Austin. Several Council members along with many city staff have spent days since Oct. 30 in and around the Onion Creek neighborhoods coordinating aid to residents, and this meeting was scheduled in the expectation that yet another major rain event was threatening the area over the weekend. That flood didn’t happen – but the meeting took place in the shadow of a persistent rainy season that has followed years of exceptional drought.

Mayor Steve Adler posted the meeting at the urging of residents and District 2 Council Member Delia Garza, with other members – notably District 5 CM Ann Kitchen – representing areas also hard hit by the storm. The formal agenda was brief – just four Items addressing various aspects of flood relief – but the 2 p.m. meeting lasted into the early evening, beginning after a few formalities with 90 minutes of residents’ sometimes tearful, sometimes angry testimony, alternately pleading with and excoriating Council and city staff over the slowness of city response, in particular of the buyouts of now twice-flooded (or more) homes.

The complaints from nearly 30 residents were various, and often more emotional than specific, but the primary thread was that the city’s buyout of affected homes – approved for $78 million in funding by the previous Council – has moved too slowly for residents, some of whom rebuilt after the 2013 Halloween flood, only to see their homes destroyed or severely damaged again last month. The culprits accused were many: historical neglect, upstream development, miscalculating or foot-dragging bureaucrats, or the entire City of Austin – but most of the laments boiled down to, please help us, and quickly, before the next storm repeats the disaster, and "more people die."

The city has, in fact, proceeded steadily with the buyout process, in the years since the Onion Creek watershed was defined as either 25- or 100-year floodplain, but the urgency has increased since the fall of 2013. Some 585 homes have been bought (most to be demolished over what is now park and flood protection land), more than 260 since 2013. But another 270 homes are awaiting buyouts – a process that requires inspections, appraisals, interagency (city and federal) collaboration, and reams of documentation. Residents insisted they can’t wait through all the “lip-service.” “We need help,” went the refrain, “and we need help now!”

Following the public testimony, Council made several decisions:

• Quickly ratified the declaration of disaster declared by Mayor Adler Nov. 5, for at least another 30 days “pending further action” (with the primary purpose of expediting assistance from state and federal agencies).

Waived certain fees and permitting requirements for “health and safety” rebuilding of damaged homes for interim residence; staff estimated $391,000 in “unrealized city income,” but noted the need to allow homeowners and landlords to make emergency repairs.

• Adjusted the buyout calculations to allow less discounting of any flood insurance income, primarily to allow residents more flexibility in immediate repairs while also acknowledging relocation issues in the current housing market. The dual goal was to allow financial flexibility while not incentivizing major repairs on houses targeted for buyout – after much discussion and some amendment of details, the motion passed 9-1 (D6 CM Don Zimmerman voting nay).

The meeting ended after a brief but inconclusive discussion of “what else needs to be done,” most specifically to try to speed buyouts for those still waiting in line. Those issues were not resolved, although Council has an informational meeting scheduled for tonight (Perez Elementary, 7500 Pleasant Valley Road, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.), and asked staff to return with continuing recommendations going forward.

For more on Council and the city’s flood response, follow the Daily News and this week’s print edition.

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City Council 2015, Onion Creek floods

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