The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2021-02-26/council-calls-for-more-aid-as-food-and-water-is-still-lacking/

Council Calls for More Aid as Food and Water Is Still Lacking

It’s not over yet

By Austin Sanders, February 26, 2021, News

Although most Austin residents have exited crisis mode this week after utility service was restored following the winter storm, thousands more still do not have running water as we go to press Wednesday, Feb. 24. These include those living in apartment complexes or older single-family homes that sustained plumbing damage during last week's storm – on private property where it's their responsibility to repair, even if they have no means to do so.

Austin Water's map of locations that have work orders pending or are awaiting inspection for completed plumbing repairs showed 69 locations on Wednesday (it updates every 15 minutes), but that only includes self-reported repairs mostly made by larger commercial plumbers who routinely pull permits from the city. Officials don't really know the true scale of the damage citywide. "Job No. 1 has to be a mass communication campaign to get everybody who doesn't have water to tell that to the city," Council Member Greg Casar told us. "We've been calling and texting people and knocking on doors, but we need to have the city proactively contact people while getting safe water to people in need."

The city announced Wednesday a new webpage at www.austintexas.gov/atxrepairs with (according to a press release) "information about plumbers, electricians, and other contractors; code compliance and service requests; the City's emergency permitting process; homeowner's funding assistance; and federal and local assistance programs. 'Our top priority continues to be helping our community recover from the devastating effects'" of the storm, said City Manager Spencer Cronk in the announcement.

Directing Cronk to develop the proactive outreach plan Casar calls for – along with a more cohesive strategy to distribute food to people in need – will be the focus of a special called City Council meeting scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 25. Staff will brief Council on the city's storm response and present ideas for meeting ongoing needs.

Council will also direct staff to evaluate options for providing utility bill relief to customers struggling to pay. Rates charged to customers by Austin Energy are fixed, so those customers who retained electric service won't see the four- and five-digit bills other Texans have received from their competitive retail energy providers, and the nearly 45% of Austinites who used no power for four days will pay that much less. Water would be different; the combination of burst pipes throughout town and the call to drip faucets during freezing temperatures meant AW saw record "demand" that basically emptied the entire system. Council hopes staff can explore ways for the city to pay off some or all of the debt incurred by AW customers last week, or at least allow for extended payment plans for customers to pay off their individual debts across months.

Well over 1 million gallons of water have been distributed to those who need it, ranging from large users (such as hospitals) to individuals living in tents. That work will need to continue, since broken pipes all over Texas have stretched the state's plumbers very thin; Gov. Greg Abbott, finding something useful to do, has waived licensing barriers to allow apprentice plumbers and those from other states to get to work. In working-class, renter-heavy neighborhoods like those in Casar's District 4 in Northeast Austin, pressuring property owners to repair damaged infrastructure is an ongoing need even without a winter storm. It often takes those owners weeks to fully restore service to their tenants, a reality Casar is bracing for but hopes to avoid. "I don't care if it's private plumbers or ones paid for by the city, we just have to fix this problem," he said. "We can't be in this position three or four weeks from now."

Lack of running water also makes it harder for people to feed themselves at home. Organizations like the Del Valle Community Coalition have helped to coordinate hot meal distribution by restaurants and food trucks. On Monday and Tuesday, the Wholly Cow food truck visited sites in Southeast Austin, where they handed out close to 1,500 meals; for some people, it was the first hot meal they had in more than a week. (Also see this week's "Faster Than Sound.")

Standing in line for a burger with his daughter on Tuesday, Jose Gomez told us he lost power on Sunday and didn't regain it until Thursday. He lost water in the middle of that outage and couldn't do much cooking; since he works at a nearby car wash, which was shut down during the storm, he's also lost a week's worth of income. "It was a stressful week," Gomez told us. "I'm glad to be eating a hot meal with my daughter, but I'm worried about what we're going to do for food in the future."

CM Vanessa Fuentes, whose District 2 covers much of Southeast Austin, said she has heard many similar stories from constituents like Gomez. "We have people who stocked up their fridge using food stamps before the storm, and now all of that food spoiled," Fuentes told us while taking a break from handing out water bottles. "They won't be able to buy groceries with food stamps again until March, so these are the people we need to prioritize."

Thus far, the city's ability to distribute food and water itself has lagged behind volunteer-led efforts (read more). Cronk said on Monday that the American Red Cross has contributed 30,000 meals ready to eat (MREs – i.e., military rations) for the city to distribute. But the MREs come 12 per box and cannot be broken into smaller amounts; Council offices and their assembled volunteers must give 12 MREs to each household, which may be too much food, or too little.

The four CMs representing the Eastern Crescent – Casar, Fuentes, Pio Renteria, and Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison – feel strongly that the city has not done enough and that Cronk has not engaged them enough. After waiting two days for him to respond to their inquiries with no reply, they said, the group published an open letter on Sunday, urging city management to "communicate to our constituents and to the public that our city is aware of the need and is taking immediate action to meet that need." Cronk hasn't really done that yet, but he did respond in an email on Tuesday. "I take the issue of food insecurity very seriously," he begins the email, before noting the hard work of Austin Energy and Austin Water to restore utility service and then going on to more or less lecture the CMs: "I have been clear with you that the magnitude of this event would stretch far beyond the City's own response capabilities; that should not surprise you." State, federal, and philanthropic aid is an essential component of relief, he wrote.

Harper-Madison agrees. "I think we are in a better place now with city management and communication is flowing," she told us while working to manage volunteers and pushing pallets of water at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex in East Austin, the site of relief efforts that she and her office staff, along with volunteers, carried out for days without much help from the city's emergency management teams. "We have so many volunteers and organizations to thank for helping us out," she said – including the Texas Music Workforce Coalition, whose members' skill at logistics helped the Millennium effort run with maximum efficiency. "But at the city, we can mobilize more people to knock on doors and distribute supplies. We must do more of that in the days and weeks ahead."

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