Volunteer Efforts Take Center Stage in Winter Storm Relief

Chasing the cold away

The line of customers outside H-E-B on E. Riverside Friday, Feb. 19, just kept going ... and going, and going ... (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Describing Austin as beginning "to shift into recovery and healing mode" after last week's winter storm, City Manager Spencer Cronk at a Monday (Feb. 22) press briefing was candid about what the city could and could not do in the crisis. "The city provided service by returning water and power service as soon and quickly as possible. We sheltered thousands of residents, provided support to the hospital systems, answered thousands of 911 calls, cleared roadways and repaired infrastructure, and numerous other efforts that only government can undertake. But the city of Austin and Travis County cannot achieve meeting the needs of the community and the situation without help. And we understand that. And we are so thankful for the efforts of our council members and other elected officials, numerous partner organizations, and regular citizens who stepped up to help one another."

That help sprung into action quickly as the scale of the disaster became apparent. With traditional relief partners such as the Central Texas Food Bank knocked out of commission by the utility service cuts and lack of safe mobility options for their staff, individual and small-group efforts filled the gap with what one Council aide described as "DIY FEMA" efforts. Actual help from the Federal Emergency Management Agen­cy did not arrive until Friday, having been bollixed up in part by a lack of effort from the state of Texas, whose own emergency response was barely detectable. (At one point in his daily press briefings, Gov. Greg Abbott suggested that Texans – including the millions still without power at that point – look up resources on Google and YouTube.)

“We responded quicker than the city and FEMA saving folks from this disaster. Just sayin’ ... Maybe we should have taken the moral high ground and flew to Cancun instead.”

By Cronk's count, nearly 100 such DIY efforts arose to bridge the gaps in providing relief. Local elected officials organized drives to get water into apartments and warming shelters (Council Mem­ber Greg Casar) or delivered it themselves to neighbors in their districts (CM Paige Ellis, alongside state Rep. Donna Howard and Constable Stacy Suits) or contracted with truckers to get it hauled to Austin from FEMA's staging areas in Ft. Worth (Travis County Judge Andy Brown). Del Valle High School (CM Vanessa Fuentes) and the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex (Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison) became improvised relief hubs, both receiving and distributing food, water, and other essentials to hundreds daily before the city's formal water distribution pods firmed up over the weekend. At the Millennium, where Harper-Madison and volunteers continued to distribute supplies through Wednes­day, a couple from Los Angeles (event producer Regina Carpinelli and Beverly Hills hair stylist Chris Petroff, who documented their trip on Instagram) arrived Monday night in a box truck filled with 11,000 bottles of water; they'd raised $5,000 from friends (including, reportedly, Elvira, Mis­tress of the Dark), rented the truck, and stopped at Walmarts and H-E-Bs along the way to buy as much water as possible. "Don't let me catch you cussin' any Cali­for­nians ever again," Harper-Madison tweeted. "Honorary Austinites in my book, now and forever."

Many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Austinites were aided by efforts as improvisational (or more) as these – neighbors helping neighbors clear roads and debris, restaurants feeding everyone within reach, Austin Mutual Aid and others raising money to spring for hotel rooms. Labor organizer Jacob Aronowitz's group (United Professional Organizers) opened the union hall it shares with the Austin Firefighters Association as a shelter for the unhoused on Valentine's Day, housing 50 or so during the week and providing food and resources to as many more. The group also brought together multiple partners who've worked alongside Casar, such as Workers Defense Action Fund and BASTA, to distribute bulk water in 275-gallon cubes (each weighing more than a ton), obtained largely from breweries and wineries as far afield as Wimberley. "Our mission is pretty simple: Give water to people who need it, for free," Aronowitz told us on Monday.

Runner City, the Southside-based pickup and delivery service that describes itself as "the largest gig cooperative in the nation," turned its collective attentions toward saving people on Austin's streets as the weather began to worsen over the Valentine's Day weekend. "We were literally pulling people out of their tents, in the snow," volunteer Debra Sheffield told us via email; she came down from Round Rock and ended up staying with camp residents that Runner City's efforts had sheltered in a South Austin Travelodge. "When the city lights and power went out, [we] were still driving people to hotels," Sheffield wrote. "I got in last. In the dark. In a foot of snow. By following Andy's tire tracks in the snow."

"Andy" is Andy Kaminski, one of Runner City's moderators on Facebook – where much of its matching of indie gig runners and assignments takes place – along with Penii Galindo-Cook and Scott Engle. "The more Andy, Penii, Scott, and I shared the people's stories, the more the donations poured in" via cash-transfer apps like Venmo and PayPal. (Cronk noted at one of the week's press briefings that the city is unable to accept direct cash donations, so efforts like Austin Mutual Aid and Runner City were more able to quickly secure lodging at area hotels and motels.)

"This became a private citizen event involving all the Austin metro-cities working together, providing warm clothing, firewood, propane, camp stoves, tents, food, snacks, Taco Bell runs for a couple of folks returning late after work on a cold night," Sheffield wrote. Not all the unsheltered Aus­tinites Runner City served chose to go elsewhere despite the harsh conditions. "Many stayed, and endured the worst of icy cold, to watch over their camps, while the more vulnerable, elderly, younger, and less prepared came in during the first few days. Those that stayed out are now coming in [on Tuesday] as the others go back out, to rest, warm up, shower, and eat freshly prepared free hot meals, and wash clothes."

Even more down-to-earth were the efforts of people for whom living off the grid is not always an emergency. Chad Rittenberry, a "godless heathen Burner" (as in Burning Man) and Black Lives Matter activist, pulled together a group of friends "who can come together and kick ass in a time of crisis," he wrote on Facebook. They also filled water cubes from local wells and ended up supplying the Housing Authority of the City of Austin directly with fresh water, and they harvested enough firewood to warm up "250-300 homes and countless homeless camps these last 4 days," Rittenberry posted on Feb. 19. The next day, he wrote: "We responded quicker than the city and FEMA saving folks from this disaster. Just sayin' ... Without any type of protocols or planning or structure of an organization. Without any financial support (until yesterday). ... Maybe we should have taken the moral high ground and flew to Cancun instead. ... Thank you all who have donated already. I'm having trouble controlling my face leaking. Thank you all [who] gave us food and drinks. I have tried every food that y'all have made. Even the biscuits that were hard as a hockey puck." (He went on to note that these may have been intended for dogs.)

Brant Bingamon and Austin Sanders contributed reporting to this story.

Winter Storm Resources and Relief for Austinites

In the wake of last week's severe winter weather, the need to help our neighbors right now is great. Here are some resources, and a few local recovery efforts that are still accepting donations to help those in need.

Emergency Food Relief: The Central Texas Food Bank will distribute groceries this Sat., Feb. 27, 9am-noon, via drive-through or walk-up. KIPP School-South Campus, 5107 I-35. www.centraltexasfoodbank.org. Also, AISD will resume its free, weekly meal distribution for children and their caregivers at 47 district sites every Thursday. See www.austinisd.org/openforlearning/meals for meal sites and times, or text "FOOD" to 512/886-6434 to find sites in their area.

Winter Storm Resources: The city is partnering with multiple governmental and public agencies to provide services. Find available resources for water and meal distribution, ways to help, and more on the city's website. www.austintexas.gov/weatherinfo.

Home and Business Repair: The city's home repairs program helps low- to moderate-income homeowners. www.austintexas.gov/homerepairs. And a new city webpage (www.austintexas.gov/atxrepairs) shows emergency repair resources for residents and business owners.

Federal Disaster Assistance: Homeowners and renters may apply for assistance from FEMA; apply online or at 800/621-3362. www.disasterassistance.gov.

Front Steps Blanket Drive: This nonprofit is still taking donations of blankets for unhoused Aus­tin­ites. Order one online and have it shipped directly to Front Steps, or drop one off. Front Steps, 500 E. Seventh. www.frontsteps.org/get-involved/annual-blanket-drive.

Red Cross Seeks Blood Donations: The winter storm put a damper on blood drives, and now supplies need to be replenished. Donors, especially type O, are encouraged to find a Red Cross drive to visit. www.redcrossblood.org/give.html/find-drive.

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winter storm, mutual aid, Spencer Cronk, FEMA, United Professional Organizers, Runner City, Andy Kaminski, Debra Sheffield, Jacob Aronowitz, Chad Rittenberry, Winter Storm Uri, Natasha Harper-Madison, Regina Carpinelli, Chris Petroff

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