Council Recap: Melting Snow Everywhere, And Not A Drop to Drink

Photo by John Anderson

With hundreds, possibly thousands of Austin residents still without water, and others struggling to repair damage from last week’s historic winter storms, City Council emphasized at its special-called meeting Friday, Feb. 26 that the crisis is not yet behind us.

“We’re not even at the recovery stage yet,” Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison said at the meeting. “We’re still trying to stabilize.” Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros estimated that the residents of between 200 and 400 apartment complexes throughout the city do not have water service, due to plumbing damage on the private property beyond the water meter.

The scale of freeze damage to water infrastructure from the storm dwarfs that typically seen by AW over an entire winter, Meszaros said. An unknown number of single-family homes have sustained similar damage, adding to the long list of Texas properties in need of plumbing repairs in the weeks ahead – enough to ensure a shortage in materials and labor that will prolong the time it takes for people to have their pipes fixed.

Council, City Hall, and AW do not have robust systems in place to gather the on-the-ground intelligence that will help them respond at an appropriate scale to the disaster. An expansive resolution, approved unanimously on Thursday, directs staff to respond to the crisis on many fronts, one of which is simply to develop a “centralized list” of places in Austin and Travis County whose residents don’t have safe water.

That list will help the city better coordinate delivery of water in bulk as well as bottles to those who may need it for the next several weeks, not only for drinking but also cleaning and bathing. Council Member Greg Casar suggested Austin Water could work to set up water tanks in the parking lots of impacted complexes to provide access to bulk water where and when it’s needed, instead of directing residents to water-distribution “pods” established by the city and other local public and non-profit agencies.

The placeholder resolution (Item 6) brought forward by staff was fleshed out with amendments from Mayor Steve Adler and CMs Casar, Ann Kitchen, Mackenzie Kelly, Paige Ellis, Kathie Tovo, and Alison Alter. It now also directs staff to craft a plan to provide short-term housing for people displaced by storm damage, as well as more direct assistance to those who need home repairs. Austin Water has already earmarked $1 million from its budget to help with this effort.

Council also approved an ordinance to waive permit requirements and fees that may be needed for some repairs, like plumbing or tree removal. Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales, whose portfolio includes the Development Services Department, encouraged people in need to not wait for permits to be issued, but to begin work as soon as they can and file for permits within five business days. These waivers will also allow plumbers who aren’t fully certified to take on jobs – a move also authorized statewide by Gov. Greg Abbott which would hopefully help ease the plumber shortage. The waivers expire on March 31, but could be extended. Another ordinance waived all late fees associated with utility bills.

Council made clear these were just the first steps to provide relief and to seek accountability from all levels of government. Tovo’s amendment calls for oversight hearings into how city departments and other agencies both responded to the emergency and communicated with residents. (The Council committees that oversee Austin Energy and AW will meet next week, providing the first venue for these hearings.) Both Alter and Kitchen asked staff to look for ways to better inform Austinites of such an impending disaster, or where to find resources should one occur in the future.

City Manager Spencer Cronk, who weathered a rough patch with the Eastside CMs last week over his perceived responsiveness to the urgent community needs prompted by the crisis, needs to report back on his progress before Council’s March 25 meeting; staff expects to be able to provide updates sooner, at next Thursday’s (Mar. 4) regular meeting.