Austin Amps Up Communication to Answer Concerns About Feared Return of Deadly Winter Storm
By Zach Dimmitt
No one could have seen it coming. In a state like Texas, bitter cold temperatures are common during the short winter months, but what happened on Valentine’s Day of 2021 was almost as likely as hell freezing over.
The storm, that has come to be known as Winter Storm Uri, brought unprecedented low temperatures to the state this past February, leaving residents with loads of questions, lack of access to everyday necessities and stuck freezing in their own homes. Latest estimates say 210 people died as a result of the storm.
This was the case for local UT students as well, like roommates Niccole Riera and Teresa Gonzalez, who were in Austin together to experience the frenzy that ensued once the freeze set in.
“Last year hit us pretty hard,” Gonzalez, a human development major, said. “I was without power and water, so we do kind of expect it happening again because nothing’s really been done.”
For two students hoping for a somewhat normal beginning to the upcoming spring semester, their concerns might be justified. “The Farmers’ Almanac,” which last year accurately predicted a severe winter storm for parts of Texas and Oklahoma, is “predicting similar cold and snowy conditions in late January. But fortunately, they shouldn’t be as bad as last year,” the Aug. 4 release of the Almanac said.
There’s no way of knowing the true severity of another potential storm, or if it will happen at all. Still, Riera, a computational engineering major, isn’t going to take things lightly.
“There’s definitely a big fear,” she said. “I really don’t think the city of Austin, or Texas in general, is prepared.”
It’s hard to blame Austin residents for having doubts about the city’s general preparedness. Bryce Bencivengo, Austin’s communications manager for Homeland Security and Emergency Management, says that countless steps have been taken to prepare for the worst, but admits the city needs to regain residents’ trust after February’s embarrassment.
“We’re going to communicate differently,” Bencivengo said in a Zoom interview. “We communicated pretty clearly one day that we weren’t going to go to a boil water situation and it was fine. And then the next day it, wasn’t fine. We have to evaluate how we do that. And I understand that that does break the trust of the community. That’s a trust issue and we have to rebuild that trust.”
Even for UT students who weren’t on campus last year, having informational transparency with the city is vital since the area is unfamiliar for many students in their first year. This includes students like freshmen roommates Joelle DiPaolo and Sanam Sharafkhaneh, who want UT and the city to make sure they’re keeping them updated.
“We just like to stay informed and be prepared with food and water, and know our plans and what to do and make sure the other girls in our dorm are informed,” Sharafkhaneh said. “When we’re in a crisis, everyone’s freaking out so just being informed at all times is very important.”
There’s no doubt the responsibility to keep the public informed falls into the city’s hands, but not all of it. DiPaolo understands this as well.
“I wasn’t here in Austin last year,” she said. “I heard that students last year took snow from outside to flush their toilets. But maybe I should be thinking ahead, because it is a real concern and I don’t know what I would do if it happened to me.”
Despite all exhausted efforts for preparation, Bencivengo knows he and his communications team can’t do this alone. A movement he calls a “culture of preparedness” will ideally see Austin residents rally together to make sure they’re giving a best foot forward at keeping neighbors and loved ones informed.
“My office is 14 people,” he said. “There is no way that this emergency management office can meet the needs of a million people in Travis County and the city of Austin. So, it’s important that we have a culture of preparedness from the residents of the city. Now that it’s at the front of mind for most people, we are developing that culture of preparedness.”
So, what does this consist of? According to Bencivengo, this preparedness can be simplified into four easy steps.
“We recommend four key steps for everyone to take to be better prepared,” he said. One, ‘Make a Plan’. Two, ‘Build a Kit.’ Three, ‘Know Your Neighbors.’ And, four, ‘Stay Informed.’ More information about these steps can actually be found at ReadyCentralTexas.org.”
Guidance from Austin’s communications team is key, but improvements with the city’s service systems might be most important of all.
Fortunately, these changes have been going smoothly, according to the latest Austin City Council work session in November. Austin Energy general manager Jackie Sergeant gave promising updates on how the city’s electrical grid is being made winter-ready.
“Austin Energy Identified 19 observations and 112 follow up actions of those findings,” Sergeant said. “Twenty-nine percent have been completed, 50 percent are in progress meaning they are working toward a defined completion date, and 21 percent will be ongoing. This means that there are measures that have been or will become part of ongoing operations at Austin Energy. As we identified in our report, there are several findings that we expect to be completed by the end of this year.”
These findings consist of discovered problems that occurred within the electrical grid this past February. Now with new initiatives in place in anticipation of another freeze, Austin residents have reason to feel more confident as the back part of this winter approaches.
Time will tell if all this hard work pays off.
“It was something unexpected,” Sharafkhaneh said. “We’ve never been through that before, so at first I don’t think a lot of people took it seriously. Then when we were in the moment, it was really traumatic.”