Travis County emergency management officials are taking steps to prepare for the possible return of severe weather this winter. Among the measures: stockpiling shelf-stable food and water, as well as obtaining material to treat icy roads. But other ideas, such as equipping more buildings with generators and improving the county’s emergency communications operation, will need funding.
After county officials conceded they were caught off guard by the February winter storms, commissioners tasked the staff to identify areas to improve in planning for the next possible icy blast.
In a presentation to commissioners Thursday, Chuck Brotherton, head of the county’s Emergency Services, said many ideas to improve planning will require money that’s not currently available.
“It is going to be a year of change coming up,” Brotherton said. “I anticipate that there will be some realignment of funding priorities as COVID subsides and we exit the disaster declaration, and we start by recognizing what we have budgetwise.”
Officials are in the process of securing enough water for 7,500 people to use for two to three days and have identified a warehouse for storage, Brotherton said. The water will be good for 10 years.
The county also is looking to boost its store of shelf-stable meals but wants to move away from military-style meals ready to eat, as they have less nutritional value.
Officials also hope to upgrade county buildings with backup power so that they can serve as shelters.
“That’s going to require identifying county facilities for backup power,” Brotherton said. “Right now. It’s a handful; we need to expand that. We don’t yet have the budget dollars … but that’s something that facilities is starting to work on.”
Commissioners said the county government also must better prepare for other natural disasters, such as extreme heat, wildfires and flooding.
Vehicle and road preparations
Officials are finalizing an ice and snow response plan to treat and sand bridges, curves and intersections when necessary. The county also is working to identify all vehicles that could be used during a snow or ice emergency to see how many chains would be necessary.
Officials identified sources to obtain sand and other materials to treat roads after they found sand to be in short supply during the February storms.
“We have 1,300 lane miles, and that’s a lot of area to cover with the limited resources that we have,” said Cynthia McDonald, county executive of transportation and natural resources. “But we will try and reach out as much as possible to see what we can do.”
County officials will be urging residents to create personal disaster preparedness plans and stockpiles that can last 72 hours.
“It will take time even once the disaster is here, again 72 hours, for us to get those kinds of things stood up in place and ready to receive our residents,” Brotherton said.
Shelter and warming stations
Travis County, the city of Austin and the Austin school district identified three levels of emergency facilities. The first level will be a place for temporary gathering with bathrooms and a limited supply of food and water. Level two will have a parking lot for food and water distribution, and level three will be a 24-hour shelter.
Facilities would need varying levels of upgrades to reach emergency-level status, county officials said.
The county also will work with management coordinators in surrounding communities and local school districts to further help with disaster responses.
The county staff recommended making permanent a six-person call center set up during the pandemic to disseminate information related to COVID-19. The team would be dedicated to emergency response.
Also, officials said an emergency public information officer should be added to the communications team. But commissioners would need to fund that position in the upcoming budget.