Auditors: Austin was not prepared to handle February winter storm

February's winter storm left a death toll of 21 in Austin. 16 of those people’s deaths involved hypothermia, according to the city auditor.

"Austinites experienced extended periods without electricity and were under a boil water notice for six days," said Maria Stroth, with the Office of the City Audtior.

A new audit determined city staff did not properly prepare. Stroth, working with Corrie Stokes the city auditor, determined four categories where the city failed. The findings were presented at the city’s Audit and Finance Committee meeting. The findings categories were in planning, communication, resources and equity.

"The city's planning efforts did not consider the risks posed by a severe prolonged disaster. Also the city had not implemented past recommendations," said Stroth.

When it comes to communication, Austin City Council members mentioned they had no contact with the city staff in charge.

"As a council member receiving phone calls, emails, texts from constituents not knowing if they were going to survive in their house for the next couple days, it was critically important to me to make sure that we never had a situation again where I didn't even know who to ask," said Kathie Tovo (District 9).

Council Member Mackenzie Kelly (District 6) said to avoid confusion during a disaster all incoming council members need to have emergency preparedness training. She directed her concerns to Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Juan Ortiz.

"These are things I do believe should be your role. There were things in there I needed to tell my constituents about and I didn't know because I didn't have the information," she said.

One other thing that stood out for even the auditor herself was the lack of urgency getting crucial messages out in all languages. That exchange took place between council member Kathie Tovo and one of tthe city's public information officers.

"The water boil notice which went out to non-English language speakers and was delivered in Chinese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic one day after the water boil notice took effect," said Tovo.

"Our staff did not have power, or internet access and had challenges reaching the vendors," said Jessica King, city public information officer.

"I’m still not understanding why those messages about emergency preparedness the day before the storm hit were not translated into multiple languages," said Tovo.

The 38-page report is the first step in finding out what went wrong, so it won’t happen again during the next disaster. You can read the full audit here.

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