Harper-Madison looking for improved help during heat emergencies

Thursday, June 30, 2022 by Jo Clifton

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison expressed concern on the City Council Message Board this week about “how the city is addressing the stability of our electrical grid, local outages,” and the impact that has on “marginalized communities at the greatest risk of heat-related illness or death.” She said her concerns arose from a situation with two elderly District 1 constituents who didn’t know what to do when their power went out last Friday. Like many days in June, the temperature hit 103.

Harper-Madison was so concerned she attempted to find a quorum to have a special called meeting concerning how Austin deals with failures of the grid and helps vulnerable residents find suitable shelter during extreme heat incidents. But she was unable to find a quorum because many Council members are out of town during the hiatus before budget considerations (and a likely special meeting related to criminalizing abortion).

She told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday, “We know we can’t count on our electrical grid and we’ve seen how vulnerable we are to any interruptions in electric services.” Last week, she said the District 1 office “received a call from an elderly constituent who lost power the night before and was in desperate need of help. My staff jumped into action, but it was difficult even for them to find the information and resources to help these folks find relief from the heat. That absolutely should not be the case.”

The residents – one of whom was a cancer patient – had stayed in their home believing assurances from Austin Energy that their power would be restored “in a few hours,” she said. By the time her staff finally found a hotel for the constituents, the electricity had returned. But not before Harper-Madison had become extremely worried about the situation.

In response to Harper-Madison’s message board post, Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano wrote a memo describing the city’s efforts to prepare for and respond to heat emergencies. Arellano noted that the first National Weather Service heat advisory this year was issued on June 6, much earlier in the summer than usual. Just a few days later, the region was placed under an excessive heat warning, “which triggered the opening of overnight cooling centers.”

Even though some of those centers, which include libraries and recreation centers, may have been available, it was not apparent to Harper-Madison and her staff whom to ask or where to go. The memo offers the advice to check the city’s Active Emergency Information Hubbut that does not provide straightforward information about what is open for cooling purposes and it might not help residents who have lost their electricity.

According to Arellano’s memo, Austin Energy offers a “medically vulnerable registry” for customers living with a long-term disease or critical illness. However, it isn’t clear how the customers find out about that service. “Austin Public Health will continue to expand its partnerships with community-based organizations to help identify and address social services needs as they arise,” he wrote.

According to the memo, communication staff from Homeland Security and Emergency Services, Austin Public Health and EMS “coordinate with peer departments and share messaging on social media. Depending on the conditions, this includes messages such as available cooling center locations during the day, what actions to take to prevent illness and protect children, elderly, and pets during hot weather.”

The cooling centers are operated during daylight hours, and are apparently only available for overnight stays during widespread outages with longer wait times for power to return. Austin Energy has crews on standby 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but evidently they were insufficient to answer this particular couple’s needs.

Harper-Madison told the Austin Monitor“What we need is a comprehensive, easy-to-follow and widely disseminated plan for heat-related emergencies. While I appreciate the effort that went into the memo issued late yesterday, I remain deeply concerned about our ability to adequately respond in these situations. I look forward to very quickly taking the necessary steps to ensure we are fully prepared.”

Photo by Carla Nunziata, CC BY-SA 3.0via Wikimedia Commons.

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