After the fallout from Winter Storm Uri in February left many without power or running water—a dangerous and sometimes deadly combination—Austin-area entities began looking to create a network of safe shelters for residents during disaster situations.

At a joint meeting Sept. 24, Austin, Travis County and Austin ISD officials heard updates and voiced support for a process that could see dozens of local facilities improved and added to a network of resilience hubs—places that could provide water, food, electricity or a place to gather in an emergency.

The targeted locations include neighborhood schools, recreation centers, clinics, libraries and other government buildings that in some cases can function completely off the power grid.

"There are disasters happening around us. So these extreme weather events have really highlighted the need for accessible community spaces that can offer services to community members at the neighborhood and interpersonal level when extreme events happen," Austin Climate Program Manager Zach Baumer said.

The facilities' day-to-day uses would not change, but upgrades to offer specific services during weather emergencies would be made.

Potential hubs could range from completely grid-independent sites to those with a generator and places with no power adjustments that could still function as a gathering place when needed.

Upgrades to make existing buildings into hubs include adding a generator, battery or solar backups, new storage capacity for food and water, designation of indoor or outdoor staging areas, and other survival-based changes. Baumer estimated that adding every identified upgrade to a building could cost up to $1 million per location, though most hubs are not likely to receive such comprehensive renovations.

A goal of the expansion process is to make resilience hubs available to anyone in the city within a 15-minute walk, which staff estimated will require around 400 hub locations eventually coming online. Growing a network to that size will take time, Baumer said, and staff from the city, school district and county are now working to map out possibilities for expansion and collaboration.

Setting the stage

The city's push to build out the local inventory of the emergency centers was formalized in April when City Council passed a resolution directing the city manager to collaborate with local agencies on identifying and securing resilience hub sites.

Council went on to dedicate $3 million of its share of federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars to a resilience hub pilot program designed to bring at least two such locations online within the next two years and develop a broader plan for rolling out more hubs in the community. The city's ARPA money must be spent by the end of 2024.

Baumer said community engagement and local collaboration will be needed to make the hub expansion successful, and AISD and county officials expressed enthusiasm for the plan.

Travis County Precinct 2 Commissioner Brigid Shea said it also represents an opportunity for local entities to be "much more proactive" in disaster response.

“Count us in as full partners," Shea said.

Baumer and Travis County Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion also said they hope to direct additional focus to setting up hubs in minority and lower-income communities, and those experiencing displacement.

"Low-income communities and communities of color in our city experience these things in a much more dramatic way; they’re harder hit; they're first hit; it’s harder for them to bounce back. And so when thinking about resilience hubs, we kind of immediately are focusing our efforts with equity at the center in all of our thinking and planning on this topic," Baumer said.

Staff will provide an update on this project at a future joint meeting among city, county and school district representatives.