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What Flood? 2 weeks of disaster relief in Austin, Texas (#ATXFloods)

7:30 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Collapsed house after Austin Halloween Flood

A condemned houses in the aftermath of the Austin, Texas Halloween 2013 flood.

In the early hours of Halloween 2013, Austin, Texas suffered from a record-breaking flood. Some 1,100 homes were affected by the floods with hundreds of those seriously. Flood response was dangerously delayed by a faulty flood gauge and improper human monitoring of the rapidly rising Onion Creek. Because of the city’s seemingly laissez-faire attitude toward the residents of the floodplain, many remained asleep as water began to pour into their homes:

Onion Creek was transformed into a raging river last Thursday. The Halloween flood set a new record for high water levels in the creek. More than 1,000 homes were damaged and five people died.

At a town hall meeting in the Dove Springs area Tuesday night homeowners had a lot of questions, and one comment caused concern.

‘We relied too much, me, on technology and gauges that were not working properly,’ said Police Chief Art Acevedo.

Flood survivor Norma Jeanne Maloney took to Facebook to tell how she and her partner Dawna Fisher were awakened by rising waters:

Dawna Fisher woke me up to tell me we had a problem. Half asleep I said ‘Say again, what kind of problem?’ ‘We have some water outside and it looks pretty high.’ I went to our front window to see a raging body of water about 3 feet high. I said ‘We need to wake up the kids we are in serious trouble.’ I woke up Ruby and she woke up Texie. I went back into our bedroom where the water had already begun to seep up into our floors, I heard my cat Pickup howling, yes cats howl, under the bed. I managed to grab him and while he clawed me to pieces ( and he has never ever hurt anyone ) I said to him, go right ahead pal, I’m not letting you go. Texie and I shoved him in a bag and zipped it up. …

We all had gathered in the living room wondering if anyone on earth knew what was happening and how we were going to get out. We saw someone trying to escape in their car, it flipped on its side and was washed away. I heard voices and saw a boat in the street and my immediate response was to open the front door to swim to the boat to get help for my family. Do not try this at home, it lets more water in. We began flicking our porch light on and off and were seen. A beautiful tall firefighter walked through the raging water and made it to our window and asked how many lives we had in our home including pets …

He said he would be back. We waited and watched the water continue to rise, our belongings beginning to float about the house. My daughter Ruby asked me if we were going to die. That was the hardest part. Of course not I said, wondering if I just lied to my child and if we were all going to perish. I said guys, I know this isn’t really your thing, but can we pray? Without hesitation we all grabbed hands in a circle and asked that we be spared, at this point the water was past our waists. … The firefighter came back, we heard our neighbors screaming and we said go back for them, they are elderly and need your help. Our neighbors (we know now) were screaming go get them, they have babies! On his last trip to our window they finally managed to get the boat near our living room window against the current and said they were ready to load us. These brave men loaded our family and our animals in the tiny craft and we were transported less than a half mile north up our street where it was completely dry.

As is so often the case in these disasters, city organizations and big nonprofits poured into the neighborhood to offer assistance and ask for cash donations in the immediate aftermath, but it didn’t last. The Red Cross turned up to serve thousands of hot dogs before halting meals a week after the floods. A city-operated shelter opened for a mere 2 weeks. And while the Austin city government offered buyouts to over a hundred of the worst damaged homes, residents are expected to wait months to receive that money:

Wood Ridge: After the Balcony Collapse

1:29 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

About a month ago, a balcony collapsed at Wood Ridge apartment complex in south Austin, Texas.

IBEW's Mike King shows a dangerously installed electrical conduit at Wood Ridge Apartments.

IBEW's Mike King standing beside a faulty electrical conduit at Wood Ridge (Photo: Kit O'Connell).

Though there were no injuries, affected residents were given as little as 20 minutes to collect everything they could carry and evacuate the complex; in all, about 150 residents were evacuated and spent weeks away from their possessions and their homes. Apartment owners at the shady management firm, Houston’s Asset Plus, showed up with offers to pay residents $500 if they agreed not to sue; those who accepted later found themselves ineligible to receive social services from some city groups.

Occupy Austin has been involved since we first got word of the collapse. We’ve reached out to several residents, making ourselves available to help them organize a response and get the help they need. The group was present at a recent, contentious code hearing where Asset Plus was given 75 days to make repairs to ten of the 15 buildings.

This wasn’t enough for us — like many working class apartment buildings in Austin, it was a mess of code violation and poorly repaired infrastructure, far beyond the state of a few balconies. Investigations have shown that serious code issues were raised about Wood Ridge over a decade ago, with little or nothing done in response. Occupiers brought our concerns, and a few Wood Ridge residents, to meetings with two different Austin City Council representatives earlier this week.

This afternoon I got a call — code compliance were knocking on doors and inspecting apartments all over Wood Ridge. We drove down to make sure they had the residents best interest at heart. On arrival we could see the apartments crawling with code inspectors, who have an intimidating police-like uniform much like a state trooper. Code Inspector trucks were parked as far as we could see down the street, we counted 24 in all plus a gigantic city of Austin command center trailer, emblazoned with police, fire department, and Department of Homeland Security logos.

A friendly resident, Doug Robb, invited us in so that we would not be trespassing. The inspectors were in his apartment and seemed sympathetic. During our discussion they said the city had fought a program which would have required more stringent, annual inspections of city rental properties. Doug told us about a huge hole in the adjoining apartment which had until recently only been stapled over the carpet and showed us broken bolts on the stairs outside of his apartment.

Michael King, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a registered electrician in Texas, took a walk through the complex with us and within 10 minutes pointed out multiple, potentially life-threatening situations in the wiring. Issues like open power boxes and exposed electrical wiring in drainways and walkways that could set fires or “blow a child’s arm off” to use Mike’s colorful language. Rain drainage grates were broken — some with dangerous looking holes, others warped so badly that a resident told us ‘the kids bounce on it like a trampoline.’

Code inspectors assured us that they were inspecting every building’s interior and exterior. The property owners were giving them access to vacant apartments, but they needed residents permission to enter — which made the timing of the mid-afternoon visit unfortunate.

It’s good to see that the city is beginning to take the many problems at Wood Ridge seriously, but the issue is clearly systemic. Occupy Austin has just begun investigating other complexes and has already found a half dozen Wood Ridge’s in waiting. As Doug points out in the video, when you sign a lease on a rental property, you expect to pay for a safe, reliable home. Occupiers plan to continue working with the city’s residents, and continue pressuring our city council, until this ideal comes closer to reality.