'I Need to Find Water, and I Need to Find it Now': A Local Official Takes Disaster Relief Into Her Own Hands

Austin City Council Member Paige Ellis, left, used her fiance's truck to distribute water to constituents during severe winter storms in Texas.

Austin City Council Member Paige Ellis, left, used her fiance's truck to distribute water to constituents during severe winter storms in Texas. Courtesy Paige Ellis

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Paige Ellis, a city council member in Austin, Texas tracked down 10 pallets of bottled water and distributed it across her district after winter storms left thousands in the state without power or water.

Nearly 200,000 residents in Austin, Texas were without electricity on Monday, Feb. 15, days after a winter storm swept through the area, bringing snow, rain and freezing temperatures. The power could remain off through Tuesday, officials cautioned.

And then, people began losing water. 

Water mains and pipes burst throughout the system, dropping pressure and disrupting flow to thousands of city residents. What had been one emergency quickly became two. In her apartment—electricity still on, water not working—Austin Council Member Paige Ellis began planning.

Ellis, a first-term lawmaker, spent the initial days of the storm keeping in touch with her staff (several of them also without water and power) and using her social media channels to disseminate information to residents. When water started to become scarce in her district, Ellis decided to do the seemingly impossible: track it down herself.

“It was the most immediate need. We had people with babies trying to make formula when the whole city was out of water,” she said.

“There were people without plumbing in their house who could not leave to track down water, and that created a really urgent problem," she added. "I had no word on when the city was going to be able to deliver water, so I just went into problem-solving mode: ‘I need to find water, and I need to find it now.’”

This was not, Ellis noted, necessarily what she envisioned for her time in office. A former environmental consultant, she began her four-year term in January 2019, only to face a global pandemic about a year later, a crisis compounded by the historic winter storm storm that hit this month. Somewhere in the midst of all the chaos, she said, she dug in and recognized her ability to power through.

“Eventually, you just know you’re up for the task no matter what it is and how difficult it gets, and you work hard to help people,” she said. “Sometimes, that’s writing policy, sometimes it’s changing laws, and sometimes it’s tracking down water to make sure people have it.”

Ellis' story serves a reminder of how local government officials are often thrust into the trenches and forced to improvise when disasters strike their communities.

During the storm, Ellis knew, breweries across the state were diverting their water stockpiles for beer-making to residents in need. Her district didn’t have an operational brewery—but it did have bars. 

“So I called someone who operates some of the bars,” she said. “ I didn’t think he’d have any, but the bars are a hub for events and festivals, so there were pallets of water just sitting in a warehouse.”

She networked to find more, working with county officials to secure six additional pallets and getting Walmart to donate two others. By Thursday night, the council member began loading cases of water into her fiancé's Toyota Tacoma pickup truck, and then headed out into the freezing temperatures to distribute them.

She went first to a community center on the far south end of her district.

“I just knew the farther out you were, the quicker you lost water,” she said. “We just loaded up the truck and tried to find people."

Some people had stored water, but had heard about neighbors who were in bad shape. 

"We got on the phone and called other people in the area to assess the greatest need," Ellis said. "That was our first rollout.”

They continued for days, heading home only when the sun began to set and roads began to freeze over. Ellis regrouped with her team each evening to make a plan for the next day, only to reassess most mornings as new problems emerged. At first, she said, many residents were able to flush their toilets and clean their dishes by collecting snow in their bathtubs—but then the ice and snow began to melt before the water came back on.

“That created an extra layer of concern for people,” Ellis said. “How were they going to maintain sanitation in their homes? They couldn’t wash dishes, they didn’t have plumbing.”

In addition to handing out water herself, Ellis and her team recruited volunteers (often, people who’d shown up to get a case of water would just stay to help) and continued to connect residents in need to people with resources. It was an evolving system, she said, that changed depending on who could help and what was needed at the time.

“Normally you’d like to have a process that’s well vetted and tested, but this was just emergency operations on our own behalf,” she said. “We were saying, ‘Who do we know near this address that has water?’ You just start thinking about who you know that can help.”

By that Sunday, the city had opened its own water distribution centers to the public. Water service resumed for some residents shortly after. But residents in Ellis’ district were among the last to have service restored, she said, and today, apartment buildings across the city are still in need of repairs before normal service can resume.

“Now it’s a matter of personal homeowners and management companies doing those repairs,” she said. “But that’s still a need I can help with, that I’m working on. There are so many apartments offline, so I can’t stop now. I have to keep doing what I can.”

The city council will decide on official emergency response actions in the coming weeks, Ellis said, including potential questions about how the local utility companies can help with higher-than-expected bills and how the city can better prepare for similar disasters in the future. 

And then, perhaps, at some point, Ellis may pause for a breath to reflect on her own experience throughout the crisis. 

“I just...don’t have that mindset right now. I’m focused on the outside, on the other people,” she said. “It’s been incredibly tough, and I think my mindset is just that I will process that when I know that everybody has been helped.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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