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'A Katrina-Scale Crisis': Austin Is Desperate For Help In Weather Disaster

Texas is slowly coming out of a historic deep freeze that left millions of residents without power and water for several days.

Power is being restored across the state. In Austin, the local power company said nearly 97% of its customers had power Friday morning. A citywide notice to boil water remained in effect, but many residents were still without water and the city could not say when water service would be restored.

Austin City Council member and Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison described the winter storm as a "Katrina-scale crisis."
/ City of Austin
Austin City Council member and Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison described the winter storm as a "Katrina-scale crisis."

Natasha Harper-Madison, a member of Austin's City Council and mayor pro-tem, calls the Texas weather disaster "a Katrina-scale crisis" and an "absolutely awful nightmare."

"I'm getting evidence of people's infrastructure failing — people's pipes failing, people's toilets failing, people not having access to water because their homes have flooded. People not having access to their homes that have electricity, but they're ... full of water," Harper-Madison said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition.

"I mean, ultimately, what we're talking about here is this is a Katrina-scale crisis happening across our entire state and especially right here in Austin," she said, referring to the hurricane that inundated New Orleans in 2005.

"We're desperately waiting for state and federal cavalry to come a runnin'," she said.

As it waits for help, Austin is seeing "an astonishing response from our own community. People are stepping up in ways that, frankly, will bring you to tears," Harper-Madison said.

She said residents are "opening their homes to complete strangers so that they can warm themselves, have a bite to eat, charge their devices. Restaurants are serving up free food. Breweries are stepping up to distribute drinking water. I am so empowered to see how the community where I was born and raised is responding right now."

While Austin is known as a tech industry boomtown and is also the state capital, she said, "we do still have that small town, look after each other spirit that will get us through this absolutely awful nightmare."

But that community self-help can only go so far, Harper-Madison said.

"Our city is stepping up, our county is stepping up. Individuals, community members, you know, our faith-based organizations, our social organizations. Everybody is stepping up. But there's only so much they can do to combat failing infrastructure," she said.

When it comes to taking blame for the disaster, Harper-Madison said officials "have failed our constituents at every level. And I say 'we' because I absolutely include myself to that consideration. I absolutely feel like we all could have done more. At every level we could have done more."

But she added, "What we need right now is to not be pointing fingers, but to really just get what people need. We need electricity, running water and cooking gas. And we can talk about who's to blame and where the critical failures occurred — where the infrastructural failures occurred — later."

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