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In early February, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk told fellow Texas transplant Joe Rogan that Austin was the "biggest boomtown that America has seen in half a century."
Days later, thousands across the city had no access to running water or power as Winter Storm Uri devastated the region.
The jury's still out on whether or not the record-breaking storm will impact the city's recent "Texodus," where thousands of Californians and tech companies began setting their sights on Austin.
Regardless, Austin felt like anything but the nation's most up-and-coming city as residents were forced to endure the cold in their powerless homes and search for drinkable water.
Austin and all of Texas could face a push-and-pull situation as the state decides whether or not to keep some of the policies that may have led to the tech boom in the first place. On one hand, lax taxes, low utility costs and more bang-for-your-buck real estate brought in Californians looking for a cheaper cost of living; on the other, Texans learned the hard way that "you get what you pay for" as city infrastructures failed and the power grid shut down, paradoxically, in the nation's most energy-rich state.
Austinite and Tech Crunch Senior Writer Mary Ann Azevedo said that while she isn't sure where the funding will come from, she hopes to see leaders turn toward the future and invest in city and state infrastructures.
"One would hope but if the past is any indication, we are unlikely to see many changes," Azevedo said. "However, if enough noise is made and change is demanded, then perhaps we will see some changes in terms of investing in updating current infrastructure. Where those funds will come from remains to be seen as it's highly unlikely we'll get state income taxes."
On Friday, Azevedo saw for herself the devastating effects of the storm on an unprepared city. While in the process of rationing bottled water and hoping for her faucets to once again turn on, Azevedo wrote an article for Tech Crunch pondering the question: could this storm set back Austin's recent tech migration?
Azevedo asked the public in a tweet to which she received mixed responses.
Some agreed that the storm was a historic event that Texas could have never properly prepared for. Because of the community's resilience and teamwork, some saw the event as a story of coming together more than the failure of the city or state.
What I saw here in Austin was community coming together
Neighbors helping each other. Taking in friends and strangers. Local restaurants stepping up, even after a year of a pandemic crisis.
I've lived here my entire life, it's the community that makes it great, always will
— Mark Magnuson (@MarkMagnuson) February 19, 2021
Others saw it as a moment of reflection for city and state infrastructure as the economy looks to make up for lost time.
I hope businesses put pressure on politicians to ensure that the infrastructure of TX is sound. The lost productivity over the last several days and potentially into the future is huge, not to mention the lost of life and trauma. (Oh & our offices flooded due to a main break.)
— Kate Moon🇺🇸 (@Katemooooon) February 19, 2021
A few outsiders looking in agreed that they would or had avoided Austin because of its location in Texas in the first place.
I'm not a founder, but I chose to move from SF to Portland, OR rather than Austin precisely BECAUSE Austin (the great city that it is) is located in the state of Texas. 🤷🏽♀️
— Debra J. Farber (@privacyguru) February 18, 2021
Winter Storm Uri may have brought communities together, but it also brought questionable Texas leadership national attention, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's decision to travel to Mexico during the crisis. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton also faced the spotlight after it was revealed that he traveled to Utah in the midst of the storm.
Some said the state's power failure could look costly for companies who may choose to be under different leadership after the storm.
Startups & Tech don't want to have to build out their own utilities in addition to the rest of their infrastructure. Until Texas solves this energy incompetence they will take a pass.
— Clayton Slaughter (@schmubba) February 19, 2021
Of all who answered, Azevedo said she found most thought the winter storm would make no difference on the "Texodus," but she's not so sure that's rooted in logic.
"Mixed reactions, but the majority of people here in Austin and Texas seem to think it will have little to no impact," Azevedo said. "And as many people pointed out, each region has natural disasters that impact them in one way or another. But I think it's a bit unrealistic to think this won't be a turnoff for some."
To Azevedo, the disaster may not take away all of Austin's current allure, but it's likely that some will see the city in a new light after Winter Storm Uri.
"It's tough to say but I do think it does make Austin a little less appealing," Azevedo said. "Here we are supposed to be the next 'boomtown,' yet last week so many of us were either out of power or water, or both—largely due to aging infrastructure on poor decision-making on the part of our leaders. It's not the best look."
Although the power and water failure may not be the greatest advertisement for prospective tech companies, some such as Tesla, Oracle and Samsung have already taken root in Austin. Azevedo said that these companies are undoubtedly unhappy with the situation but likely won't be leaving anytime soon.
"They chose to base their headquarters, build factories or large campuses here for reasons and they will likely stand by those decisions still," Azevedo said. "However, if any of those decision-makers had to endure what many of us did last week, I can imagine it was disappointing and a bit of a reality check."
The hard freeze is over, but Winter Storm Uri's rippling effects will likely be seen for weeks or months. It's hard to say whether that will make Austin, Texas a "boomtown" no more.
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After Austin voters passed Proposition B, reinstating a ban on public camping, City Council directed staff to look into possible sanctioned campsites where homeless residents could live legally. Now two members are asking to shelve discussion on the controversial topic.
Staff presented dozens of possible sanctioned campsites across each fo the 10 council districts in late May, following the election. But members mostly pushed back on the proposed locations, citing cost, wildfire risk and lack of transparency as concerns.
With updated criteria, staff recommended two sites—one in District 1 and the other in District 8—for further review last week. After being briefed on the options during Tuesday's work session, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents District 1, and Council Member Paige Ellis, who represents District 8, issued a joint statement proposing "a pause" on further discussion of temporary sanctioned encampments.
"We are not convinced that these sites would be a cost-effective solution, but rather a band-aid tactic when we need to be supporting the long-term strategy to get folks off the street permanent," they said. "It is our responsibility to look at the situation holistically and objectively, and to spend out city's limited resources on solutions we know can work."
Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey noted that the two locations were imperfect and would require a lot of time and money to outfit as sanctioned campsites during the briefing.
City staff and homeless experts have previously raised concerns about sanctioned encampments, saying they are expensive to maintain, challenging to manage and hard to close, even when intended to to be temporary.
In 2019, staff declined to make recommendations for such sites despite being directed by council to do so, citing 2018 guidance from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "Neither authorized encampments nor parking areas provide housing for people experiencing homelessness," staff wrote in a memo. "Rather, each option detracts from the staff resources assigned to addressing this moral imperative."
But with Prop B being enforced and too few shelter beds and affordable units for the estimate unsheltered homeless population in Austin, the city is facing the same predicament that prompted District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo to pursue possible sanctioned campsites in the first place: "When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest," she said at a May 6 council meeting.
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Don't lose your mask just yet—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is now recommending masks in areas that are surging as cases rise nationwide and the Delta variant looms.
The CDC announced Tuesday that even fully vaccinated individuals should mask up indoors if their community is experiencing substantial transmission—defined as areas with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Travis County is sitting at an average of 94.59 cases per 100,000 over the past seven days, falling into the highest risk category, according to the CDC.
#DeltaVariant surging in U.S. New data show Delta much more contagious than previous versions of #COVID19. Unvaccinated people: get vaccinated & mask until you do. Everyone in areas of substantial/high transmission should wear a mask, even if vaccinated. https://t.co/tt49zOEC8N
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 27, 2021
After two COVID-19 recommendation stage jumps in the last two weeks, from Stage 2 to Stage 4, Austin-area cases are the highest they have been since February. The seven-day average for cases is on an upward trend, reaching 226 on Tuesday.
The CDC is also recommending that all students K-12 wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. A May executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits schools from requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status. Austin ISD is "strongly" encouraging students to wear masks.
Although vaccinated individuals are still protected against the most severe symptoms of the variant, infections are spreading rapidly and now make up 83% of confirmed cases in the U.S. At least a dozen cases of the delta variant have been confirmed in the Austin area, though there are likely more since testing for it is limited.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that hospital admissions are "almost exclusively" coming from people who are unvaccinated but those who are vaccinated can still catch and spread the virus.
"Unlike the alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with the Delta variant," Walensky said. "That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, rare that they are, have the potential to pool and transmit at the same with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person."
Research suggests those who become infected carry 1,000 times more of the virus than other variants and could stay contagious for longer.The announcement comes on the heels of the Biden administration ramping up cautionary measures in the face of the Delta variant. Just last week, the CDC said it had no plans to change its May guidance of vaccinated not having to wear masks unless there was a significant change in the data. Officials met on Sunday night to review new evidence, according to reports.
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The Moody Center, a $338 million, 530,000-square-foot multipurpose arena at the University of Texas at Austin, celebrated its topping out on Tuesday.
With the final beam placed, the arena's steel-frame structural phase—which involved more than 5.3 million pounds of steel—is complete.
"This past year has been full of unprecedented events, not to mention weather challenges, and yet the women and men working on this project continue to deliver," Moody Center General Manager and Senior Vice President Jeff Nickler said in a press release.
To celebrate the topping out Oak View Group, the development and investment firm behind the Moody Center will affix a tree to the final beam in keeping with the time-honored tradition.
The practice dates back to ancient Scandinavian religious rites, which involved placing a tree atop new buildings to appease tree-dwelling spirits displaced during the construction process, according to the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers in Washington D.C.
After the steel-frame structure phase, the development will move on to enclosing and finishing the interior of the Moody Center.
The arena is set to open next April and already has some major acts scheduled for its inaugural year, including The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, John Mayer and The Killers. It will replace the 43-year-old Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center and serve as the home of UT's men's and women's basketball games, among other sports and community events.
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