When city services shut down, four Austin influencers stepped up to bring thousands of free meals to the community.
As Winter Storm Uri left residents across the city without power and water, Mylk Collective founder Chelsea Hughes, Cara Caulkins of Cara Caulkins Communications, A Taste of Koko food blogger Jane Ko and 365thingsAustin Kristy Owen knew they needed to use their platform to bring help to fellow Austinites.
By Monday, Caulkins was contacted by Deep Eddy Vodka to begin coordinating with restaurants that may have leftover food to give to those in need.
Knowing that both Hughes and Ko had raised money during the hectic beginning of the pandemic, Caulkins contacted them to help get the ball rolling.
The trio, alongside 365thingsaustin's Kristy Owen, made a GoFundMe last Wednesday and began organizing a restaurant network that spanned across the city. Ko, who has covered the local restaurant scene for about a decade, said that she contacted at least 150 restaurants as they looked for candidates. Early volunteers, including The Peached Tortilla owner Jerry Silverstein, cooked their leftover reserves with a gas oven in the dark as they continued to have no power.
Three days later, the Winter Storm Relief Fund had raised over $100,000 in funding, passed out thousands of free meals to residents in need, and teamed up with dozens of local restaurants.
The outreach served more than just those without food to eat during the storm. Hughes said that providing free meals served as a boost for both citizens in need and restaurants who had lost money on a frozen Valentine's Day weekend and were sitting on a stockpile of food.
"Our mission was twofold: feeding the public and underserved communities, hospitals and ems workers but also giving back to the rest who have lost so much throughout this pandemic and with this truly historic storm," Hughes said. "Our mission is also to continue whatever this rebuild process looks like and to continue to be a resource for whatever restaurants that need this."
They soon learned that Austin's water utility also gave out later on in the week, but many restaurants still needed to feed and pay their employees as the crisis began to worsen. Ko said that it was heartwrenching to hear back from eager volunteers who had gone to their food trucks or restaurants and found broken pipes, unusable kitchens and water damage.
"It was heartbreaking to me to have restaurants and food trucks reach out to me and then check on their food truck and say, 'I'm sorry Jane, our pipes are busted we can't cook," Ko said. "They have families they need to take care of."
Eventually, the three discovered specific pockets in the community that were suffering more than others in the disaster. In far north and southwest Austin, communities had been without power or water for days. Some populations had no transportation to get to water distribution hubs, and hospitals and EMS workers were falling apart as they spent days without power or water. Alongside their partners, the group visited hospitals and first responder locations with free, warm meals from various restaurants.
Rumors spread of apartment complex residents drinking pool water during the disaster, homes flooding irreparably, and many living in subfreezing conditions for much of the storm. Hughes said the incident was eye-opening to how privileged many in the community, including herself, are on a regular basis.
"It was the first time in our lives that we had to wonder how we were going to get our next meal and how we are going to be warm and how those basic needs are going to be met," Hughes said. "It made me realize how underserved certain communities are. This is a moment in my life where I know I always want to use my contacts now to be a resource to help underserved communities in my city."
When the situation progressed, the community doubled down and began donating more. In three hours on Wednesday, Ko said the GoFundMe had already reached $10,000. By Thursday, funding swelled to $70,000, surpassing its goal by over $50,000 and sitting above $150,000 into last weekend. On Monday of this week, Ko estimated that the group had helped coordinate over 30,000 free meals.
The GoFundMe was not the only source of donations going into Austin area restaurants. After Deep Eddy communicated with Caulkins, the local brand began sponsoring restaurants on its own to provide hundreds of meals at a time. Large local companies such as Kendra Scott and Bumble came in to help, while national brands like Red Bull also funneled their contributions into the community.
"This really speaks to the power of social media," Caulkins said. "We were able to raise these funds and also allowed these platforms to be a community resource."
Austin Winter Storm Relief Fund kept the city running when power and water failed
All images courtesy of Cara Caulkins.
Although water has been restored, the boil-water ban has been lifted and temperatures are way above freezing, the recovery process is not over. In addition to restaurants and businesses losing money, the city will have weeks of repairs and damages to fix before the storm becomes a distant memory.
The remaining funds that went unused have since been donated to Good Work Austin, a kitchen program that aims at feeding underserved populations.
All the influencers have hopes that things will change within the community as residents continue to band together to rebuild and repair what was lost to Winter Storm Uri. Caulkins said that she wants the disaster to continue the trend of young, passionate members of the community taking city leadership positions.
"I think we're seeing a lot of younger voices and I think that's also something that things like this show," Caulkins said. "It would be great to see that continue because we're maybe a little bit more in touch with what is happening around us and wanting to make a difference and hopefully that will make an impact on city officials that are representing us in the future."
Despite the disaster, Ko said that the huge outpour of donations and volunteers that came through in the worst of times is exactly what makes Austin special.
"I love Austin, and I think this is what makes the city so great, that you have citizens like us that are willing to step up," Ko said. "Many, many people stepped up during this time. While Texas is strong, I think Austin is stronger."
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on three charges—second- and third-degree murder as well as manslaughter—in the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man whose final moments were recorded by onlookers, sparking a global protest movement over police violence and racial injustice. He faces up to 40 years in prison.
Jurors deliberated for 10 hours over two days after an intense, three-week trial before reaching a verdict Tuesday afternoon, four days shy of the first anniversary of the Austin police killing of Mike Ramos, an unarmed, 42-year-old Black and Hispanic man whose name became a rallying cry—along with Floyd's—for Austin protestors, who marched en masse last summer, prompting some police reforms.
Austin Police Department Officer Christopher Taylor was charged with first-degree murder—an unprecedented charge in Travis County—in the case of Ramos' death on March 10. But Warren Burkley, community outreach director for the Austin Justice Coalition, was measured in his response to the Chauvin verdict. "It's highly visible accountability, so it will give people hope in the system," he told Austonia. "But it's just one innocent life taken. And even in this city, this happens regularly, and it doesn't make national news."
Local elected officials, community leaders and residents also responded to the news as APD officers spent their second day on tactical alert, prepared to respond to any protests or demonstrations, and City Council heard recommendations from a task force on how to reimagine public safety.
Chauvin guilty on three charges!!!!
— Chas Moore (@iGiveYouMoore) April 20, 2021
Full justice would mean that George Floyd was still with us. But today's guilty verdict represents a historic step toward justice and for his family. So important now for the Senate to approve the House George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.https://t.co/9zUOgZYg4L
— Lloyd Doggett (@RepLloydDoggett) April 20, 2021
For the first time we saw accountability in the courts for the murder of an innocent Black person.
Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on camera.
This prosecution is historic. People are feeling temporary relief. This is more than Justice, this is #AccountabilityforGeorgeFloyd. https://t.co/HlBqW7sScx
— Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (@EddieforTexas) April 20, 2021
Many of us have been afraid for days that Derek Chauvin would be found not guilty, despite what the video so clearly showed in broad daylight. The guilty verdict today provides important accountability, but it does not provide real justice. (1/5) ⬇️
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) April 20, 2021
George Floyd's murder led to national protests and calls for the enactment of policing and social justice reforms, including here in Austin. We have made a commitment here to holding police officers accountable and to implementing social justice and policing reforms.
— Mayor Adler | 😷wear a mask. (@MayorAdler) April 20, 2021
Derek Chauvin's conviction is only one step towards providing healing/justice for George Floyd's family + for our nation as a whole. It's up to us to honor Mr. Floyd + the many others lost to police violence by transforming public safety and making our communities safe for all. https://t.co/RVgQmcAf6I pic.twitter.com/hCHLibYjoy
— Council Member Alison Alter (@ALTERforATX) April 20, 2021
No person should be above the law. If you transgress the law you should be held accountability.
Derek Chauvin- GUILTY
— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) April 20, 2021
George Floyd's murder heightened the long-overdue national conversation on systemic racism. Derek Chauvin has been found guilty, but this is just one step on a long road towards racial equity. We must enact significant systemic changes in order to achieve justice.
— Every Texan (@EveryTxn) April 20, 2021
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Californians love Texas, and Austin—with its liberal politics, relatively affordable housing and job opportunities—is particularly adored. In fact, the Lone Star State was the main recipient of departing Californians in 2019, according to the latest available U.S. Census Bureau data.
But other states, including Florida, are seeing increased interest. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has made a name for himself on Twitter recruiting techies and hyping up his city, which has a lot in common with Austin—with the added benefit of a beach and sans the "Don't California my Texas" attitude.
California expats and industry experts say Austin remains the bigger draw for Californians, especially those in the tech sector, but warn that this advantage could shift to Miami if the city doesn't address the policy challenges that prompted the migration in the first place: housing affordability.
"If Austin doesn't accommodate this influx, I think all the talent will come to Miami," said Peter Yared, a tech entrepreneur who moved to Miami from San Francisco in September. "I think Miami's going to be the one that sucks it all up."
Both Texas and Florida promise business-friendly state tax policies, and their governors tout the relocations of companies such as Tesla and Oracle from California. But Darien Shanske, a law professor at the University of California Davis whose specialties include taxation, said this is a red herring because corporate taxes are based on where sales occur rather than headquarter locations.
This is not to say other state policies are irrelevant. "The area in which California regulatory policy has been, in my opinion, not a complete failure but problematic … is housing policy," Shanske said. Austin and Miami can offer "not cheap, just cheaper" housing than what is available in Silicon Valley. Plus, both cities are developing a critical mass of talent, which further draws Californians in. "If you're a software engineer, you want to live near other software engineers," he added.
But not every Californian is motivated to move. "San Francisco is a fantastic place to live if you can afford it," said Brandy Aven, a professor of entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. As a result, it's more common for what she called the labor—engineers, programmers and even company founders—to relocate to cities such as Austin and Miami than the monied venture capitalists. Burgeoning tech cities may find that they need to develop homegrown investor networks to support local ventures in the absence of Californian transplants, but she believes this is doable.
Paul O'Brien, CEO of the Austin-based MediaTech Ventures and a startup veteran, moved to Austin from California in 2009, during the Great Recession. "I'm a firm believer that the world has been seeking an alternative to Silicon Valley for a long time," he said, pointing to Austin as the natural heir for myriad reasons.
Austin has regional appeal as the epicenter of three of the country's largest cities—Houston, Dallas and San Antonio—and their respective industry niches. Tech entrepreneurs could cater to the local consumer goods industry or Houston's oil and gas sector. Plus the city has cultural appeal, thanks to the Red River District and South by Southwest, which made it attractive to job seekers. "The whole reason everyone moved to Silicon Valley is opportunity," O'Brien said. "The whole reason people are now looking beyond Silicon Valley to somewhere else is opportunity."
It's less clear what Miami's key industries are, O'Brien said, but the city offers other selling points, including the mayor's buy-in and "a tremendous depth of wealth" to support a technology and startup ecosystem.
Although Yared didn't consider moving to Austin, he is aware of its appeal to engineers, especially now that their hero, Elon Musk, has moved there, shunning California. "Austin has a lock on tech," he said, but Miami draws a different crowd, including financiers from New York. This parallel migration, coupled with the city's more outwardly pro-growth building policies, gives him hope that Miami could supplant Austin in the coming years. "In the end, communities get to choose what they want," he said.
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In the days after Austin FC's inaugural match against LAFC on Saturday, Head Coach Josh Wolff says he's watched the game "a number of times, to say the least."
In the match, Wolff and over 500,000 other viewers looked on as Austin FC took to the pitch for the first time, held their own in the first half against LAFC and eventually fell 2-0 to a team that's sometimes regarded as the best in the league.
Austin FC had the largest television audience of any soccer match in the U.S. over the weekend, surpassing even the USWNT. In a showcase of the club's dedicated fan base, dozens of Los Verdes fans were spotted in green and black around the stadium—even with the match limited to 20% capacity.
Salute the support. 👏
It's only the beginning for @AustinFC. pic.twitter.com/TduorqYr2y
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
While the team lost their first-ever match, they didn't make it as easy as some expected.
Wolff said that the team did relatively well offensively, holding possession for 48% of the match and keeping a solid passing game. Once they got to the box, however, Wolff said they could use some work on creating scoring opportunities.
"We saw a lot of good connections, good spacing (and) good speed of passing," Wolff said. "I think we can obviously have more presence centrally to have more numbers in between lines. I just want us to create more chances. There's a lot on both sides of the ball that we still need to work on."
LA pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense wasn't initially as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Later on, however, the team gave up some goals and seemed to struggle with endurance. Wolff said the backline did "okay" and that the club, including young center back Jhohan Romana, are still getting conditioned to play a full match.
"It's a lot of information for a young player," Wolff said. "I think as he fatigues then the decision making, as with most players, becomes a little bit more cloudy and then thus the execution becomes cloudy."
An honor to represent this city and y'all. We're just getting started. 💚🖤 pic.twitter.com/tmOqCfbXvs
— Austin FC (@AustinFC) April 18, 2021
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver had his work cut out for him, fending off 24 shot attempts, 11 of which were on goal.
Going into the match, Stuver and fellow goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell were neck-and-neck, with both labeled potential starters. However, it was Stuver, who many thought signed as a backup, that wore the goalkeeper's jersey on the field for the first time.
"I think both Andrew and Brad did relatively well in preseason, but we decided with Brad just based on how we felt preseason went," Wolff said. "I thought he performed pretty well to be honest. I think he and Andrew are similar in some aspects... it's being mindful of where their strengths and weaknesses are."
Five starters made their MLS debut in the match, including midfielder Daniel Pereira and forward Rodney Redes. While Wolff said Pereira held his own in the match, he saw a weak spot in the team's right side, making it difficult for Redes to make offensive plays.
"For Pereira, I think it was a solid day for a young kid coming in his first MLS game against that opponent," Wolff said. "Obviously there's there's a different physicality to MLS and I think those are things that all these guys are going to acclimatize to.
Now, the club looks to put the ball in the back of the net for the first time as they head to Colorado. Austin FC will face the Colorado Rapids at 8 p.m.on Saturday. The match will stream on the Austin FC app and be broadcast on the CW Austin. Austonia will keep an eye out for potential weekend watch parties.
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