As Central Texans grapple with freezing temperatures, some neighbors have been elevated to 'Snow Angel' status, taking life-saving measures to rescue total strangers from troubles caused by the winter storm.
Need a smile? Read on.
Nathan Burch and Charlotte Bryant
With his four-wheel drive vehicle equipped with snow tires, Lakeway resident Nathan Burch and his girlfriend Charlotte Bryant, drove carefully to Target in South Austin on Monday to replenish their food supply. While there, he overheard survival stories from shoppers, prompting Burch to post an offer to help others on various social media pages. Although he only expected a few people to reach out, within 30 minutes, he received more than 200 responses.
"It blew my mind how many people were without power," Burch said.
Nathan Burch drops off food for a stranded resident in the Lakeway area Tuesday. (Nathan Burch)
His efforts included a detoured, two-hour drive to take a stranded motorist across town; helping a caregiver deliver prescription medicine and food to her patients; transporting an elderly resident from her cold house; and driving a nurse from the Sweetwater community off Texas 71 to her job at St. David's North Austin Medical Center only to pick up another nurse at the same hospital and take her home after an extended shift. For Burch, these heroic measures have kept him up most of the night, getting home around 3:30 a.m. and rising at 7 a.m.
Despite being laid off from a boat charter company on Lake Travis, he declines payment.
"It feels good to be able to help people," Burch said. "I call it 'paying it forward.'"
A Hurricane Katrina survivor, he explained that he knows only too well about doing without during an emergency.
"I know what it's like to not have adequate transportation; I've been without power before," Burch said, choking through tears. "I've seen some people without things. I know what it's like to be stranded."
Tony Iglesias has helped many including a Lexus out of the icy hillside in front of his home. (Tony Iglesias)
Westminster Glen resident Tony Iglesias said he's had a front-row seat to vehicles spinning out of control on the icy hillside in front of his home. One of those victims was a nurse at a psychiatric hospital in downtown Austin, trying to get to work to relieve his comrades who have been taking double shifts. Finding the nurse in his car, Iglesias invited him in and he became his guest for a couple of days until a truck could get him past I-35.
"I admire the commitment of the essential workers, what they would go through to try and get to where they could be of most good," Iglesias said.
And as Central Texas is no stranger to northern transplants, those neighbors who are used to combatting winter storms have stepped up to help. A native of Pennsylvania, Austin Lake Hills-resident Sarah Gosztonyi, said she's used to this type of winter weather that Austinites rarely experience. Using her four-wheel drive Porsche, she has pulled out stuck truck drivers from the snow and helped stranded residents get to safety.
"We're young, we're completely capable and we can drive in the snow, and we're not concerned about it," she said of herself and her two team members at Aura, the security technology company the trio founded. "So we just want to help everybody we can."
Clint and Kat Turner
Without power in their home, North Austinites Clint and Kat Turner spent the past few days driving, helping people needing groceries or gas, from Mueller up to Pflugerville.
"We figured if we could get around and go help, then we might as well instead of sitting in our cold house," Clint Turner said.
Clint and Kat Turner buying groceries to donate. (Turners)
In lieu of accepting money for their troubles, the couple asked for contributions to go toward buying groceries for Helping Hand Home For Children. Amassing about $1,000 to date, Clint and Kat Turner shopped Wednesday to stock up the nonprofit's pantry before the next round of bad weather.
Victoria Winburne and Lynn Brown
The Homestead residents Victoria Winburne and Lynn Brown live on a wooded acre-and-a-half parcel. When they realized the grocery stores were out of firewood, they collected woodpiles from their property, creating bundles to help others keep warm and offering their tract up should residents have further need. Neighbors responded, rolling up wagons and carts to make use of the kindling, including young families new to the area.
"Here's the deal," said Winburne whose house also lacked power. "It's just a small thing but when you think about what extra you might have and who might benefit, it's not a hard leap to make. It's good to give. It's good for the person receiving and it's good for the person giving."
Some of that firewood may have made its way to Kiki Long's western Travis County home she shares with her 72-year-old disabled mother, boyfriend and three small dogs. With the power out and no firewood left, Long took extreme measures into her own hands.
"We ended up burning our bed frame in the fireplace to keep warm," she said.
After Long posted that action on social media, local neighbors dropped off two bundles of firewood on her doorstep.
"It was really touching how random people I didn't even know reached out to me so quickly to bring us firewood so we didn't have to burn anymore furniture," she said.
As for the bed frame? "At this point, we're fine without it," Long said, adding the mattress is lying on a box spring on the floor. "Just to keep my mom and my dogs warm, I would have done more than that."
Michael Dahlhauser created Facebook group "12:31" on Feb. 8, not too long before the winter storms hit. The effort—referencing bible scripture Mark 12:31, love your neighbor as yourself,"—is aimed at linking folks who need help with others who can provide that assistance within the Lake Travis community for small things such as putting together furniture or loading a moving truck.
The timing was perfect.
"Who would have thought that would be put to the test the way it has been the last few days," Dahlhauser said of the group that includes motorists with trucks, chains and four wheel drives who are able to make deliveries, save stranded motorists, provide space heaters and firewood to others as well as lodging. "This is quite literally a community effort."
With the harsh weather, the site sprang into action, including Johnathan Paul Wojtewicz, a native-Austinite and former United States Marine who could put to use his extensive disaster training. Since the weekend, his assistance has ranged from providing a family, including a three-month-old baby, with firewood to taking a woman to the hospital after she fell on slick ice, fracturing her arm. And bringing her back home again when she was released.
With the grocery stores packed, Lakeway resident Robert Ferguson drove his pickup truck yesterday to a Valero gas station off RM 620 for supplies. However, when he reached the register and swiped his credit card, the purchase was declined due to a fraud alert. The line of shoppers behind him soon started to grow as he tried the card again. The next thing Ferguson heard was a man in the back of the line calling out, "I've got it," paying his $42 tab.
Ferguson said he turned around and thanked the gentleman, telling him, 'God bless you.'
"It was just a surprisingly nice thing that somebody did," he said.
Similarly, Marianne Odhner, Cuernavaca resident, was worried about her ex-husband Mark Odhner, who lives nearby. A diabetic, he ran out of insulin on Monday. Travis County Emergency Services District No. 10, also known as the CE-Bar Fire Department, gave him a ride to the hospital emergency room for care but he still came home without the essential medicine. So, Odhner asked for help on her Nextdoor site. A neighbor in a nearby development offered up an extra vial and another resident drove the insulin over in a Jeep.
"Everyone's just being so kind," she said. "It makes you feel happy."
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For the first time since July 30, the seven-day moving average for COVID hospitalizations dropped below 50 on Tuesday, reaching the Stage 4 threshold.
At 49, the number is low enough to lower guidelines, but the city has not yet changed its Stage 5 status.
Austin has been in Stage 5, the highest level of Austin Public Health's COVID risk-based guidelines, for over a month as case rates and hospitalizations surpassed last summer's surge, the Delta variant targeted the unvaccinated and a younger demographic and ICUs surpassed capacity in the Austin metro. But with the seven-day moving average at 49 on Tuesday, it may be a sign that the third surge is beginning to end.
On Tuesday, 515 new cases were reported, down from a third-surge peak of 1,261 on Thursday, Sept. 7. Two days after the peak, Austin reported 1,000 COVID deaths and broke a daily death toll record with 23 deaths in a single day.
But while cases and hospitalizations are dipping, the city still has many factors to consider before dropping safety guidelines. Austin Public Health told KXAN Wednesday that key indicators including "positivity rate, the doubling time of new cases, and current ICU and ventilator patients" will need to be evaluated first.
The metro continues to have no ICU beds available as Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes says patients from other counties come into the area to seek care. Travis County saw 35 COVID deaths for the week of Sept. 17, slightly down from a peak of 36 for two weeks prior.
The lower hospitalization rate comes as Austin reaches a 70% vaccinated population, a number once thought to be needed to reach herd immunity. With the highly contagious Delta variant, however, many think that the new herd immunity rate is closer to 80%. But Austin officials have reported being "cautiously optimistic" as the moving average for hospital admissions slowly declined from their peak of 83.6 on Aug. 11.
"We're starting to see our case numbers decrease over time, and that is an exceptional thing to say at this point, but we're still cautiously optimistic," Walkes said.
Under Stage 4 guidelines with the Delta variant, APH continues to recommend limiting dining to takeout/curbside for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals and slightly lifts shopping and travel guidelines to "only if essential." Stage 4 continues to recommend masks for vaccinated individuals in social and public settings but now includes high-risk vaccinated individuals that were recommended to stay home unless essential in Stage 5.
(Austin Public Health)
(Austin Public Health)
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Austin's new police chief is former assistant chief Joseph Chacon, Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk announced Wednesday morning.
Narrowing a pool of 46 candidates down to seven, then three, Chacon beat out Avery L. Moore, assistant chief of the Dallas Police Department, and Emada E. Tingirides, deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, for the position. Austin City Council will still need to confirm the appointment come Sept. 30.
"I'm confident Interim chief Joseph Chacon is the right person to lead our City's police department to achieve results, build trust and transparency, and accomplish equitable public safety outcomes for all Austin residents and visitors," Cronk said.
Chacon, who was the interim chief for the past six months, will assume the position after Brian Manley retired in March and the department underwent scrutiny with a rise of murders and crime in the city. The Austin Police Department is also undergoing reform as a result of last year's Black Lives Matter protests that ultimately resulted in city council cutting and reallocating millions of the police budget. The department has additionally faced a staffing shortage that predates the budget cuts and was exacerbated by the halting of police cadet classes—classes have since resumed with a new curriculum at the beginning of summer.
At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Cronk said the final decision was driven by input from the community. He said Chacon is committed to reshaping public safety and gaining the trust of the community—putting in the work to do so.
Chacon acknowledged APD is at a crossroads, saying its relationship with the community needs a reset and it the department will be committed to transparency. He cited a change he made as interim chief that releases video of officer-involved incidents in 10 days as opposed to 60, which he says is in line with such expectations of transparency.
When discussing the spike in homicides, he said the homicide unit has worked to solve most cases and hold those responsible accountable.
"We remain one of the safest big cities in the United States and this is in large part due to to the daily efforts of the men and women of this department who show up every day with courage, respect, professionalism, integrity and a heart for service," Chacon said. "They keep this city safe every day."
He also addressed the attrition rates at the department, citing that while officers are leaving at high numbers, people are also applying at record rates.
Like Manley, Chacon is an internal hire; Cronk said he did not anticipate making an internal hire initially.
Chacon has been in law enforcement for 28 years and was appointed assistant chief in Austin in 2016.
"I am extremely excited and humbled by this amazing opportunity," Chacon said. "Austin PD is at a critical juncture, and I am honored that the city manager is showing the trust in me to lead this amazing organization. I will be engaging our department employees and our community to make sure we are moving forward in the best way possible."
This story was updated after the 1:30 p.m. press conference.
What, you think the only thing there is to do at Austin City Limits is to watch your favorite artists? Must be your first time. ACL is more than just a dreamy three-day soundscape in the park—between sets, the festival has so much to offer that it's nearly impossible to get bored.
You're bound to have some downtime while attending ACL 2021, so when you do, make an effort to explore the booths, zones, markets and branded seatbelt forests—you'll be glad you did.
Ice for your Hydroflask
(Katrina Barber for ACL Fest)
Empty plastic or aluminum water bottles are welcomed inside the festival and ACL does a great job of keeping attendees hydrated, so there's no reason to buy water or waste plastic while attending. You have to bring the bottles in empty but there are several filling stations for water bottles located around the park. None of them offer ice, which can be essential during those 100-degree days. Head to any of the bars located in the park and ask for a cup of ice—bartenders are happy to part with it and you'll be cool as a cucumber!
Access to private lounges
Need a break from the never-ending sun? A snack that doesn't cost $30? There are private, shady lounges all over the park—some for exclusive ticket holders, some waiting to be discovered by even the one-day crowd. Take for instance the T-Mobile Lounge, located adjacent to the stage of the same name, offered patrons a wristband to access the lounge in exchange for a social media post back in 2019. If you're an American Express cardholder, the benefits are numerous: a lounge open only to cardholders and complimentary merch awaits those who don the card.
Free prizes, snacks and drinks
(Katrina Barber for ACL Fest)
With dozens of vendors on the grounds, swag is not hard to find. You might have to play a game, answer some trivia or post on social media to qualify but the free merch often comes in handy. Forgot a fan? A vendor has one. Need a bandana? Visit the Tito's stand. Lose your water bottle, sunscreen or earplugs? A vendor has you covered, so be generous with the Instagram tags.
The ACL Art Market
(Roger Ho for ACL)
Support local by visiting the artisans at the festival's art market, located in the center of the park. Artists from all walks of life and levels of success sell their artwork yearly at the festival, so you'll need space to store your new keepsake if you're planning to collect. Blue Lux, Austin Art Garage, Greg Davis and Futurgarb are a few previous attendees. You'll know you've made it when you stumble across the massive, colorful "ART" sign.
Clean up trash for free merch
(Katrina Barber for ACL Fest)
Ensuring that Austin's beloved park stays clean throughout the festival, ACL partners with Austin Parks Foundation for its "Rock & Recycle" program that offers a little something for everyone. Stop by the Austin Parks Foundation booth when you have some free time to pick up a bag, fill it up with littered recyclable items and return the full bag for a free T-shirt—that's it. Plus, you can be entered to win other contests every time you help keep the park clean.
See some interactive art installations
Each partner at the festival has something up their sleeves, often worth exploring. As ACL partners change, you're likely to see some returns, like the Honda Seatbelt Forest or the Bumble BFF Find Your Bestie Booth. In 2019, Honda gave attendees a colorful backdrop to pose in front of and a break from the chaos, whereas Bumble promised to introduce you to a new friend and gave out merch to those who gave it a go!
Lend your ear (or your wallet) to a good cause
(Roger Ho for ACL Fest)
ACL is more than just a festival—it's a time to raise awareness for local organizations. Stop by the ACL Cares area, where nonprofits and organizations gather to spread the word, and you're likely to find organizations like Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, SIMS Foundation, Austin Music Foundation, Keep Austin Beautiful, The Nature Conservancy and the Love Hope Strength Foundation, where you can register to be a bone marrow donor at the festival.
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