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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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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