A strong blast of wintry weather wasn’t the only irritant for many Austinites today: many were inconvenienced and frustrated by changing decisions from local officials on whether to open and when.
It seems the weather got unexpectedly worse at about the worst possible time: when many had already set on the roads. Adding to traffic were entities including the University of Texas and City of Austin, which did not initially alter their schedules.
While some entities didn’t announce delays until morning rush hour, AISD announced a two-hour delay before the start of class. But by the time AISD acted to cancel classes for the day, many students were already at school or on their way.
Altogether, the day’s traffic snarl – 274 collisions according to Austin Police – illustrate decision-makers fallibility in the face of unpredictable weather.
According to government officials and statements from various school superintendents, during a conference call at 3 a.m., weather conditions did not seem to be getting worse.
“At the 3 a.m. conference call, the parties on the line discussed the weather conditions and also the forecast,” says Jacob Dirr, spokesperson for the Austin Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “At the time, significant icing was not predicted through the morning. Additionally, city, county and state public safety agencies reported no significant icing conditions.”
In a statement, Round Rock ISD Superintendent Steven Flores also cited the 3 a.m. conference call.
"We took part in a weather conference call at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. this morning and the information available at that time indicated roads would be clear and safe for travel. This led to my decision to continue with regular school schedules. Knowing Texas weather can change rapidly, we were all on alert to modify plans if needed," he said.
A few hours later, the situation was changing. By 6:30 a.m., the local Emergency Operations Center was activated.
“At about 7 a.m., all the parties were advised by weather experts that the situation was deteriorating and within the last hour to hour and a half, conditions had created widespread icing, creating dangerous and hazardous conditions,” Dirr says.
By 8 a.m., word had spread that AISD schools would be closed for the day and that UT and City of Austin offices would delay opening until noon.
Austin City Council member Mike Martinez was among those unhappy with the City of Austin's response:
— Mike Martinez (@CouncilManMike) January 28, 2014
About three hours later – with temperatures still below freezing – came the decision that UT would remain closed for the day.
Flores and other school district superintendents – and the University of Texas – issued apologies to parents and students, citing that 3 a.m. conference call as the reason they made their decisions so late.
"We are always working to improve our processes and to learn from each incident," said the University of Texas in a statement. "Clearly, that includes today's episode."