Back in February, Winter Storm Uri brought snow, Ice, and below-freezing temperatures to much of North America. Over 170 Million people in the US received weather alerts, many of which lost their electricity, heat, and access to clean water for days and even weeks. At least 136 people died, and the damages resulting from electricity blackouts have been estimated to be more than $195 billion dollars, which is the most expensive single disaster event in US history.
Arguably, one of the worst-hit regions spanned across the entire state of Texas, where a massive electricity failure left more than four and a half million homes and businesses without power for days.
And while much of the news coverage focused on how people were impacted by the storm, the basic disregard for human life by a number of elected officials, and a false narrative that somehow it was all the fault of the Green New Deal, there was another story that was quickly unfolding before everyone’s eyes. The story of how the government had outright failed the people and how the people organized together with very few resources to save themselves.
Last month I was finally able to catch up with my friend Chad Rittenberry who was still recovering after having found himself in the middle of much of the community-led response to the storms in Austin Texas. What began with a simple Facebook post offering free firewood to friends and family snowballed until he found himself organizing the National Guard to distribute water in the pink vests previously worn by street medics at Black Lives Matter protests last Summer.
In the latest episode of The Response Podcast, we hear his perspective of what worked and what really didn’t, as well as how some local organizers plan to be even more prepared for when the next disaster strikes, which most likely will be sooner rather than later.
Listen to Fire and water: Mutual aid in the aftermath of the Texas freeze on The Response Podcast here (or on the app of your choice):
The Response is a podcast series from Shareable.net exploring how communities are building collective resilience in the wake of disasters
“Fire and Water” Episode credits:
- Host and executive producer: Tom Llewellyn
- Series producer: Robert Raymond
- Theme Music: “Meet you on the other side” by Cultivate Beats
“Fire and Water” Transcript:
Tom Llewellyn: Chad, thanks for coming on and looking forward to talking to you about Austin and everything that went down with Yuri. And I’m wondering if you can just kind of start by introducing yourself and talking about what are you doing in your life in mid-February before the storm came.
Chad Rittenberry: Sure. Well, my name is Chad Rattenbury and I am just a regular guy, just building, remodeling people’s homes, kind of keeping low during this pandemic. And that’s pretty much what I was doing. I was working festivals before the pandemic happened. But now that pandemic happened I haven’t really been doing a whole bunch. So then we started hearing the news at this crazy polar vortex is coming down. And I had no idea, no thought in my mind at all like what I would do to help people. I didn’t know how bad it was going to be. And I think it was the second day when the polar vortex hit, it froze, it got down to like 20 degrees. And then we had like a big ice storm. So, like, everything was coated with ice. And then the next day, I could be a little bit off on the timeline, but the next day it snowed in the snow like six inches. And then once that snow came, I woke up the following day in the morning, and I was scrolling through Facebook and I saw somebody say their power was out, but they had a fireplace.
And then I kind of woke up in the morning and I saw that and I was like, you know what? I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of trees and this seven acre property that I live at and they’re all dead, fallen trees. So I just put a post on Facebook and said, hey, I got a chainsaw and some axes and things like that. I’m going to start chopping trees. If you guys have fireplaces, come on by if you can, grab some wood, or if there’s anybody out there that’s 4×4 trucks, could you help deliver firewood to friends that really need it and family? And that’s kind of what happened.
And then next thing I know, this one little call-out became like this whole snowball effect, you know, going down the hill as we are in this snowball storm. And next thing I know, I’ve got dozens and dozens of friends out here with wheelbarrows and chainsaws, and we’re cutting down hundreds and hundreds of trees in what seemed like a day. Delivering firewood to homeless people, to elderly communities, to low income communities. And obviously all of our friends, which was I was all started. But so there was like about five days of this.
Tom Llewellyn: Was this during the four or five days of the storm?
Chad Rittenberry: Yes. So I think it was about a week of freezing temperatures just all day long — or like nearly a week. And I know that we were cutting firewood for about five days. And we were out in freezing temperatures, sometimes in 20 degrees, even at nighttime, I would bring out all my awesome spotlights so we can cut firewood at night. I was addicted. I was addicted to helping people. And we were literally chopping wood and cutting wood and just, it was amazing. It was an amazing operation. And it felt like kind of a festival again, you know, because I was kind of doing logistics and I was kind of herding cats and my friends or whatever, like just letting them go, have fun and cut wood, you know. So it was it was really cool.
Tom Llewellyn: And you start, it sounds like, you know, with friends and family, people that were in your direct network.
Chad Rittenberry: Yes.
Tom Llewellyn: And I’m wondering, how did that shift from working with people that you knew that were within your own larger social bubble to then making that leap to supporting some of those other communities that you mentioned that that may not have been?
Chad Rittenberry: The communities that I did not put the call out to was basically friends of friends saying like, oh, well, this community like needs a lot of help. Well, basically, it was from friends that I met during the Black Lives Matter protests. So there was a guy named Caesar and he’s deaf. And so he became also an awesome volunteer. And he contacted me through Facebook. And he’s like, I want to come out there and grab like loads and loads of firewood. So he started bringing it to a lot of the deaf community. And then he was also like, you know, I’m also going to give it to a lot of the homeless people and a lot of homeless encampments that are under bridges in Austin. Then also, I started getting really strongly connected with Austin Mutual Aid and started putting posts out on Facebook about us getting wood to people. And then some of the Austin Mutual Aid people contacted me and were like, well, we have this poor community that has fireplaces that need wood so. I would just tell my friends that have these 4×4 trucks, and I just started like — I publicly put my phone number out there. So I’d get a bunch of calls from all kinds of communities. And then I would just kind of make a list. And then, so, a 4×4 truck friend would come in and then I would just load up and, so like every day it was like truckloads and truckloads and truckloads of wood going in all these communities from just different people,
Tom Llewellyn: So far, I mean, this is really interesting to me in, again, you know how you were talking about that snowball effect. So it started with the people in your community and then it became wider and wider circles of people that were able to be supported in some way. And then also those that were coming out to do work, it became mutually beneficial just like mutual aid. And not only were you able to help support of the communities, it sounds like you benefited from having all these people come and help you cut down the dead trees that were standing on the property that you were on that that needed to be cut anyways, you know, reduction of fire and all that stuff.
And I’m wondering a little bit about, you mentioned then starting to interact with with Austin Mutual Aid, and it seems like, and again, I was following a lot of your work from the from the outside, that there was a shift where you then began working more direct in concert with with Austin Mutual Aid. And I’m wondering if you can kind of talk about that and then head of how your work shifted a couple of weeks following the storm.
Chad Rittenberry: I honestly had no idea how this was going to turn out. And obviously we started off with firewood and then once everything melted and also the pipes started melting that were frozen in the ground or in people’s walls because all the power was out from the four million people around Texas, once things melts, you know, ice expands pipes and so pipes started bursting. Unfortunately, the way that code is written here in Texas and we have a lot of bedrock underneath a certain amount of soil, we don’t have real deep pipes in Texas. So everybody’s pipes started bursting. And then since I live on this property, I’m not necessarily like off grid. I have power and internet and stuff like that, but I don’t have a water line coming to my place. So we already had 275 five gallon water tank cubes that I use to pump into my tiny home so I can have running water. So I’ve already done like water transfers and stuff like that have already been used to that. Not only that, I’ve been used to it for coordinating sustainability coordinator at festivals or doing water help at all kinds of festivals around the country. So this was not different of a thing for me, it wasn’t out of the ordinary to to do this.
So the snow melted and the ice melted and then everybody’s pipes busted. The city of Austin pretty much shut down most of the water municipality water supply because some of their pipes busted, too. And then I think it was after about four days of Austin shutting down most of the water, they started turning back on the water. But obviously, once you go past city water lines, you have homeowners that have busted pipes. So literally like tens of thousands of people in Austin surrounding areas, who knows how many people in Texas, had busted lines.
So when that happened we didn’t need to cut any more firewood, you know, because it was a frozen anymore and people’s power started coming back on, but then their water was off, or they had to shut the water off of the street because water was dripping from their ceilings or their walls or whatever. So then it became a thing where, like, I quickly organized wood and then water and then talking to Austin Mutual Aid, and they were like, well, we’re getting reports from the city that there’s these seven communities that are like kind of a low income government kind of controlled, regulated income, whatever, really poor people basically, have all their water off. So we need to mobilize water tanks.
So since Austin Mutual Aid was dealing with so many things, I was kind of their relief for a little bit. And they didn’t consider doing what I was doing yet as far as cubes and things like that, until it started happening, they’re were like, oh, we’ve got to get big bulk water to people. So Austin Mutual Aid started to figure it out like, oh, let’s buy these tanks, you know? And then that group kind of split off from actually called Austin Needs Water and they kind of started their own organization. So I was talking with them and Austin Mutual Aid about who needed water. And for about two or three days, I was doing that just by myself in communication with them. And then after that, I was invited to come into a meeting with Austin Needs Water, AKA, Austin Mutual Aid. And I just thought I was going to go there and talk to them and like, you know, it’s like, oh, well, I’m here to help you guys out a little bit. You know, here are some other ideas that I’ve used in the past. Like here are some things that I could do to, you know, in logistics, you know, I work at festivals, I can help your operations work better. And then they asked me, well, we want you to be the logistics coordinator. And I’m like, whoa, okay, sure. Yeah, I guess I’ll volunteer to do that, too. So, but then it just kept getting bigger, more and more intense and more and more operations and, you know, day by day by day. So that’s pretty much how I got into it once I started.
Tom Llewellyn: Do you have an idea about how many people were part of that response, like they’re coming through Austin Needs Water and Austin Mutual Aid? And, like you were saying earlier, the initial crew that you were working with around the wood — do you have a rough estimate about how many people were involved?
Chad Rittenberry: With the firewood, I had probably that the most I would say three dozen people that I knew personally or just knew from me being here. And then once I moved to Austin Mutual Aid, from my understanding, there is probably about like a dozen corps members doing different things. Then they had a lot of volunteers come in, so I have no idea of that. But as far as Austin Needs Water, which is what I directly jumped into, there was a core group of six people. And then we pretty much had a roster list of volunteers and friends that we would just say, like, hey, we’re doing this. Do you have time? You got a truck? You got a trailer? You know how to do things — can you lend your time?
People would volunteer and like, they would just have a truck and then we would put a tank in the back of the truck. And how this all started out was like, we would just take the big cube and fill it up with water, and then they would go to an apartment complex or low income neighborhood community, and then they would just stand there and wait, you know, wait for them to go and knock on all the doors and be like, hey, we got water, we know your water is off. And then they would just invite people to bring their own containers or buckets or bottles or whatever they had to take water back to their apartment.
Tom Llewellyn: So it seems like you had this shift. It seems like energy built over time. You were talking about how you were kind of iterating as you went how best to serve when needs were changing. But then also how then you were fulfilling those needs changed. And one of the things that, as I was watching from the outside that I thought was really interesting is, once the municipal water came back on was how you utilized all the fire hydrants and started to, as a result partner more closely with the city of Austin. And I’m wondering if you can just kind of talk a little bit about how you were able to build that relationship or what relationships you built off of to be able to work with the city and what you were able to do actually in utilizing the city infrastructure.
Chad Rittenberry: So the other members of our group, one was actually a chemist with Austin Water, so she directly works with the city. So she was our liaison with Austin Water. So we would get updates from her and then also we would talk to her about like, are we doing this safe? Are we doing this right? Is this the right thing to do? The other person we were in partners with was a guy named Bob Nicks. He is the president of the Austin Firefighters Association, and he was allowing us to utilize his union hall to run our operations out of — which was a great place because it was big and we had all kinds of things. We had fire hoses and, you know, we just don’t have any fire trucks, it just it was just a union hall, more of like an office space. But since he is an ex fireman in charge of the firefighters union, he has all the connections with the city and obviously all the firefighters and and the president of the Austin firefighters. So he started dreaming up some different ideas and scenarios. So Austin’s water supply started coming back online and we had boil notices for a number of days, because when water breaks, you know, you have to boil until it get fixed because of the crap in the pipes.
Tom Llewellyn: Bacteria getting into the pipes when the pipes have broken.
Chad Rittenberry: Right. So, I mean, I don’t know how well known that is. But yeah, so we had a boil notice, but then there was a time where this one area that a friend of mine owns an art gallery. And this guy, this guy, I’ve known this guy for a few years and he’s got a big truck with a huge crane on it and a big trailer. And he just happened to be in the right spot where we had this big, huge, massive parking lot, to hook up one of Bob’s, the fire guy, one of Bob’s hoses to a fire hydrant that was nearby. And the boil notice went down on that spot, that area…
Oh, well, let me pull back just a little bit, because when the boil notice was happening and when we did not have water, we were really adamant about giving out bulk water and have it drinkable. We didn’t want to go to that one spot where you have to boil water. So first off, like when we got all these tanks, these forty three, we pressure washed them and washed them out extra, but we realized, well, why don’t we contact breweries? Because breweries, they have these big, massive water tanks that they purify already Austin City water before this storm. And so they already had water stored there. So like we started filling up water during the boil notice and delivering water to all these communities, and like, you could drink this. You could cook, you could use your toilets, all these things.
So then when the boil notice lifted, that’s when we moved to that one location. And this is like four or five days after the freeze. So then we started hooking up the fire hose, and we started getting more tanks and we started like having these just, pin cycle of operations of people giving water out to people that coming back, filling up, giving out water to people, and coming back and filling up. So and then we started like getting donations of buckets and empty one gallon jugs, and we started like thinking outside the box. We were going in like Home Depot and Lowe’s to see if we can get donations of just buckets. And we were trying to figure out all kinds of little water vessels that people can utilize to carry back into their places.
Because Tom, we were literally like serving tens of thousands of people a day. We had about 10 to 20 thousand gallons, it seems like, that went out that day just by us calculating how many tanks that went out and how full they were and how many trucks that went out. And so with that, another team member is pretty much the director of Austin’s Water. His name is Romteen Farasat. He’s a very young guy, twenty-four, very into community organizing. And he was also a part of the Black Lives Matter protest. But he was the campaign manager for our city council member, Greg Casar. So he and him are very good friends. So when there is issues or something that was happening, that was pretty much our direct contact was through Romteen and Greg.
So, and this is really interesting to me because, it seemed like our city, our city manager, our mayor, our city council members, they were all just kind of like, oh, the water is back on, we’re going to be okay, the boil notice is up. Everything’s fine. No, no, not at all. There’s thousands of people that are past the main water lines that have busted pipes, especially the apartment complexes. So that right there just like really shows you the disconnect of what it’s like to be in an elected official seat and the community that they represent. And it became very disheartening that I would go up to Romteen and be lilke, Romteen, what is going on with our city right now? Like, when are they going to take the reins? Or when is FEMA going to be here to help us? When is the bigwig supposed to help us? We’re just a bunch of dudes that like to help people, we’re all volunteering right now, you know?
The same thing with the EOC. You know, the EOC is the Emergency Operations Center, and these are the people that are supposed to be servicing Travis County, which is the county that Austin resides in. They’re supposed to work on emergency things. And it wasn’t until a week, a week in a few days until they were like, oh, hey, Ginger and Chad and Romteen, we have these 60 extra potable water cubes that we forgot about. They’re just sitting at this facility that’s like ten miles away from you right now that we could be dispatching. And I was like, what? Why is it taking so long for you guys to give us this information? Yeah. So that blew me away of how slow everything was happening with the city. And the city just leaned on us, like really like leaned on us. And all the city council members were like, you guys are saving us. There’s a lot to talk about.
Tom Llewellyn: So like you’re saying, something different should have happened. Even if you all hadn’t stepped up, and not even — doesn’t sound like it was a huge group of people, hadn’t stepped up to support the thousands and thousands of people that were needing that support, what would have happened? How many more people would have passed away? I mean, and already across the state of Texas, fifty-seven people died, or were documented having died, from hypothermia. Most likely that number is much higher because of the undocumented population. There was twelve million people across Texas which were facing those boil notices that weren’t able to drink their water straight out of their tap. So there was a huge need. We’re just talking about Austin right now is the response. But there were similar responses in Houston, Texas, in Dallas and other mutual aid groups. And so we’re just focusing on one. But the need across the state for that type of coordination moving forward is is also really important.
And again, we haven’t really gone into this very much, but I’ve known Chad for a long time and we’ve done festival production in the past and projects together. And so we have to be friends on Facebook, so I was following a lot of this work. And at a certain point in time, you did start to get some extra support, not only just from the city, but from the state government as well. And I’m wondering if you can kind of talk about what happened there and just that process of working with the state.
Chad Rittenberry: Sure. So once we started really developing a relationship with city council and the manager and stuff like that, and EOC, they really realized that we are the organization that’s really saving Austin. And even the outer communities, like other towns — we’re like a municipality of other towns that are really close by, like there’s Pflugerville and there is Noe Valley, and so we were also providing aid to those people as well.
The EOC (Emergency Operations Command) also was like really leaning on us. They were giving these 45 National Guardsmen, and they didn’t know what to do with them. Because obviously their emergency operations was operating very well. But so even the city manager was like, well, here, would you like these National Guardsmen? So we decided to actually utilize them in the best manner as possible. The first question we asked was, can we get them in civilian clothing? Because since we’re in a pandemic, we’re in a crisis of a pandemic, then we’re in a crisis of like power, people’s electrical power is out, then another crisis of water, and we’re in a crisis to top of a crisis on top of a crisis, on top of a crisis.
And the last thing that we wanted was some military looking dudes come over and just going into these poor communities — and some of these people are probably not legal, or have green cards or whatever. So we didn’t want to scare people. Unfortunately, we were not successful in getting that to happen. So they still had to be in their National Guard uniforms. Yeah. So then Ginger, which was the liaison of Austin Water, she was also part of our volunteer street medics, which we started the volunteer street medics here in Austin, just thinking that we’re going to pass out bandaids and masks and stuff like that out to…
Tom Llewellyn: And how long ago was that?
Chad Rittenberry: Oh, that was in May of last year. So, after George Floyd got murdered in Minnesota and protests were happening all over the world, as everybody knows. And then with Austin, like a group of us Burners decided to go downtown for the first protest and we’re like, oh, we’re just going to tape crosses on us and wear pink shirts and just help people where we can with the things that we already help people at festivals with when there is some kind of incident.
Tom Llewellyn: And just for clarification, by burners you mean folks that are associated with Burning Man.
Chad Rittenberry: Oh, yes. Thank you. Yeah. So, yeah, there’s a whole Burning Man community here in Austin and we have a big regional burn called FlipSside. And we’re very close knit friends and we all help each other out and we help each other past our bubble of friends, of course, because that’s what we do anyway. So we had these pink vests because we didn’t want to get shot at by the police during the protests. We wanted the police to know that we’re friendly and we’re helping people. But we had this pink vests on hand, so Ginger was like, well, let’s use the pink vest and we can make them all wear pink vest when they’re going out and about…
Tom Llewellyn: All of the National Guardsmen?
Chad Rittenberry: Sorry, the National Guardsmen, yeah, I’m trying to explain why we have the pink vests, which I think is a great story of us, you know, supporting Black Lives Matter protests by medical situations. And then we moved on to those pink vests, putting them on National Guardsmen. So we basically got 30 National Guardsmen and women — I don’t know where the other 15 went to, but we had them for a week is what we were told. So we found out about this the night before we were supposed to get them. I was already starting to pull back because I was tired, I was spent, I was like, I did a week’s worth of firewood, and then it was like a week and a half of water. And then everything started running really well and I wasn’t needed as much because of my friends were kept going with their trucks and trailers.
Tom Llewellyn: The system was in place.
Chad Rittenberry: Exactly.
Tom Llewellyn: And at this point in time, I mean, you’d been working 16, 18 hour days for two or three weeks in a row at this point.
Chad Rittenberry: Yes, I was working 12, 18 hour days, every day literally for two and a half weeks, basically. So I wanted to break and I took a day and a half and then Romteen contacted me and was like, Chad, I need you. We’re getting National Guardsmen tomorrow. I want to talk this out. I want to figure out what we could do. What can we do? So, we basically figured out a plan and like lesson 12, 16 hours. So we decided that we’d use the National Guard to do phone banking, for one thing, try to call these apartment complexes. We started getting information also from 311, which is the non-emergency phone number that you can call instead of 911, which all the news programs are saying, like if you’re out of water in your apartment complex, just call the city, let us know. So we started getting that information. And then we were trying to do phone banking and other apartment complexes in poor communities. And so that’s one of the first things we got the National Guardsmen to do.
Sorry, I think I skipped ahead. Also, when we first got the National Guard, it was really interesting because they all stood in formation and then we had to tell them that well, thank you for helping us out. These are the things we’re going to have to do. But unfortunately, when you go out to the public you have to wear these pink vests. I know it’s not the most beautiful thing to be wearing and the most manliest thing to be wearing. But, we need you guys to do this because we don’t want you to be intimidating when you go to the public. Most of them are like, yes, okay, I get it. Some of them definitely rolled their eyes and they were not excited about it at all. But, you know what? We were in command. So it felt very empowering for us to able to tell the National Guard what to do.
But anyway, so we basically got them to do three different things. One was, like I said, the phone banking calling everybody. The other one was getting these box trucks that I got from U-Haul and sticking a couple of empty water cubes and also a number of pallets, and these plumbing apparatuses that I had a plumber friend of mine make that help distribute the water, and then also pallets of bottled water that were given through FEMA shipments, flying every day, multiple times a day of bottled water. So we had these ten box trucks and they would basically just go drop off these water cubes that would be on top of pallets so they’d be higher and easier to get to, accessible. People would utilize that bulk water for cooking and toilets and then obviously the bottled water for drinking. And so we had a hundred and thirty something different locations that we were servicing. And these National Guardsmen, we dispatched them to 60 different locations while we had them. And these tent trucks would drop off — I think we did 20 a day for three days. And then they were followed behind by an 18 wheeler potable water tanker truck, which I think they call it a water buffalo, I guess is the terminology.
Tom Llewellyn: And was that provided by the state government?
Chad Rittenberry: Oh, no, that was by the city. So, obviously the city works with state and like things start getting mixed around, whatever. So the city started really leaning on us and like we basically had access to everything in the city at this point. Again, this is like a week and a half into our water operations. And yeah, so we had them for eight days, the National Guard, and we had them doing all kinds of stuff. After probably about the third or fourth day, we were starting to feel a lot of resistance. We actually started getting pictures of some of the community members of seeing the National Guardsmen without their their vests on. We got also some reports of them dumping water in places that were just taken from in front of someone’s yard or lawn or whatever.
But the problem was because we were getting information from 311 saying that these are apartment complexes or communities or whatever, so we just took the word for it and then we just put it on our list. So as far as us not having a big manpower in our small core group of our operations, we couldn’t validate everything. And we just assumed the things that we were getting from the city was incorrect. We had so many assumptions that the city would do the right thing. It seemed like that was not the case, day in and day out, it seemed like.
What’s really interesting for me is that I never saw the faces of these people that were in need. I saw pictures and I’ve heard millions of stories from my drivers and my friends from the firewood to the water, I was always in one place most often. Always on the phone, always on my computer, always organizing people right then and there, like truck drivers or volunteers and things like that, National Guardsmen. So having that kind of perspective is really interesting to me. I’m more of a hands on face to face, help directly kind of thing. So having this world is different.
Tom Llewellyn: You touched on your experience. You were doing festival production, that’s how we met each other, through the Sustainable Living Roadshow show. You also touched on the local Burning Man community. You talked about the experience ahead of time the year before around Black Lives Matter protests. And so that it seems like one of the things that contributed to the speed that you were able to start doing the work that you were doing was one, there was no legal barriers. You didn’t have an entity, you weren’t dealing with insurance or having to navigate any of those things. You just got started, and you started small. You said, hey, this is a resource that I have here is a community of people I’m connected to. I’m going to put it out there and see who I can support. And then it kind of started to build from there. But it also seems like in those relationships that you have been building locally were really key to being as effective as you were. To being able to coordinate so much so quickly. Which also makes you think, well, if the city has all these relationships and these institutions that should be linked as well. But I’m wondering if you can kind of just reflect on the different types of skills, festival production being one of them, that you felt like were immediately translatable to this type of disaster response?
Chad Rittenberry: The skills I’ve developed through the 15 plus years of working on some level of either volunteering or working in production or logistics or in charge of a certain department, when I’ve been in charge of those departments, depending on what it is, because every festival has me doing different things. And when you are working festivals, you are doing pretty much everything, you don’t just stick with one narrow viewpoint of your operations. There’s a bleed over all the time. And also realizing, like when I’m working is of all is, we are literally building a city, a temporary city. And we have to have all of our infrastructure in a week’s time or less. And then we support the community during the festival time and then we break it all down afterwards. So in a lot of ways those learning experiences, being able for me to jump on to a problem very quickly when there is one and knowing how to fix it or put out the fire, in a manner of speaking, is something I’ve been very used to.
And then as far as the people here that helped me out, I’ve known them for years, as I’ve known you for years. And they’ve either worked with me directly with festivals or volunteered with me with festivals or they’ve seen my work. And when I work or when I quote unquote lead, I’m a more of a we an us type of person. I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m more like, this is my idea. What do you think about it? Or like, how could you help me kind of make this into a solution? And maybe that type of mentality has like really helped me become a leader at festivals or someone that is easy going to work with or why my volunteers that I have — I don’t even like calling them volunteers. It’s like they’re my team, they’re my pod, and why I’ve been so successful in my departments. So for me to jump in and see the problem and I could you know, go through the steps of fixing the problem, it wasn’t very difficult. It was something that I’ve already kind of been doing as far as I’ve been living here, where I live.
And one more thing is, so yes, I’m a big environmentalist, as you know. I have solar and backup generators and me working festivals, I’m always kind of prepared for something. And me building things and homes and big, huge, massive art pieces, using heavy equipment, I have developed skills and talents. And I don’t really consider myself a prepper, per se, I just love the lifestyle of living a little bit more off the grid or like a little bit more sustainably. I never dreamt of getting a big, massive house and just being always in climate control, you know? So anyway, so I think that kind of lifestyle that I’ve chosen has also really helped me jump into crisis modes really easily.
Tom Llewellyn: Yeah, I think that’s one of the reasons why what I was trying to go towards also is that, you touched on this in the beginning, where a lot of people when a disaster happens or some sort of a crisis, they expect that the government agencies are going to come through. And to a certain extent, they’re able to step back and not take a certain amount of personal responsibility. And again, it’s a very privileged position to be able to take care of others and even sometimes take care of oneself in these moments when disaster happens. And I don’t mean to say that everybody should be able to have self-reliance in the same way, and unfortunately, our economic system, our social systems are not set up. There’s structural inequalities which are exacerbated during these disasters. And we see this again and again. And so there is a certain amount of privilege that you have to be able to respond in this way. To not have to just worry about your own food safety and shelter and be able to then start working in wider circles, as we were saying. And at the same time, there are a lot of people that do have that privilege, whether they see that or not. And sometimes it’s it’s hard to see ourselves in the work or see where our own personal skills translate or our own personal resources can play a role.
And as you mentioned, it was a lot of people just coming over and doing labor and helping to cut down the trees and move firewood by hand, using their vehicles and finding a way to contribute and support others in this moment of crisis. And then continuing as you moved on to working on water, figuring out, hey, these are people, you know, you can get on the phone, you can do that type of despatching work. You can call and verify whether or not resources are needed in one place or another. You could have had more people that were working, and and it takes a whole lot of skills that people already have to respond in these moments. And really what it does is it takes a certain amount of central communication to be able to do that in concert. And one of the things that I see in covering disasters and having these conversations is just how important it is for our city, state and federal governments to work with local organizations and organizers, even if it’s informal, local communities in these moments, and to be able to see people within their own communities as being the experts about what’s needed, when possible in that community and funneling those resources through them.
Tom Llewellyn: And it seems like a certain amount of that happened over time, pretty slowly with your work in Austin, a lot slower than it could have and sounds like should have happened. But it’s having case studies like this are really important to then be able to convey to municipalities to be able to show, hey, yes, this does work. It is needed for you to work with the community and just kind of coming in and dropping off resources and leaving or dictating how those resources are dispatched can have harmful relationships. And it sounds like you were being especially mindful about that with the National Guard, saying, hey, we’ve got to be careful about what communities we send them to and how they go there. It’s not just undocumented communities. There’s a history of communities being marginalized by the military and not being comfortable and being fearful for good reason, and as you saw during the Black Lives Matter protests. And so it is something that’s really tricky, making the decision how you work and how you take those resources or not because it will impact the populations that you can serve as a result.
Chad Rittenberry: Yeah, I mean, we were worried about every community, especially with the National Guard and especially the people of color, any people of color. Since we were servicing the forgotten community, which is mostly poor people of color, even the elderly community, we were just so nervous about dispatching the National Guard to those guys. And as you were saying before that was the disconnect of the city jumping in to do something and having these other organizations jumping in quicker than they can. And there is that disconnect. And like you said, like it’s every crisis. I don’t know if it’s something that the state, national, city government already knows about and that’s why they don’t do anything — they wait for the community members to jump up.
I don’t understand I mean, it’s like, okay, when Katrina hit, Katrina hit while people are at Burning Man. And then all of a sudden there was a big shout out to everybody, the 70,000 people that were Burning Man in 2005. And then there is a big, huge community that go to Burning Man from New Orleans. And they all got together at Burning Man and were like, we’re going to start helping people immediately. So since Burning Man is so massive and so much stuff is shipped there from food, water and shelter and tents and stuff like that, when every single person left, people were donating their tents, people were donating their RVs, people were donating their stockpile of food and water to ship all the way back from Nevada to come down to the coast. And that’s when Burners Without Borders started. And that happened directly after Katrina hit. And then FEMA started asking Burners Without Borders, how did you guys do this, all this operation so quickly to get people all the stuff so quickly?
Chad Rittenberry: And I think that that right there just shows you why do we have these government organizations that take so long to either cut through the red tape or figure out the liability and the insurance or whatever, just for them just to get their start helping people? I don’t understand what the disconnect is. But as far us as an organization with Austin Needs Water, we want to be an organization that is on standby, a crisis, community, resilient organization on standby that’s going to be serving in central Texas or just Austin or just other towns.
And we want to present ourselves to the city. We want to testify to city council of our experiences, of our operations, what worked, what didn’t. We might do in public forum, we might do it just behind closed doors. We’re not really sure yet, since we already have such a strong connection. We want to figure out how we can bridge this gap. We want to get their trust enough where when this next disaster happened, it could be, a huge, massive, crazy heat wave this summer, and like there could be fires — I don’t know what’s going to happen. But we definitely will want to be there on standby. And I think having these types of community resilience type of ideas and organizations and groups in like every town in the US, and once we start realizing that we have more power than the government as a community, then I think we’d be able to respond much better to disasters, crises, way better than any kind of governmental department.
Tom Llewellyn: And I think when you recognize your power, it’s not just recognizing the community power and agency in those crises in the moment, but like you’re saying, it’s afterwards. And what we see is these kind of more cohesive, organized communities are in a better position to advocate for the resources that they need following a disaster. To be able to rebuild in a just and sustainable way. And so it definitely takes building and reinforcing those relationships inside the community to be able to advocate for what’s necessary after this. And it’s great to hear that that is where you’re going with the city and building this into an organization that will be ready, and it sounds like probably continuing to work in concert with other existing organizations like Austin Mutual Aid.
Chad Rittenberry Sure. There’s a lot of different organizations that help the community. And we want to get involved with all the communications. But basically what I see this as is having some kind of program or some kind of organizational structure that is with all these different nonprofit organizations that are helping out the city and our community in multiple different levels, in many different ways, that we can all find a way to have liaisons with each other or have some kind of program that we can be looking at what the city has available for us or another different organizations or whatever. We really need to, like, bridge that divide of these different organizations. And I think that that is something that we all need to be working on, especially when it comes to these crises. These environmental disasters keep increasing in severity and in numbers around the world. And I think that this is essential for every town and city to do because it’s just going to get worse.
Tom Llewellyn: Yeah, well, I really appreciate you sharing the story and sharing this is as a case study, as you were saying, it’s a kind of a complex but very interesting response to a single disaster. And yet it is just a model for the type of response that will be necessary for many other different disasters, which are unfortunately coming down the pike. And so it sounds like you’re learning lessons for yourself, and the community is learning deep lessons as well. And hopefully the city and the state will take heed and listen to your experiences and change their operations moving forward to be better prepared as well.
Chad Rittenberry: I sure hope so. That’d be nice. I also want to learn what they have done, because I’m only coming at this at one side. I’ve only seen this is my viewpoint. Since I’ve heard all the stories in all the work that I’ve done and all the people that I’ve helped, I’ve gotten really emotional about it. And I feel like that I’m still recovering from all the stresses and tragedies that we had. So, I mean, I’m just still kind of coping with what we did. And a lot of friends of mine are like calling me a hero, a lot of friends of mine just think I’m the bee’s knees for for doing what I did. And I appreciate that. I think it’s great. I don’t really consider myself a hero, I just jumped in and started helping. I think it’s funny that a lot of my friends say I should run for office, which I think is is funny. I’m not in politics. But apparently a lot of people that do run for politics have never been politicians. So I’m not saying I’m going to do that, I just think it’s flattering. But I’d rather be supporting the city and figuring out how to make this better and easier for all of us next time.
Tom Llewellyn: Yeah, and the world doesn’t — need yes, politics are important, and having the right people in those positions can be incredibly important. It can be the difference between life and death. And at the same time, there’s a lot of other roles which are just as necessary, if not more necessary, as you have come to know first hand.
Chad Rittenberry: Yeah, that’s true. It’s been a great learning experience, that’s for sure.
Tom Llewellyn: Well, I want to thank you for for sharing your story and diving into this.
Chad Rittenberry: Thanks, Tom. Thanks for having me.
Tom Llewellyn: Since recording this conversation in early April, the city of Austin has developed a task force to host a series of listening sessions so individuals and organizational representatives can share information, experiences and recommendations related to the winter storm and resulting crises. Chad and others who were actively involved in mutual aid following the storm are currently helping the task force gather data for their report. In order to be better prepared and resourced when the next disaster strikes, Austin Needs Water is working to become an official non-profit disaster organization for Travis County.
They’re also continuing to support many of the unhoused communities and offering general assistance to the thousands of people who are currently being displaced by a new anti-camping bill just passed into law by a majority of voters. The sweeping regulation will make it illegal to camp, sit or panhandle in many areas around the city, with threats of fines and even jail time for noncompliance. This, of course, happening while we’re still in the middle of the pandemic.
The Response is executive produced and hosted by me, Tom Llewellyn. Our series producer is Robert Raymond, and our theme music was provided by Cultivate Beets. This is a product of Shareable.net, an award-winning nonprofit media outlet, action network, and consultancy promoting people-powered solutions for the common good. Support for this project has been provided by the Shift in Guerrilla Foundations, Platform OS, and tax-deductible donations from listeners like you. We’re continuing to offer our film The Response: How Puerto Ricans Are Restoring Power to the People, and other resources, to communities interested in hosting convenings to discuss how to increase their resilience. Please send an email to [email protected] if you’re interested in learning more. That’s it for today’s show. We’ll be back in a few weeks with a new episode. Please hit subscribe where ever you get your podcasts to hear more stories and discussions like this. Until next time, take care of each other.
Teaser photo credit: An intersection in Austin flooded because of broken plumbing. By Jno.skinner – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=100196970