By William Melhado, The Texas Tribune
“Chainsaws and dry socks: Austinites step up for neighbors during ice storm” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.
AUSTIN — The distant whine of chainsaws pierced the nonstop plops of ice falling from hanging tree branches as friends and neighbors dragged limbs across lawns, tossing them into wet piles along the streets of Balcones Woods.
The collective effort to move debris off roofs and from backyards demonstrates the mutual aid that residents say is characteristic of this Northwest Austin neighborhood.
“This is the best little neighborhood in Austin,” said Eric Calder, a resident for almost two decades who spent the last two days coordinating a warming shelter and helping neighbors remove branches from their roofs amid temperatures in the high 30s.
Practically the whole neighborhood, which encompasses about 500 homes, has been out of power since 5 a.m. Tuesday, Calder said. Home prices in Balcones Woods hover just above the median for the city, which is $525,250.
Dressed in a brown beanie and a tan Carhartt work jacket, Calder had just finished dissecting a tree branch from Aaron Nightingale’s backyard with a borrowed chainsaw.
Nightingale and his wife bought their house in Balcones Woods, now surrounded by downed trees, during the 2021 winter storm, the irony of which doesn’t escape him.
“It may be a little too full circle,” Nightingale said, gazing up at his punctured roof.
Calder was just one of many in the neighborhood helping their fellow community members pick up from the storm, bracing for likely another night without power, another day with kids home from school, anxiously listening for more branches to fall. With downed power lines wreaking havoc across the city and no clear estimate when electricity will be restored, neighbors stepped up to help where they could.
While working, a nut on the chainsaw came loose and fell off, leaving Calder and his 14-year-old son Thomas Calder with only a pole saw left to cut the fallen branches. The useless chainsaw, lying dead on the truck’s tailgate, didn’t stop the father and son’s effort to help their neighbors after the deluge of the storm had passed.
Trees cracked under the weight of accumulated ice after multiple days of freezing rain, which transformed parts of the Texas Hill Country into a chaotic scene of splintered wood.
Marilyn Butler said that massive limbs from a heritage tree, which she estimated to be over 400 years old, came crashing down in her backyard on Wednesday, taking out part of her fence with it.
“This guy just came through with his chainsaw and cleared it all out,” Butler said while she waited for her phone to charge in the Balcones Woods community center, which had been transformed into an ad hoc warming shelter by the hum of a generator. “That’s the kind of thing that neighbors do here.”
Damaged homes and outages presented challenges for Austinites with homes, but for neighbors without access to reliable shelter, the ice storm has been much more dangerous.
Sasha Rose, the organizing director for Austin Mutual Aid, said many residents of the city who do not have homes have been pushed further into the woods since Austin voters chose to reimpose the camping ban in 2022, forcing people to stay out of sight of police officers.
Falling trees pose a much bigger risk to people in tents than to those with a roof over their heads. Rose said she’s heard of limbs falling on people.
She criticized the city’s lack of effort to set up sufficient shelters in time for the ice storm, particularly for families.
“This was the trial run and we fucking failed; we flunked,” Rose said. “There’s no way that we would have been able to handle the amount of unsheltered people that are still out there.”
With partners, Rose and her team at AMA helped put 30 people, mostly families, in hotels around the city. But with limited resources, Austin Mutual Aid can provide only so much support to the unhoused community in the city.
One way they’ve been able to have a wider reach, Rose said, is through their mobile warming station, a 30-foot RV that’s been outfitted to tend to the more immediate needs of some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
“We go and check on people and we bring them inside, let them warm up for a minute, give them some supplies, dry socks, warm food, fill up their bellies and just check in on them,” Rose said.
Rose said that another day of subfreezing temperatures would have had devastating effects on the community. Temperatures are expected to hover around freezing Thursday evening and get into the 50s on Friday.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/02/03/austin-texas-winter-storm-2023-chainsaws/.
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