As freeze subsides, Austin’s efforts to restore power continue to lag
By Alex Nguyen, Alejandro Serrano and Samantha Aguilar, The Texas Tribune
“As freeze subsides, Austin’s efforts to restore power continue to lag” 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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When Austin officials updated the public on the city’s widespread power outages Thursday afternoon, they said they were hopeful that major progress was coming soon.
[Texas’ tech capital again fumbles digital communication amid a power crisis]
“I think what you’re going to see in the next 24 hours is a massive decline in the [affected] customer count,” Elton Richards, Austin Energy’s vice president of field operations, said at a Thursday afternoon press conference.
More than 107,000 homes and businesses in Austin remained without electricity at 6 p.m. Friday. That was down from a day before, when around 150,000 customers lacked power.
But as the sun set on a difficult week Friday, tens of thousands of Austin Energy customers faced the potential of spending the weekend in the dark, given the localized and complex issues crews faced in attempting to restore power across the city. At a Friday evening press conference, Richards said workers made significant progress given the wet working conditions, but he stopped short of providing residents an estimated time when their power would return.
“Until my crews see everything that’s out there, it’s hard for me to tell you when it’s going to be done. I would rather wait and give you something that you can believe,” Richards said.
This week’s ice storm brought hundreds of thousands of outages in Texas thanks to falling trees or ice accumulating on power lines, rather than grid issues like in 2021’s massive storm. At one point, more than 400,000 Texas homes and businesses were without power, though that figure had dropped to just under 215,000 by Friday afternoon, according to poweroutage.us.
Officials in Texas’ tech capital again said Friday that they couldn’t give a clear timeline when all the local outages will be fixed, despite initially promising full restoration by Friday evening. The city’s utility service said it had worked through the night to restore power to more than 30,000 customers.
“I don’t believe that the city has done what it needs to do in terms of communicating,” Mayor Kirk Watson said at a news conference Friday morning. “There are a number of things that can be put into place, including how we go about using technology that people are going to rely upon in order to provide them the information that they need. That has to change, and we will change that.”
Following the night of progress, Austin Energy general manager Jackie Sargent said officials were “cautiously optimistic that we have turned a point overnight” with fewer trees falling and thus decreasing the number of repeated outages.
“I know that this has been incredibly frustrating,” Sargent said. “When we have this widespread of impact it becomes really challenging to give estimates, and we need those patrollers out in the field giving information back.”
Sargent added, “We don’t have a way to get the information from the field to give accurate information, and we don’t want to set expectations that we can’t meet. And so until we have fewer outages that we’re managing and we have all of the information about what is impacting the particular outage because it could be a number of things, and we may identify one and if we report on that, it doesn’t have the full picture. That’s why this particular event has been so challenging for us, and we understand the frustration. We want to be able to tell people; we want to be able to give them that comfort.”
During the Friday evening update, Sargent noted that the storm might have damaged electrical infrastructure on homes that could require a private electrician to fix. Homeowners are responsible for maintaining their electrical system, which might have been damaged by falling debris, while Austin Electric will continue servicing the facilities that deliver electricity. The utility company released a graphic identifying which aspects of the electrical system a homeowner is responsible for.
In a previous press event on Thursday afternoon, Sargent added that Austin Energy utility crews — including some that have arrived from other areas to help — have had to handle many challenging outages including some more complex than those seen in 2021. Sometimes, Sargent noted, crews couldn’t even access an area due to fallen trees and branches buckling under a “probably historic” weight of ice buildup.
[Texas cities debate costly infrastructure investments in age of extreme weather]
Richards has noted that the time it requires for crews to fix outages varies. He said a simple situation such as a tree limb laying on a power line could require just around two hours to repair. But a fully grown tree falling on and breaking poles could more than quadruple the time needed for the crews to restore the connection.
He described the damages brought about by this year’s winter storm as “horrendous.”
“I’ve been doing this over 20-something years and I haven’t seen this much devastation outside of tornadoes up north,” he said Thursday.
The outages and debris caused many Central Texas school districts to close for the rest of the week. Even with temperatures climbing, the Austin, Round Rock, Eanes, Lake Travis, Leander and Elgin districts all canceled class Friday.
[Chainsaws and dry socks: Austinites step up for neighbors during ice storm]
The forecast called for drier and warmer conditions in the Austin area with expected highs in the low 60s in some areas Friday, according to the National Weather Service. Temperatures could dip below freezing again overnight into Saturday; however, lows for the next couple of days were predicted to slowly increase into the 50s by Tuesday.
Travis County and Austin city officials also said Friday that they will sign a disaster declaration following this week’s winter storm, in a bid to make funds from both the state and federal level available for recovery. The declaration will also allow the city and county to hire a third-party contractor to assist with debris removal.
Travis County Judge Andy Brown said the decision came after surveying the “broad extent of damage across the county today.”
Brown emphasized the declaration is just the first step in accessing federal funds. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s public assistance funds will be used to reimburse 75% of all expenses when a $5.7 million damage threshold is reached, which Brown said can be done in combination with neighboring counties.
Watson also announced the city will be creating an “after-action report” that he says will look at what else could have been done from the city level during the storm and be used to create an after-action plan. And Austin City Council member Mackenzie Kelly called for a comprehensive audit of Austin Energy’s response to the storm. The review would look into the city’s tree trimming practices and electric utility operations.
“During the February 2023 freeze, our community needed answers and didn’t receive them,” she said in a press release.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/02/03/austin-power-outages/.
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