“Hunting for warm places to go”: Austinites cope as outages linger
By William Melhado and Samantha Aguilar, The Texas Tribune
““Hunting for warm places to go”: Austinites cope as outages linger” 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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AUSTIN — Haggard families looking for a distraction from still-dark homes found refuge Saturday morning at the Central Library downtown, where Jennifer Parker and Justin Havird watched their two small children playing with Legos and crayons in the welcoming warmth.
Arlo and Vernon, ages 5 and 2, had been without electricity in their Austin home for three days, leaving their frazzled parents searching for an escape.
“We woke up and started hunting for warm places to go,” Havird said. The day started with a trip to Whole Foods for breakfast, then a playground stop to give the kids some exercise time outside, and finally a library visit for another distraction.
Although crews were steadily reconnecting customers Saturday, there were still more than 66,000 homes and businesses without power by late afternoon after a midweek ice storm wrought chaos on the city’s electrical system.
The unlucky spent the day tossing out hundreds of dollars of spoiled groceries, wishing for hot showers and even burying pet fish that perished. Parker and Havird, and other families with children, had just spent most of the week struggling to entertain kids with schools closed and limited options.
“Our house is quite a wreck, there’s takeout containers everywhere,” Parker said, though for Arlo eating takeout for the past few days was the best part of not having power.
Though fatigued, Parker and Havird are veterans when it comes to surviving outages. When the 2021 freeze forced the family from their home, Vernon was an infant as they sought shelter in Havird’s University of Texas office.
Breastfeeding without a working refrigerator added a level of complexity that both parents were grateful to avoid this time around.
Line crews grapple a heavy workload
Half of an oak tree, cleaved down the middle, lay in the front yard of a ranch-style home in a North Austin neighborhood as Austin Energy workers in neon yellow safety vests clearing branches and preparing to re-energize a power line.
Saturday’s blue skies and gentle breeze belied the nasty winter conditions that covered Austin’s millions of trees in a thick coat of ice that brought limbs down on power lines, severing families from light and heat.
The burden of restoring electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes across the city has fallen to crews working throughout the night to assess each outage and make the necessary repairs. Knowing that families had spent up to four days without power, crews worked as quickly as possible under the weight of community expectations.
Forrest Gifford, an electrical distribution crew leader with Austin Energy, said the ice storm produced the most catastrophic damage he’d seen in his 15-year career. Downed trees, live wires and other hazards made the work extremely slow-going and difficult, Gifford said.
With the prospect of many more miles of power line to inspect and repair, the long hours were taking a toll.
“We’re a tight-knit group of guys, and making sure we’re safe…” Gifford said, his voice catching as he reflected on the 16- to 18-hour days before continuing. “We try to take care of each other on the job and off the job, and our families are important to us.”
Austinites have expressed growing frustration over the city’s lack of communication and the pace of power restoration. Austin’s extensive tree canopy, normally a source of pride, turned against homeowners when ice accumulation resulted in more damage than the city-owned utility anticipated.
But the exasperation residents felt for the city’s response did not extend to crew’s efforts Saturday.
Gifford and his fellow line workers were greeted with donuts and thank-yous from grateful neighbors who stopped to watch the work.
Relying on the kindness of neighbors
P. D. Perry Jr., 79, reunited with his niece on his front lawn Saturday afternoon after almost four days without communication with his family.
The retired custodian lives alone in South Austin and said family members across the country had been trying to call since Wednesday, when his home lost power and his cellphone died. Finally, they sent Perry’s niece to check on him.
Perry said his neighbors have been making sure he’s OK, distributing Jimmy John’s sandwiches to residents on the block and going on joint H-E-B runs to restock spoiled groceries.
Despite the generosity of his neighbors, Perry said he’s been short on food the past few days, relying mainly on cold cuts. He said he’s disappointed in the city for letting power outages last so long.
“The only thing I have is water,” Perry said. “No one should have to go through this.”
Happily, staying busy without electricity hasn’t been a problem for Perry. He said he’s been reading the newspaper every day and only ran out of things to do Wednesday, when the Austin American-Statesman wasn’t able to be delivered to his home.
Stately trees took the brunt of the ice storm
Blankets and sheets once used to protect the Taylor family’s outdoor plants from the ice — to varying degrees of success — were draped along their chain-link fence as the family of three wrapped up a day of yard work and tree cleanup.
Navvab Taylor said it was heartbreaking to see the more than 200-year-old trees fall in their front and back yards.
“At night when everything is frozen you just hear them like crash down,” she said, taking a break from lining up tree limbs and branches along the curb.
Taylor said she and her husband, Aaron, got creative coming up with ways to keep their 11-year-old son, Leo, busy when school was canceled for most of the week. Their days consisted of practicing ukulele, doing puzzles and visiting Navvab’s office to charge up their electronics.
“It’s exciting to have one day off of school,” Taylor said. “But when it’s Thursday, Friday, and now we don’t know if there’s school on Monday, it starts to get tiring for everybody.”
Even so, the family feels lucky to have been prepared before the storm started, Taylor said. They stocked up on gallons of water, hand warmers and battery-powered reading lamps that they also shared with neighbors.
The storm, she said, put things into perspective for her family.
“You don’t realize how much you rely on power and internet until you don’t have it,” Taylor said. “When you think about people in other parts of the world who have been without heat and power for months, you realize, oh, this is nothing.”
Lost groceries means lost money
Sitting in the cold living room of his South Austin home, Robert Louvet packed two coolers full of perishable food to take to his son’s home before it spoils. It was too late for other food that went bad in his refrigerator after four days without power.
“The city’s not going to pay me for my groceries,” Louvet said, frustrated. “That’s going to come out of my Social Security.”
Louvet said he and his wife didn’t have trouble staying entertained throughout the power outage. Although their living room is lined with hundreds of movies on DVD — the collection is rivaled only by the couple’s home library — they spent the week reading in the house they’ve owned for more than 35 years.
The low temperatures didn’t faze them much, Louvet said. “We’re used to it being a little bit nippy.” Their home was built in 1952, and although it lacks some of the insulation of newer houses nearby, Louvet said they love their gas-powered, older home, which kept them safe in the storm.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/02/04/austin-power-outages-families-struggle/.
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