This morning at 9am, local elected officials and Austin Energy CEO Jackie Sargent held their first press conference on the ongoing ice storm that has left more than 150,000 Central Texas households without power, some for more than 24 hours now.
Travis County Judge Andy Brown wryly observed that it’s Groundhog Day, and that this feels an awful lot like where we were two years ago. But this storm is different. Sargent stressed that damage wrought by Winter Storm Uri, grave as it was, wasn't as widespread “across our entire service territory like this has been, from the northern part of San Antonio all the way up into northeast Texas.” Unlike 2021’s prolonged rolling blackouts as the state’s power grid operator struggled to avert catastrophe, this year’s outages are localized and caused by the heavy ice downing power lines and tree limbs.
Though Sargent says AE prepared ahead of time by trimming trees and vegetation, the storm brought more ice than anticipated, causing more damage to lines and also freezing AE’s equipment; it’s brought in help from other utilities. “The amount of weight that has accumulated on the vegetation is probably historic, extreme,” speculated Sargent. Indeed, this is actually the worst ice storm in Austin since 2007.
In an email to Council last night, Sargent wrote that crews had restored 72,000 customers since Wednesday morning, but because the storm continued and worsened on Wednesday, last night’s number of customers without power reached 162,000. “We don't want to be sending information that your power has been restored and then all of a sudden, it is no longer restored because [another outage] has occurred.”
AE’s outage-reporting system crashed on Wednesday but is back up now. It’s not quite caught up 100%, but if “a specific address isn't pinpointed, if there's a large outage that is near your residence or commercial business, then we have [it] captured within that data.” The system will be studied in the after action report to “ensure better performance in the future.”
Obvious questions arose about how to avoid this happening again. Vegetation management “is something that we're very focused on,” said Sargent, and over the past years AE has increased its budget for trimming and removing plants and trees that conflict with power lines. But obstacles remain, chief among them the cooperation of homeowners: “We could really use help in that area with getting our residents to understand the importance, to allow our crews in to get the vegetation management done.” As for burying our power lines and putting this behind us for good, Sargent said, “buried power lines have their own challenges. They're vulnerable to flooding, and it's more difficult to identify where the break in the power line is… so the outages that customers experience from a buried line are typically much longer than from overhead lines.”
Could we not have had more of this info, or at least heard something from local leaders, yesterday? Mayor Kirk Watson began, “A press conference like this should have happened before now. I will admit that I deferred to folks … that were experts in the area. But I am frustrated and I know others are frustrated. We ought to focus on the life and safety issues [now], and then we’ll come up with a new way to … answer the public's questions in a more rapid fashion.”
Sargent added, “Our communications team at Austin Energy have been available and have responded to every media request… We do citywide communications as a cooperative effort. And so with the direction from the city, we are here today.”Sargent said AE doesn’t know the cost of the damage yet, but that “at this time” there are no plans for another AE rate hike to pay for it. Trash and debris pickup will resume today, and residents can call 311 for help rather than moving downed limbs themselves. Cold Weather Shelters are still open, and Watson says the city will likely hold another press conference this afternoon or evening.
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