City, County Issue Disaster Declaration, Seek Federal Funds for Cleanup to Come

Food Bank will be at two Eastside locations tomorrow

Photo by John Anderson

Headed into the weekend, Austin Energy’s outage map shows 109,000 customers still without power, but in a press conference Friday afternoon, AE VP of Field Operations Elton Richards said “today was a really good day.”

Even though only 10,000 households had their power restored since Friday morning, yesterday there were 64 full circuits down, and today it’s 39 – “we almost cut that in half.” Richards explained that even though the ice is gone, trees are weakened and more are likely to come down, further stalling restoration efforts. Because there’s no way to know the severity of each call until crews are deployed, there’s still no firm timeline for when all residents will have power restored: “I would rather wait and get you something you can believe, than just throw something out." Priority for restoration continues to be 1) “critical loads” like hospitals and EMS stations that are registered with Austin Energy, 2) outages affecting the largest number of customers, and 3) those that have been out for the longest periods of time.

Richards expanded upon AE’s timeline of preparedness, saying Tuesday night at 8pm, an incident command had been set up. At midnight there were no outages; by 4am a quarter inch of ice had formed, at 8am Wednesday, mutual aid crews were requested. “We didn't get blindsided, we do prepare for you guys. We got the crews here as fast as we could.” More than 100 AE crews and 150 mutual-aid crews from nearby utilities are currently deployed; 50 more arrive tomorrow.

The death toll from the storm is still unknown, but Austin/Travis County EMS Chief Robert Luckritz says there is at least one confirmed traffic fatality from the first night of the freeze, and emergency calls due to collisions at broken traffic lights have increased fivefold; today EMS received 25% more calls than normal and has seen 50 collisions within the past 12 hours. City officials said the Austin Police Department does not have enough available officers to direct traffic at every intersection with broken lights; drivers should treat these as four-way stops.

Luckritz also stressed that since Friday morning, the number of carbon monoxide exposure calls has doubled. He urged people to “not use generators or grills in enclosed spaces, even if you have a window open. I cannot emphasize enough; carbon monoxide is a silent killer, you may not know that you've been exposed until it is too late."

The city has 29 crews clearing debris from roadways: 9 from Austin Resource Recovery, 15 from Public Works, 4 from Watershed Protection, and one from Parks. Texas Division of Emergency Management and Texas Forestry, as well as ARR contractors, will add another 15 crews by Monday. As of this afternoon, crews have responded to over 600 debris requests and currently have a backlog of over 500 requests. ARR and Public Works officials said the warming weather will help speed up the cleaning process.

At a press conference this afternoon, County Judge Andy Brown and Mayor Kirk Watson issued a disaster declaration for both Austin and Travis County, which will allow them to access federal funds for the remaining cleanup. Though Williamson County declared a disaster two days ago, and Hays earlier today, Brown said “you don’t have to do it on Day One” – he did not need to force evacuations and wanted to see the damage first. Having done so by road and helicopter, the county believes we’ve suffered more than the $5.7 billion threshold for a federal disaster: “Anytime you're dealing with federal funds, they have specific rules. So you have to be really careful with receipts.” Brown says the county’s Transportation and Natural Resources staff estimate it will take 3-4 months to clean up the damage, but that number may change.

Also this afternoon, Council Member Mackenzie Kelly called for an audit of Austin Energy’s response to this storm and the “adequacy and execution” of their vegetation management plan, in a resolution co-sponsored by CMs Ryan Alter, Chito Vela and José Velasquez. This afternoon, AE General Manager Jackie Sargent stressed that AE is only responsible for trimming trees and brush away from main lines; clearing those that go directly to houses are the homeowners’ responsibility.

For those that may have lost perishable food, there will be two distribution points of Central Texas Food Bank resources: One Saturday morning 9-11am at Onion Creek Soccer Complex, and another 1:30-3:30pm at Nelson Field. Despite videos circulating on social media that show people dumpster-diving for food H-E-B had to discard, Brown says demand for food was much higher during Winter Storm Uri two years ago, partly because the roads were impassable and the supply chain was interrupted. This time around, he said, “We'll see how much demand is there [tomorrow]. The food bank has a good backup of emergency boxes, and they seem confident that they could meet the need tomorrow.” Both Congressman Greg Casar and Lloyd Doggett have promised to help leverage federal funding, says Brown.

Sargent says progress is slow but marching on: “Maybe now it's three steps forward, two steps back. Before it was two steps forward, and three or four steps back. So things are improving. As we continue to see improvement in the daytime temperatures, that is going to help our restoration efforts.”

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