Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground
Austin slowly thaws out from an unprecedented – but not entirely unexpected – disaster
By Wednesday night, most of Austin was dealing with four overlapping crises: the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the arrival of winter storms that brought the coldest weather in decades, the near collapse of the state electricity grid, and water system failures that forced a citywide boil water notice. Each of these helped make the others worse.
While COVID-19 infections have leveled off from the surges of previous weeks, area hospitals were nearly full before the storm hit. As the electric grid crisis forced nearly half of Austin into darkness and cold for three full days, residents dependent on power-driven medical equipment were forced to call 911 to be transported to hospitals. Many other Austinites required emergency medical care from exposure, falls, and traffic accidents.
Those whose lives were at risk from the cold turned to warming centers and cold weather shelters propped up by mutual aid organizations, faith communities, and local government, all of which had limited capacity due to COVID-19 distancing protocols. Then, on Wednesday night, Austin Water reported that the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant, its largest, had lost power, depressurizing the city's entire water system and prompting the boil water notice, which many residents could not receive or comply with in the absence of electricity. As well, an area of East Austin near Givens Park lost gas service Wednesday, which Texas Gas Service said would take several days to restore; this was the only major outage reported by the natural gas utility.
St. David's South Austin Medical Center and Dell Children's Medical Center both lost water pressure, and the former also began to lose heat from its steam boilers; both began to transfer high-need patients to other area facilities that themselves had limited capacity. As of Thursday morning, when power had been restored to most Austin residents, the city was being hit by another wave of snow and sleet, with normal temperatures not expected until Sunday, Feb. 21.
Although most of the Southern U.S. experienced winter storm conditions and record low temperatures beginning last Sunday night, Texas has been in a uniquely disastrous situation because most of the state is on a different electric grid than the rest of the continental U.S. The other 47 states are on the Eastern or Western Interconnection, with multiple operators; the Texas grid is operated by the state-chartered nonprofit Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT.
That grid has been separate from the national grids since the 1930s, and because it doesn't cross state lines (it does have limited connections to surrounding states and to Mexico), it's not subject to oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (which among other things mandates winterization standards for utilities) and it can't import power on a large scale from the other two U.S. grids. As of midday Thursday, ERCOT announced that it was able to allow all Texas utilities to restore power at least temporarily to customers.
Locally, 49,518 customers of Austin Energy – the ratepayer-owned utility that provides most Austinites and many other Central Texans with electricity – were still without power as of Thursday afternoon, just over 10% of all customers; at its worst, the power crisis had left more than 42% of AE users in the dark. On Thursday morning, ERCOT stopped ordering local utilities to shed load – that is, cut off power to customers to decrease energy demand while the supply catches up – although many users are still offline due to weather-related damage to power lines or in remote areas that require manual restoration of their circuits. Many of the state's largest industrial users are offline voluntarily while the grid continues to stabilize. A little more than 40,000 megawatts of generation remain "on forced outage due to this winter weather event," said ERCOT in a media release.
At a Thursday afternoon press conference, Austin Energy GM Jackie Sargent could not say when all of the utility's customers would have their power restored. It's possible that ERCOT may require more controlled outages to prevent the grid from completely shutting down, and AE crews are making their way through the city turning on power and clearing debris from the Wednesday night ice storm. "If we power everyone back up at the same time we'll overload the system and shut everything off," Sargent explained as the Chronicle was going to press. "Just like we shut down the system in sections, we have to start it up in sections. This can take time and can uncover other issues that can take time to fix."
On Monday afternoon, Austin EMS medics responded to a cardiac arrest call at the Esperanza Community, the state-sanctioned encampment for people experiencing homelessness in South Austin; the subject was pronounced dead on scene. This was the first cold-weather-related death among Austin's unhoused community reported by local authorities, although concerns are high that others will be discovered as the city thaws out. On Wednesday morning, medics and Austin firefighters responded to a structure fire at 2932 E. 12th, near Airport Boulevard. Two were pronounced dead on scene, one was transported to a hospital with life threatening injuries, and three others suffered minor injuries, per emergency medical services.
Freezes have resulted in hundreds of burst pipes (as of Tuesday night, the Austin Fire Department had responded to 871 burst pipe calls), including to at least some of Austin Water's larger transmission mains, which led to water shortages in some neighborhoods. On Wednesday afternoon, the water utility issued boil water notices for some customers in Southwest Austin and Lost Creek as a precautionary measure, though the treatment plants were still operating; the loss of power at Ullrich changed that calculation, said AW Director Greg Meszaros.
Under a boil water notice, AW urges users to bring all water used for cooking, drinking, ice-making, and hand-washing to a vigorous boil for two minutes, or to use other water sources such as bottled water. Across the state, approximately 12 million Texans were affected by weather-related water shortages. At the Thursday afternoon press conference, Meszaros could not confirm when the boil water notice would be lifted, but did say that the Ullrich plant was back up and running. Yesterday, the reservoirs that store water for Austinites were nearly drained – about 100 million gallons worth, or the amount the city typically uses in a single day. Meszaros explained that the reservoirs will need to be refilled and the many leaks, main breaks, and burst pipes throughout the system will need to be repaired before regular water service resumes. "If we turn our system on before checking for leaks we will simply repeat what happened last night," Meszaros said. "We have to do this in a methodical and detailed way."
To meet ERCOT's emergency demand to shed load on the electric grid without compromising the most essential services, Austin Energy had to cut power to more residential users, and for longer durations, than did other urban utilities in Texas or its neighboring power suppliers in Central Texas, such as Pedernales and Bluebonnet electric co-ops. On Tuesday night, AE said ERCOT had ordered the utility to shed even more load, which AE General Manager Jackie Sargent said could lead to power cuts to hospitals, 911 call centers, treatment plants, and warming centers and cold-weather shelters. "I'm hoping that won't happen," Sargent told reporters on Tuesday, "but I don't want to create a false sense of security." It was unclear at press time whether this had happened or if other reasons (such as further weather damage) had led to the failures at Ullrich and at local hospitals.
By Tuesday night, the attacks on Texas' once-celebrated moves to bring renewables onto its electric grid were under assault by the top state officials, who were once eager to take credit. (Texas has more renewable energy on its grid, and has for years, than most states.) Gov. Greg Abbott went on Fox News to lie about the cause of energy blackouts in Texas. The energy catastrophe "shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America," Abbott said of the mostly theoretical green infrastructure program that is not anywhere close to becoming law, let alone the cause of millions of Texans losing power this week. ERCOT's forecasting presumed that wind and solar would be impacted by winter weather but that most thermal sources could run at 100% of their total output. That did not happen, with catastrophic results, beginning early Monday morning.
How Did This Happen?
ERCOT's grid management seeks to maintain a perfect balance between generation and demand at all times through market mechanisms rather than regulation. Those mechanisms were swamped simultaneously by the loss of huge chunks of generating capacity and a huge increase in demand for power to heat Texans' homes throughout the entire state. Weather-related transmission line damage, such as the kind that left portions of Northwest Austin without power last week, was a lesser factor until the overnight ice storms Tuesday and Wednesday. Early Monday morning, between 1am and 2am, generators that power the grid using natural gas (responsible for much of the overload), coal, and nuclear energy went offline due to insufficient weatherization or insufficient gas supplies, while West Texas wind fields also froze.
Cold-weather plans for electric utilities are regulated by the state Public Utility Commission of Texas; ERCOT advises utilities on best practices. Utilities that don't also operate in the rest of the U.S. beyond ERCOT do not have to comply with federal mandates for weather hardiness that keep both thermal and renewable generators from freezing even in much colder weather than came to Texas this week. After the last winter power crisis to hit Texas in 2011, which was much less severe, ERCOT, the PUC, and other experts made recommendations to harden the Texas grid, most of which were not implemented.
Early Monday morning, ERCOT directed local utilities to initiate rolling blackouts, turning off power to all nonessential circuits in 10-40 minute intervals, moving sequentially throughout the city so no one was without power for too long. This proved to be impossible for many of the state's utilities. As well, continued harsh weather conditions led to further local outages as did cold load pickup: when the power turns back on and the instant spike in load from all the appliances left on since the first outage causes another outage.
As hundreds of thousands of Austinites shivered in the dark, the lights of Downtown were shining brightly, as was the case in other Texas cities. As Austin Energy looked at possible direct power cuts to such buildings, city leaders worked with such groups as the Downtown Austin Alliance to power down nonessential uses, and Travis County Judge Andy Brown signed an executive order that would force "all manufacturing, industrial, and commercial businesses" to "minimize non-essential processes and operations to the greatest extent possible." Athletic facilities, stadiums, and "other businesses" were also ordered to turn off exterior lighting, so long as they are not "necessary to provide essential services." Another provision of Brown's order subjects businesses attempting to price-gouge for groceries, medicine, and hotel rooms, as well as other goods and services, to temporary restraining order or civil penalty under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act.
A Shaky Response
Response to the cascading crisis did not start off strong for city departments. On Monday morning, 311 and the city of Austin website went down, although 911 was still operational. On Valentine's Day, Austin EMS saw record numbers of crashes related to icy conditions; once snow blanketed the city, the majority of calls were related to falls, said Captain Darren Noak, deputy public information officer for Austin EMS.
Medics responded to a record-shattering 1,435 calls on Monday – double the previous 24-hour record, according to Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie. "It was a total shit show," Xie told the Chronicle, recalling how numerous ambulances and trucks were stuck on the way to calls – or worse, while transporting patients – and had to be pulled out. Xie urged people to stay home unless leaving for critical supplies or to safer shelter, because more people on the road makes it more difficult for medics to do their job. Austin's police officers were also busy, responding to more calls in three days than they normally would in a week. From Feb. 13 to 15, officers conducted 155 welfare checks, while responding to more than 600 traffic incidents.
EMS also responded to 49 toxic exposures due to carbon monoxide poisoning Monday-Wednesday. "We caution people about using those forms of heat – stove, oven," Noak said. "Absolutely use generators, but don't put your generator on your back porch, your garage, or in your house. It's got to be far enough away ... so that the CO doesn't seep into the residence." He also advised against sitting in your vehicle to warm up if it's inside: "You're still gonna get yourself into a potential carbon monoxide situation." There were 907 calls for service on Tuesday, 1,124 on Wednesday: 41 for exposure Tuesday down to 21 on Wednesday, 82 for falls Tuesday up to 129 on Wednesday, 17 traffic collisions on Tuesday with five reported Wednesday.
The city's public safety agencies were also busy transporting medically vulnerable people, both housed and unhoused, to warm shelters or making sure they were safe at home. Most of them were taken to the Palmer Events Center, which was serving as the largest city-run warming center and also a hub for transporting people to cold weather shelters scattered throughout the city and reserved for high-risk individuals. As of Thursday morning, that shelter was at capacity, but the city partnered with AISD to convert several schools into warming centers that are still available, including Del Valle High, Mendez Middle, and Reilly Elementary.
Unhoused advocates pushed on the city to offer more Protective Lodging in motel rooms, especially since in January the Biden administration issued an executive order requiring FEMA to reimburse cities for 100% of the operational costs stemming from running emergency, non-congregate shelters, like ProLodges. The previous reimbursement rate, established as a response to COVID-19, was 75%. The city has not yet received any reimbursement from FEMA, although that is not unusual, especially in an emergency that has touched every state and municipality in the nation.
Some unsheltered people were admitted into a ProLodge, although a precise number was not available before press time, despite numerous requests by the Chronicle for the number of vacancies at ProLodges. A city spokesperson told us that many people eligible for ProLodge admission – i.e., those most at risk from dying on the street – were already occupying a room, so admissions were not accelerated prior to the winter storm or during it.
But it is believed most who accepted support were taken to congregate shelters, not motel rooms. People conducting outreach over the past few days reported many of those living in camps declined offers for assistance, opting to rough it out in a tent. It is possible more people would have accepted help if the offer had been for a private room with security for their belongings; in the pandemic, some have been reluctant to seek shelter in shared public spaces even with COVID precautions in place.
Mutual aid organizations and nonprofits have also been working to shelter people since Sunday night, including Austin Mutual Aid, Stop the Sweeps, Community Resilience Trust, Little Petal Alliance, and Free Lunch. Bobby Cooper, who founded Austin Mutual Aid in March, and around 50-75 other drivers have been picking up people at encampments across town and putting them up in hotel rooms. Cooper says they knew the emergency was coming last week and pushed the city to act proactively; when the ice arrived they jumped into action, coordinating organizers through Signal chats and Instagram DMs to pick up people they've been aiding since March at 14 different camps.
The Other Ones Foundation donated vans in order to transport more people at once, and Austin Mutual Aid is promising reimbursement to all who pay for a hotel room out of pocket; they've garnered additional funds through their Kick the Cold fundraiser since November. "We're just telling people, you know, buy a Cup o' Noodles at the gas station, buy a bunch of them, and get people into this hotel." Other orgs like Little Petal Alliance also cook meals to drop off to hotels once people are sheltered, or pick up donated food from the new "command center" Downtown at 207 W. Fourth Street to ferry to hotel rooms. As of Tuesday evening they'd secured shelter for 400 people.
Stop The Sweeps, an advocacy and mutual aid group that supports people living in encampments, assembled enough volunteers to check at least 200 people into motels and shuttle another 200 to warming centers by Tuesday. The work has been challenging, with motels suddenly losing power or having their rooms booked up quickly. Problems that regularly make unhoused life challenging, like not having an ID, have not gone away. Some volunteers ended up checking people into motels with their own IDs to avoid being turned away.
There are an estimated 2,500 unhoused people in Austin according to last year's official Point in Time Count (this year's was scrubbed due to the pandemic). There are likely many more who have gone overlooked despite the heroic efforts of professional and volunteer outreach workers. Cooper fears this is a crisis that will have repercussions for weeks to come, and says it was preventable. "And it's beyond frustrating to know that people are dying. Because why is a GoFundMe paying for 400 people to be in a hotel right now? In the fastest growing city in America?"
What You Can Do: Severe Weather Relief
Due to the severe weather this week, many events have canceled or postponed. Listings here indicate what was known as of press time, but everything is subject to change. We've compiled a list of resources and organizations that have helped the community face the disaster; contact us if you have one to add: firstname.lastname@example.org. See updates at austinchronicle.com/events/community.
#LoveThyNeighborTX: AAUL Emergency Donation Drive Austin Area Urban League launched the #LoveThyNeighborTX campaign with the support of fellow community-focused organizations to provide shelter, food, water, clothing, and more for housing-insecure Austinites put at risk during the unprecedented weather event this week. Donate now to help reach the $250,000 goal. Through Feb. 21. www.bit.ly/LoveThyNeighborTX.
Austin Disaster Relief Network Seeks Assistance Austin Disaster Relief Network has deployed volunteers to warming centers in the area and is seeking donations; call or donate online. Those in need of info about warming centers or support can reach ADRN at 512/806-0800. www.adrn.org/disaster-relief/winter-storm-response.
Free Lunch ATX Austin's Free Lunch program provides home-cooked meals to people experiencing homelessness. Make a donation, or contact them at email@example.com if you or someone you know is in need of support. www.freelunchatx.com.
Front Steps Blanket Drive Nonprofit Front Steps makes it easy to donate a blanket to a cold Austinite in need. They offer several good options to order online and have shipped directly to them, or you can drop one off at ARCH. Even easier: Simply hit the "Donate Now" button on their site and make a one-time or recurring donation to support their ongoing work serving those living without homes. Online or at Front Steps (ARCH), 500 E. Seventh. www.frontsteps.org.
Maximizing Hope Seeks Donations During the freezing weather this week, local nonprofit Maximizing Hope has provided hotel rooms for over 100 Austinites without homes, as well as food and hygiene items. Your online donation can help spread the warmth to even more people in need. www.maximizinghope.org.
Sun Radio Recharge The Sun Radio Recharge program started in May 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic as an effort for Sun Radio to give back to local musicians by helping with electricity bills, and now they're opening it to hospitality workers in need. Apply online if eligible, or donate to keep the fund going so Sun Radio can help more folks. With the recent severe weather, people who have already been struggling are now even more in need, so give if you can. Application period opened Feb. 8, will close when funds are expended. www.sunradio.com/recharge.
Support Austin Pets Alive! Head over to APA!'s blog to learn about the many ways you can help animals during the freeze and get resources if you need them. Monetary donations are always welcome, and they're collecting water and gas for generators. Staff and volunteers are answering emails to firstname.lastname@example.org regarding donations and inquiries about help for animals stuck in the cold. Ongoing. Austin Pets Alive!, 1156 W. Cesar Chavez, 512/961-6519. www.austinpetsalive.org.
Survive2Thrive Fundraiser Survive2Thrive has formed a partnership with Austin Hotel and Lodging Association to provide hotel room stays for the unhoused during the historic freeze and is working closely with the Community Resilience Trust, which has community leaders, organizations, and City Council members working on protecting our most vulnerable populations during this weather emergency. Donate online: survive2thrivefoundation.org.