Challenging Repair Work Amid “Horrendous” Conditions as Thousands Remain Without Power

Photo by John Anderson

As more than 25% of Austin Energy customers face another night of cold darkness in the aftermath of the severe ice storm, the publicly owned utility still cannot say when power will be fully restored to roughly 147,000 customers.

A number of challenges have slowed today’s work by Austin Energy line crews and those of nearby utilities who are pitching in, General Manager Jackie Sargent said at a news conference Thursday evening. Repairs to damaged power lines and transformers can require heavy construction equipment that can’t be brought in through blocked city streets. In some cases, electrical equipment on the homeowner’s side has been damaged; before those problems are fixed (usually by a licensed electrician), utility crews cannot complete their repairs. Crews are dodging falling chunks of ice and tree limbs as Thursday’s warmer temperatures melt the ice.

Elton Richards, Austin Energy’s VP of field operations, spent the day checking in on his crews across the city. He said he’s never seen this kind of damage from a storm, other than tornadoes, in 20 years of utility work. “This is not a vegetation management issue,” Richards said, pointing out that even areas where AE had recently trimmed trees had outages caused by the sheer weight of so much ice. “It’s just horrendous out there,” Richards said.

What are the crews having to do? Sometimes, a tree branch that’s fallen onto a power line just needs to be trimmed back – a straightforward repair, typically taking about two hours. But crews have seen fully grown trees whose collapse in the storm knocked down utility poles and dozens of feet of power lines – that can take all day to fix. On some occasions, aerial crews have just repaired a line when another limb falls below them.

Though the work has been slow, Richards said that as vegetation-management and construction crews travel to repair sites together, Austin should see a “massive decline” in customers without power over the next 24 hours. The city will continue to operate cold weather shelters and warming centers for people without power and in need of shelter.

Meanwhile, Austin Water Director Shay Roalson squashed rumors that the city’s water supply was again in jeopardy. “We do not anticipate the need to issue any kind of citywide water outage or boil-water notice,” Roalson said. Small pockets of customers – about 40 in total – lost water pressure and should boil their water for safety; they’ve been contacted and provided with drinking water. Earlier concerns in Southwest Austin have eased as the power’s come back on to pumping stations.

Mayor Kirk Watson outlined the immediate steps City Council will take to understand what worked and didn’t work in the city’s emergency response – and what can be improved for future disasters. “We need to have questions answered,” the mayor said, “including how we communicate with the public, how we make sure the public knows what’s going on and how we prevent this sort of incident in the future.” City leadership will first brief Council at the Tuesday, Feb. 7, work session, field questions from council members for Sargent, City Manager Spencer Cronk, and others, and talk more about next steps Feb. 21.

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