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Central Texas experienced historic winter weather the week of Feb. 14, with a stretch of days below freezing. Sleet followed snow followed freezing rain, leading to a breakdown of the electric grid and widespread power outages. Water reservoirs were depleted and frozen pipes burst, leaving some without service for days.

First The Power Went Out. Now, Austinites Must Prepare For 'Days Without Water.'

People walking through the empty snow, covered-streets of Austin's Hyde Park neighborhood on Tuesday.
Julia Reihs
People walk through the snow-covered streets of Austin's Hyde Park neighborhood Tuesday.

Lee esta historia en español.

After many Austinites spent days without power, city officials now say many should prepare for days without water. At a press conference Thursday, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said there’s still much work to be done to restore service.

“It’s going to be a multi-day process to restore pressure and service,” he says. “Customers that don’t have water, it’s better to plan for the worst conditions: days without water, rather than hours.”

Meszaros says it's hard to give an exact timeline because the agency does not know where or how bad leaks are within the reservoirs. These reservoirs usually store about 100 million gallons of water or about one day's worth of water use in Austin.

At their lowest point, he said, the reserves were nearly empty.

“The water in our reservoirs essentially drained out over the last day,” he said. “We have to bring those reservoirs back up to service and that’s going to take time.”

Right now, all three pressure zones – Central, North and South – are rated critical. Austin Water is working to slowly stabilize the system and restore water pressure. Once that’s done, it will sample the water to ensure it's free from contaminants. The priority now is going to areas with hospitals and other health care centers.

Conditions are improving, Meszaros said. The Ullrich Water Treatment Plant has restored service after being shut down Wednesday due to electrical problems. (But the city remains under a boil-water notice until it can be sure the water is safe to drink.)

"The water you use is water another customer may not have.”
Greg Meszaros, Austin Water director

Calls for conservation are also bringing levels back to normal. Meszaros said the agency is seeing lower demand relative to the amount of water it can produce.

“That’s exactly the balance we want,” he said.

Meszaros urges people to continue to conserve as much water as possible once their water is restored.

“Don’t go overboard and start using too much water,” he said. “The water you use is water another customer may not have.”

The news of water outages comes as Austin Energy restores power to thousands of customers. Nearly 220,000 customers were without power after ERCOT mandated control outages earlier this week. The number now stands at just over 42,000, or nearly 8% of its customer base.

Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent says ERCOT is currently not mandating any more outages, but it is still possible that more may come.

“As long as the requirement isn’t too excessive,” she said, “we will be able to utilize rotating outages until the power can be fully restored.”

Crews are prioritizing customers who’ve been out of power the longest. Sargent says if power is restored and then goes back off, it’s because Austin Energy is making sure it doesn't overload the system.

“We have to do this work carefully,” she said. “Just like we shut the system down in sections, we have to restore the system in sections.”

Sargent said ice accumulation can also cause issues with restoration efforts, and it’s not only tree limbs and branches leaning on power lines causing issues.

“Half an inch of ice can add as much as 500 pounds to a power line, causing it to break," she said.

While Sargent assured the remaining customers without power that they will get back online, she could not give an exact timeframe.

Anyone in need of a cold-weather shelter — as well as a way to get there — can reach out to the Austin Disaster Relief Network. The latest weather updates from the city can be found here or by calling 311.

Watch the video below on the city's Facebook page:

Nadia Hamdan is a local news anchor and host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT.
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