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An ice storm hit the Austin area the week of Jan. 30. Hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses lost power as ice-covered trees toppled power lines across the city.

'Chasing our tails': Why it's taking so long to get the power back on in Austin

An Austin Energy crew clears a fallen tree from a power line in South Austin on Thursday.
Michael Minasi
An Austin Energy crew clears a fallen tree from a power line in South Austin on Thursday.

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Austin Energy says it doesn’t know when all its customers will get their electricity service restored, after an ice storm cut power to hundreds of thousands of Austinites.

Utility crews, including some from other parts of Texas, have been working for the past two days to get the lights back on. But the work is slow going.

On Eberhart Lane in South Austin, just east of South First, a crew is slowly working their way down the street, fixing all the things that have gone wrong.

“We’ve been dealing with a lot of heavy trees. Ice on the insulators. It’s been a big undertaking for our crews,” said Forrest Gifford, a crew leader for Austin Energy. “Ice storms are some of the worst ones you can encounter, besides a hurricane when it knocks everything down.”

It’s cold outside and the frozen tree limbs — and even whole trees — tangled in the power lines are making things more dangerous than usual. That’s really the root of the problem: So much ice.

“When that [ice] got onto the tree, it adds about 3,000 to 5,000 pounds to the top of the tree,” said Elton Richards, Austin Energy’s vice president of electric systems field operations. “So what we’re finding is instead of just vegetation coming down, we’re having whole trees uproot.”

Falling trees — and tree limbs and ice buildup on the lines themselves — have hacked Austin Energy’s distribution grid to bits.

Unlike the blackouts two years ago, there’s plenty of electricity right now. It just can’t get to people’s houses.

So their crews have to go all along the circuit and reconnect each piece.

Richards says you can think of each circuit like a long extension cord with smaller cords sticking out to feed individual homes and businesses. Now imagine that extension cord has been sliced into pieces over the past two days by the weather and falling trees.

“The problem is the circuit can be anywhere between 3 to 5 miles,” he said. “You can see within this area, they’ve only went maybe a half-mile and they’ve already done four repairs on it. So it’s just a massive amount of area for the crews to work through.”

A person in a bucket working on a power line
Michael Minasi
Austin Energy crews have to go all along the circuit and reconnect each piece to get power restored to people's homes.

After the crew finishes at one pole, they pack up and move maybe 100 yards down the street to another damaged pole. After warming up in their truck for a minute, they get everything back out to do it again: Up in the cherry picker, clearing some frozen limbs, fixing whatever’s broken.

Austin Energy said Wednesday that it would take 12-24 hours to get everyone’s power back. On Wednesday night, that changed to Friday by 6 p.m. Now, Richards says, they don’t have an estimate for when the lights and heat will come on for everyone.

“Until all the circuits get walked down, that’s when we’ll come out and give an estimated restoration time,” Richards said.

That’s not what a lot of people sitting in the cold want to hear.

“To hear that it could be later than Friday at 6 p.m. — possibly even going into the weekend — that stresses me out,” said Andres Gonzales, who lives near Southpark Meadows. He lost power early Wednesday. “It kinda makes me scared for myself and others.”

Austin Energy’s online outage map still shows more than 140,000 homes and businesses without power. Officials said Thursday morning that they’d restored 113,000 customers’ power since Wednesday morning, but more outages have happened since.

“It seems like the more circuits we bring up, the more go down,” said Gifford, the crew leader in South Austin. “We’ve been kind of chasing our tails on this with all the ice and the trees and just obstructions in the power lines.”

Audrey McGlinchy contributed to this report.

Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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