More than 140,000 Austin Energy customers don't have power. It's not clear when they'll get it back.
More than 140,000 Austin Energy customers remained without power Thursday because of a winter storm that brought freezing rain to Central Texas.
Initially, Austin Energy said it hoped to have all of the outages resolved by Friday at 6 p.m. But on Thursday afternoon, the utility tweeted that a full restoration will take longer than anticipated and that it doesn't have an estimate for when all the outages will be restored.
"We know this is an update no one wants to hear," Austin Energy tweeted just before 2 p.m. "We understand this makes an already challenging situation even more unbearable."
Crews are working as quickly as possible to restore power, Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said during a news conference earlier Thursday. She said the utility has 85 teams working to restore outages, and outside crews have come from other utility services to help.
“This has been a very challenging winter event,” she said. “We are experiencing one of the most widespread ice storms to hit Austin and certainly one of the worst.”
Sargent said crews have restored power to more than 113,000 customers in the last 24 hours, but more ice and fallen tree limbs are continuing to knock power out. In total, 265,000 customers — about half of all Austin Energy customers — have lost power at some point during the freeze.
“Because additional outages are coming online as we restore power, it may look like no progress is being made,” Sargent said. “It feels like two steps forward and three steps back.”
Austin Mayor Kirk Watson said he, too, lost power during the storm and hasn’t been happy with the city’s communication with the public. Thursday’s press conference was the first one the city has held about the storm, which began Monday.
“I’ve been frustrated and disappointed in the communication that I feel like should have been better with the people of the city,” he said. “A press conference like this to answer questions should have happened before now.”
He said protocols for communication during disasters will be “reassessed and recreated” going forward.
The winter storm and power outages come just two years after Winter Storm Uri hit Austin, leaving much of the city without power in below-freezing temperatures for days. The 2021 outages were the result of statewide electric grid failures, while this year’s storm is being caused by local problems, like ice causing tree branches to fall on power lines. Still, the outages are forcing many residents to recall that difficult time.
“This storm event leaving so many without heat, light, and with a feeling of insecurity, comes on the heels of Winter Storm Uri and the anxiety and the trauma that we all experienced then,” Watson said. “I know that top of mind for everyone is restoring power to each and every home.”
Crews have been slowed down by icy roadways and frozen equipment.
”Part of it is the environmental conditions that they’re in, biting-cold rain, sleet, freezing rain," Matt Mitchell, a spokesperson for Austin Energy, told KUT. "Those conditions make it difficult sometimes to get heavy trucks and big trucks into certain locations to aid those restoration efforts.”
Mitchell also said crews are feeling fatigued while responding to power outages in these conditions, and they’ve requested backup.
Austin Energy says people without power may want to seek shelter elsewhere until it is restored.
Customers can check the status of outages on Austin Energy's outage map. They can also report outages there or by texting "OUT" to 287846, but the utility warns the high number of people reporting outages has impacted those systems. Customers can also try calling the Austin Energy outage line at 512-322-9100 to report an outage.
Sargent said during a widespread event like this, Austin Energy isn’t able to provide accurate estimates of restoration times on the map, so it turns that feature off. She said the utility does prioritize addressing outages that affect the largest number of customers first.
Sargent urged people to never touch downed power lines or tree limbs that are making contact with a downed line, because they could be energized. Residents should call 311 to report a downed line; however, wait times have exceeded 20 minutes.
Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services is warning people to use generators safely and not to heat their homes with grills, stoves or ovens, as this could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. By 2 a.m. Thursday, ATCEMS had received four 911 calls for carbon monoxide exposure. All instances involved people using generators in or near their garages.
But generators should not be run in enclosed spaces, EMS says. They should be at least 20 feet from a home, and the exhaust should point away from it.
It is NEVER safe to run a generator in an enclosed space, not even in a garage with the doors open.— ATCEMS (@ATCEMS) February 2, 2023
Running generators should be at least 20 feet from your home, with the exhaust pointing away from structures.
Never attempt to heat your home with grills, stoves, or ovens. pic.twitter.com/0eUjouT5sB
School districts, including Austin ISD, remained closed Thursday, as well as university campuses, like UT Austin. Texas State University opted for a late start.
Austin ISD says it will be closed Friday, too, as the district assesses damage to campuses. The district also said many employees and families are without power.
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport has stayed open through this winter storm, but many flights have been canceled. The airport expects 25,000 travelers to depart on Friday after the warning has been lifted.
Where to stay warm
People who need a warm place to stay in Austin can head to one of these warming centers, which will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursday:
- Little Walnut Creek Branch Library, 835 W. Rundberg Lane
- Terrazas Branch Library, 1105 E. Cesar Chavez St.
- Turner-Roberts Recreation Center, 7201 Colony Loop Drive
- Austin Recreation Center, 1301 Shoal Creek
Cold weather shelters will be available Thursday night. Anyone who needs a warm place to stay can head to One Texas Center at 505 Barton Springs Road to register between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. You will then be taken to a shelter. You can call 512-305-4233 for more information on shelters.
Those who need transportation to a warming center or One Texas Center should call 311.
KUT's Haya Panjwani contributed reporting.