Austin Energy is 'cautiously optimistic' about repairs, but 110,000 customers still don't have power
The number of Austin Energy customers without power is going down, as the temperature warms and crews repair outages caused by fallen trees and ice-covered power lines and utility poles.
“We are cautiously optimistic that we have turned a point overnight,” Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said at a news conference Friday morning. “Fewer trees are falling, which means repeated outages have slowed down.”
Overnight Thursday, Austin Energy restored power to nearly 50,000 customers, and during the day Friday, crews restored power to another 13,000, Sargent said.
But come Friday evening, about 110,000 customers were still without electricity. That number will continue to go down over the weekend as crews keep working, Sargent said. But it’s not clear when exactly everyone will get their power back.
Sargent said Austin Energy isn’t able to give people an estimate for when their power will return because the damage is so widespread. This messaging has led to frustration among Austin residents, who on Wednesday were told the outages would last 12 to 24 hours, then later that they would last until Friday evening; finally, on Thursday, Austin Energy said it did not have an estimate for when all power would be restored.
Statewide, there were about 201,000 energy customers without power Friday evening, about half of which were in Austin. This storm has been so damaging here, Sargent said, because it affected Austin Energy’s entire service area. Austin also has a dense tree canopy and vegetation.
“The resulting ice that piled up on power lines, trees and equipment added hundreds of pounds of ice and force that caused massive destruction,” Sargent said. “This caused electrical distribution lines and nearby vegetation to sag, break or to come in contact with one another.”
Travis County Judge Andy Brown said he surveyed the extent of damage throughout the county Friday and will issue a disaster declaration. Austin Mayor Kirk Watson also said he will sign a disaster declaration. These declarations can help the local governments access federal funds for recovery efforts.
“It is my top priority to ensure that Travis County has a robust and resilient recovery to this storm as soon as possible," Brown said.
Austin Energy crews, which are receiving backup from other communities, have faced a number of obstacles in restoring outages, including dangerous road conditions and falling trees causing repeated outages, Sargent said.
Sometimes a second outage can occur if circuits become overloaded when lights, electronics and thermostats left on before an outage suddenly turn on at once. To avoid this so-called “cold load pickup,” Sargent said customers without power should turn off their thermostats, unplug fixtures or appliances, and just leave one light on that’ll signal when the power is back.
In some instances, even when Austin Energy fixes an outage, some homes might have other damage that prevents them from accessing the electricity. For example, there could be damage to parts of a home's electrical system that the property owner owns, not the public utility. In this case, the property owner would need to call an electrician for repairs. Austin Energy has a chart to help people understand what parts of the electricity system belong to them and which are Austin Energy's.
Throughout the storm, the city has come under fire for a lack of sufficient communication. The first news conference about the storm came Thursday morning, three days after the storm began. Prior, updates were largely disseminated on social media, like Austin Energy’s Twitter account.
Watson began Friday morning's press conference by apologizing.
“I want to start by saying that as mayor, I accept responsibility on behalf of the city, and I apologize that we’ve let the people down in Austin,” he said. “Providing clear and accurate and timely communication to the public is essential in an emergency like this, and once again the city hasn’t delivered.”
He told the public “something will change” and that communication will be clearer in the future.
“The city let its citizens down,” he said. “The situation is unacceptable to the community, and it’s unacceptable to me, and I’m sorry.”