As storms threaten more power outages, Austin officials say cleanup could take months
As Austin recovers from last week's ice storm, officials say another front Tuesday could further cripple the city's electrical infrastructure.
At a briefing before City Council, Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said she still couldn't provide an exact time for when customers could expect the lights to come back on. Some residents have been without electricity for a week.
"I'm sorry for how long this is taking. I wish I could give a specific estimate for each specific outage. We know it's hard to plan daily life without that," she said. "Unfortunately, the complexity and severity of ice storm damage on each individual outage just hasn't allowed us to give a more granular estimate for restoration."
The utility said it was concerned about fixing outages while also dealing with an expected front that could bring 45-mph winds to Austin on Tuesday afternoon.
Austin Energy's interim chief operating officer, Stuart Riley, said the high winds could down weakened tree limbs and power lines — clawing back the progress made over the last couple of days.
"The wind gusts could be 40, 45-miles-an-hour, and that gives us concern just because what we’re seeing with the trees," he said. "It makes it more challenging and more time-consuming and more hazardous."
He said the utility has 1,000 workers currently in the field.
At a news conference later Tuesday, Sargent noted the weather would have to be "pretty significant" for workers to be benched.
“These line workers are used to working in inclement weather, and they will continue to restore power as long as they can do so safely," she said. "So safety, of course, is their top priority.”
At the news conference, Richard Mendoza, interim director of the Austin Transportation Department, said all but five traffic lights that went dark have been restored. Drivers should treat these intersections as four-way stops. About 40% of traffic signals were impacted by the storm, either by loss of communications or loss of power.
Austin Resource Recovery said it could be months before all the storm debris is collected and that calls for service in the past week have already dwarfed calls after the 2021 storm.
Richard McHale, deputy director of Austin Resource Recovery, said the city got 4,900 calls after the 2021 storm and collected 9,500 tons of debris. So far, ARR has received 13,000 calls, with half of them coming west of Mopac. The department estimates debris from the storms last week could fill up 25,000 dump trucks.
McHale said it took the department 41 days to collect all the debris in 2021. He expects the "first pass" of debris collection to be done by the end of this month.
"We'll be making multiple passes," he told council members.
He expects all the debris to be collected by April.
Also on Tuesday, council members expressed frustration with the city's bungled communications in the wake of the storm. Council Member Alison Alter likened the confusion of the past week to "Groundhog Day," saying many of the issues that have surfaced are similar to those during the freeze two years ago — including a lack of clear communication and an interactive map that doesn't register customer outages.
"There's so many places where we talked about these challenges," she said. "We have got to figure out how we learn the lessons."
Some council members, including the mayor, have called for City Manager Spencer Cronk's performance to be reviewed because of the lack of accurate and timely communication to the public. On Tuesday, Cronk read a statement to council offering his "heartfelt apologies for any shortcomings in our response."