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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.

Austin Energy shares recovery, emergency preparation plans

Austin Energy crew working on the Cap Metro electricity on Feb. 6, 2023 at NFM620 gazert lake rd after a tree branch fell on the cables during the snow storm last week in Austin, Texas. Patricia Lim/KUT
Patricia Lim
Austin Energy plans to conduct an audit of its vegetation management practices, adding staff to its emergency management team and analyzing how utilities in Orlando and Jacksonville, Florida, and Long Island prepare for disasters and manage restoration of power.

Leaders of Austin Energy have started to move forward in the aftermath of the winter storm earlier this month that left hundreds of thousands of Austinites in the dark for days at a time. The next steps outlined include streamlining communications, better assessing the extent of power outages, and determining the cost and timelines for burying power lines.

The entire City Council gathered for Tuesday’s meeting of the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee to hear a progress update from AE’s leadership and ask questions about the utility’s forthcoming after-action report on the storm, which layered nearly an inch of ice on the area. The weight of the ice damaged countless drought-stricken trees, bringing down power and communications lines throughout the city. AE General Manager Jackie Sargent said at the worst moments of the crisis, nearly 174,000 homes were without power.

Other steps AE plans to take include conducting an audit of its vegetation management practices, adding staff to its emergency management team and analyzing how utilities in Orlando and Jacksonville, Florida, and Long Island prepare for disasters and manage restoration of power.

Sargent said there are other steps that will result from the after-action report, which Council is expected to receive or be updated on at its April 11 meeting.

“While this event was historic, these types of extreme weather events which cause long-duration outages are becoming more common. Climate change is here and if we are going to address the challenges of extreme weather head-on we need increased support and coordination of our entire city infrastructure to be more resilient,” she said. “We are not waiting for that report to be completed to take action, and we will continue to do so throughout this process.”

Other AE staff took turns explaining to Council how the combination of damaged or destroyed trees and power and communication lines strongly affixed to utility poles caused some poles to snap entirely. Unlike the February 2021 winter storm that disrupted power due to forced blackouts, the damage to distinct sections of circuits throughout the city made it laborious and time-consuming to restore power in many places.

Council members asked a number of questions or made statements during the brief comment period, with some expressing frustration at not being able to communicate as much as they wanted to in the meeting with AE leadership. The Council web forum is another avenue for the 11-member body to lodge their questions to be addressed in the report.

Council Member Alison Alter said she wants to work with interim City Manager Jesús Garza on having an outside agency or organization conduct an independent review of the utility to determine how well it is operating and preparing for extreme weather.

Alter said the upgrades made to AE’s online power outage map didn’t improve the site enough to be useful for residents waiting days for their power to come back on.

“We really need to understand how we are either fixing the map or changing how we’re communicating with the public on how the map is used in a storm situation,” she said. “People were combining the map with the text messages they were getting and saying this is a system that should function together, and it didn’t function together.”

Mayor Kirk Watson pushed for the overview of possibly burying power lines to take into account major infrastructure projects such as Project Connect so the necessary work could be coordinated to save time and money wherever possible.

“Disruption makes a big difference and cost is also a big difference,” he said. “If there’s an opportunity to do what we would otherwise think would be a good thing at the same time – and that’s burying lines when you’re making infrastructure changes – we ought to at least look at that.”

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