AUSTIN (KXAN) — As of Tuesday morning, less than 10,000 people are still without power after an ice storm wreaked havoc on Austin’s power system. Those remaining customers are going on a week without power.
In a work session with Austin Energy leadership, Council Member Alison Alter said the city needs to address both the unprecedented nature of the ice storm we saw, using the language of the chairman of the state’s Public Utility Commission calling this “an ice hurricane,” but also said there were still failures that need to be addressed.
“We failed to prepare well,” Alter said. “Both of those things can be true.”
“We will be working closely with meteorologists and other experts to better understand the factors that contributed to this weather event and develop more effective strategies for responding to similar incidents in the future,” Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk said.
Even for the tens of thousands of people who lost and regained power, KXAN has received hundreds of questions from Austin Energy customers.
Some of those questions are the same being asked of the utility by Austin City Council members during a work session Tuesday. Leaders for Austin Energy were at the table. Here are some of the questions and answers.
When will power be restored for the customers still without?
Jackie Sargent, the director of Austin Energy, answered this question in her opening remarks Tuesday, saying in part:
“By Sunday, Feb. 12, we expect to complete restorations for those ready to receive power. But impending wind, rain and thunderstorms as early as this afternoon could further complicate restoration efforts. We will reassess this goal and provide an update midweek. We continue to restore customers each day. Customers are being restored as we speak, and most customers will be restored well before Sunday.”
Stuart Riley, Austin Energy’s interim chief operating officer, said Tuesday there are 400 out-of-town workers in Austin helping with restoration efforts. With those additional lineworkers included, there are roughly 1,000 of them out Tuesday, Austin Energy leaders said.
Council Member Vanessa Fuentes asked if there was something the council could do Tuesday that would free up more resources or make Austin Energy’s restoration process quicker. Riley said, “the short answer is no.”
“We can’t bring in unlimited crews and put them and just let them loose on our system, they have to have an AE team member with them, an employee in charge who knows our system who’s communicating with our energy control center,” Riley said.
He described that control center as being similar to air traffic control, which shows where crews are and what’s being worked on.
Riley again noted the lingering outages are the ones that are going to be the most difficult to fix. Some are taking days instead of hours, he said.
Why can’t Austin Energy promise a specific restoration date and time?
Riley said they are only committing to the language that “nearly all” of the outages will be repaired by Sunday, Feb. 12 because additional storms are coming in and may complicate the work, and some customers have damage “on their side” and won’t be able to receive power until those fixes are made.
He continued, “To give one message, in terms of when we’ll be done with this event, we really were thinking about getting out there and assessing these most complicated jobs, and unfortunately it’s impossible right now until we’re on-site to be able to assess, and once we start the work then we know, but I can’t give one answer that’s applicable to everyone.”
“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. Unfortunately, the complexity and severity of ice storm damage on each individual outage just hasn’t allowed us to give a more granule estimate of restoration,” Sargent also said.
Riley also said they would continue to send a morning and an evening update to customers without power, but could not provide individual messages to customers because of the extent of the work still to be done.
Which remaining outages are being prioritized?
Riley said Austin Energy has received a number of inquiries from people concerned they’re “at the bottom of the list or that their area isn’t a priority.”
“What we’re doing is we’re looking at our first priority is what we call ‘critical load customers,’ that would be anything for health and safety: hospitals, police stations, fire stations, water treatment plants, things of that nature,” Riley explained. After that, Austin Energy will go from largest outage to smallest outage, oldest to newest.
When asked by Council Member Ryan Alter why the utility can’t tell customers which priority area they’re in and give them a more accurate understanding of where they are in the list, Riley explained there are “outages within outages within outages” in this case.
Did the City delay in asking the state for help?
“Last night the governor did an interview, and he said the first request for assistance from the City of Austin came in on Friday. Can you explain how that was and why that was?” Council Member Mackenzie Kelly asked.
Riley said he believes the governor is referring to a request from the city to use a Texas Department of Transportation facility to house all of the additional crews that were coming in from other parts of the state. He said they had run out of city facilities that could store bucket trucks and trailers and additional gear.
Later, Council Member Zohaib Qadri asked if mutual aid requests for additional crews could have been made more quickly and efficiently, which Riley said would be answered in the after-action report but is not immediately available.
Alison Alter asked most pointedly: “When did you request mutual aid?” To which Riley responded: “I will go back and look but I believe it was on Wednesday morning.”
Why aren’t people seeing updated information on the outage map?
In response to this question from Kelly, Riley said the city’s outage map vendor is contracted and is “really good at day-to-day circumstances but it’s not meant for hurricane-level natural disasters.”
Riley said there’s an algorithm built into that map that predicts which customers might experience power outages “downstream” of an actual issue. He said many of the people reaching out with concerns about not showing up on that map actually were.
“I look and they are and I have to walk them through it,” he said. “The different dots, the red ones have the biggest outages but they might be several blocks … where it actually shows up on the map might be several blocks away from them.”
Kelly said she would like to see something moving forward that provides a better idea to folks of where the outages are online during larger natural disasters.
What is the protocol for helping people on the medically vulnerable registry list?
Sargent explained the people on Austin Energy’s medically vulnerable registry were first contacted by phone. If they were unable to be reached, Austin Energy reached out to the alternate contact that is required to be listed on that registry.
If the alternate contact also could not be reached, Austin Energy sent a team to check on the person, Sargent said. If someone doesn’t answer the door, crews can call for a health and welfare check.
“They also have a backup plan so that if they lose electricity, they have a plan in place for them to be transported to another facility and depending upon their condition would relegate what that is,” Sargent said.
To join the registry and look at the qualifications, you can find details here.
Would vegetation management have helped during this storm?
Riley answered this question in part: “If I had to give you my best approximation at this point, I still think it would have made only a marginal difference because of what we’re seeing. You can’t trim away from the lines sufficiently to account for a 40-foot-tall pecan tree. You would end up not having any trees anywhere close to any lines.”
Austin Energy will be back before city leaders during the Feb. 21 Austin Energy utility oversight committee meeting.