AUSTIN (KXAN) — As thousands remain without power Friday afternoon, Austin’s mayor and the Travis County judge announced they’re each issuing disaster declarations because of the ice storm.
Mayor Kirk Watson and Judge Andy Brown said at a news conference Friday afternoon that this will allow the city and county respectively to access additional support from the state and federal levels to help with recovery efforts.
Brown told reporters he decided to move forward with officially declaring a disaster after taking a helicopter tour to survey damage, where he said he saw a broad extent of damage in many areas across the county.
Local agencies shared another update on the ice storm response on Friday at 5 p.m.
Austin Energy officials said 13,021 customers power was restored.
Furthermore, the officials confirmed 150 employees from mutual aid assisted Friday with cleanup efforts, and 50 more are expected to come Saturday.
A city public works spokesperson said 29 crews were out clearing tree branches and limbs. Additionally, city crews were working to move debris from roadways.
Earlier in the day, the leader of Austin Energy said she’s “cautiously optimistic” Friday morning that work to restore power would move more quickly now. Jackie Sargent, the general manager of Austin Energy, said icing caused extensive damage that keeps complicating efforts to fully restore electricity for customers.
“Today, however, we are cautiously optimistic that we have turned a point overnight,” Sargent said at a news conference Friday. “As reflected on our outage map, the number of customers affected has begun to come down because our restoration numbers are going up, while the number of repeated outages is going down. Fewer trees are falling, which means repeated outages have slowed down.”
She said she still could not offer a specific timeline on when power would come back for all affected customers.
Mayor issues apology
Mayor Watson said Friday he’d like to apologize to the community for the city’s failures to communicate about its response to this week’s ice storm. He also promised to review what happened and bring about change, but it’s unclear how long that process will take.
“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. This has been a persistent challenge over the past several years, and public frustration is absolutely warranted,” Watson said Friday. “Over and over again, we see the same failure, so something will change. You will see that communication will be clear, frank and will happen in real-time using any and all available techniques going forward.”
Communication during emergencies
Hundreds of people reached out to KXAN with their zip codes, asking about where they are in the queue for power restoration. Sue, who lives in the Dessau Fountain Estates mobile home park in northeast Austin, said, “Something needs to change.”
“All I want is to be inside with the heat on and my puppies warm and me warm,” she said after losing power Wednesday. “They once told us it wouldn’t be long, that we’re next on the schedule. Well, that was two days ago. Well two days, we’re next on the schedule — is it taking that long?”
KXAN asked Austin Energy if there’s any way customers can get a sense of where they are in the queue.
“Not at this time. We’ve actually, had to shut that off because we don’t have a way to get the information from the field to give accurate information,” Sargent said Friday morning. “It becomes really challenging to give estimates, and we need those patrollers out in the field giving information back. These incidents are complicated because on one portion of the circuit it may be something where a tree fell over and it caused poles to go down and wires to go down.”
Thursday announcement: No restoration estimate
On Thursday, Austin Energy walked back its initial estimate of power restoration by Friday evening. Instead, it said it didn’t feel confident in providing an estimate because of new information about the extent of the problems.
Officials said one of the reasons it’s taking so long to restore power is that the trees and tree limbs keep falling on power lines after they were previously restored by Austin Energy crews. Since the ice started melting Thursday, tree branches are snapping after the thaw began, officials said.
“This is a dynamic situation and change is inevitable but Austin Energy must give folks clear and accurate info so they can plan accordingly,” Mayor Kirk Watson tweeted Thursday afternoon. Council members Alison Alter and Vanessa Fuentes also called Thursday for a briefing next week on Austin Energy’s storm response.
“The majority of the outages from this winter storm are complex involving heavy construction equipment in areas that are sometimes impassable due to downed trees and branches. As an added challenge, we’re also continuing to experience repeated outages meaning ice, trees and tree limbs continue to knock out power to the same circuits crews just restored,” Austin Energy said, noting when it initially gave an estimate, it felt “fairly confident” about it, but new information led it to not put a specific time on it.
Mutual aid from other utilities has arrived to assist, according to an Austin Energy spokesperson.
Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis said in a tweet that she spoke with Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent, who confirmed the utility has to prioritize outages by critical need, like fire and EMS stations along with hospitals.
Austin Energy said more than 100 crews worked to restore power. CenterPoint Energy crews will be in the area as soon as possible, Ellis said.