After the storm, Austin residents face power outages and downed trees

AUSTIN, Texas — Warmer weather has returned to Austin, Texas after the winter storm that began battering the state last Monday. It was a mild 73 degrees in the city on Sunday. But for many residents of the capital and surrounding areas who were still grappling with the storm’s fallout, progress on the recovery seemed frozen.

More than 33,000 customers in Austin were left without power Sunday night, according to Austin Energy, up from more than 100,000 last week, but still a confusing total for many residents who lost power Wednesday. Adding to the misery was the continued presence of fallen trees and downed utility poles throughout the area.

Life without light, heat, or electricity — and, in many cases, water — was a dominant theme in conversations over breakfast and before and after church services. All this has tested the patience of the inhabitants.

“We should have been prepared for something like this,” said Lory Ponce, 58, a south Austin resident whose property was battered by falling trees last week. His family had the power, unlike his neighbors across the way.

Deepak Swamy, 57, a tech executive who lives in southwest Austin with his wife, Priya, 52, and their 12-year-old twin daughters, was finally notified early Sunday morning that power was restored after been without power since Wednesday. But as he and his family worked to get their lives back to normal, his frustration didn’t go away.

“I’ve passed the stage of insanity,” he said.

Jackie Sargent, chief executive of Austin Energy, which supplies the city, told a news conference on Sunday that she could not provide an estimate on when the remaining outages would be resolved.

“I want you to know that we have not forgotten you,” she said, addressing residents. She added that the storm left “hurricane-level devastation.”

The electricity problems reminded some people of the blackouts in Texas in 2021, when more than four million customers lost power and more than 200 people died during a major power grid outage in one of the worst winter storms in state history. But this time, the state’s power grid maintained “sufficient supply,” said Gov. Greg Abbott, who added that current outages in the Austin area, a metropolitan area of ​​about 2.2 million inhabitants, were caused by fallen trees and power lines.

Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk said at Sunday’s news conference that the ice that initially covered Austin’s trees was weighing down branches and toppling some trees at the root.

The city’s major electrical circuits have been restored, according to Austin Energy spokesman Matt Mitchell, but the fallen trees have created a maze of hazards that crews must navigate to locate circuits still damaged. In one area, Mr. Mitchell said, two city blocks were covered in seven different hazards.

On Sunday, Ms Ponce sat with her mother, Clara Ponce, 79, in the kitchen of their home on Berkeley Avenue, recalling the ordeal that turned their front and backyard into a jungle of splintered trees.

Outside, a tree crew with chainsaws was dismantling a giant fallen oak tree in the front yard of their neighbor’s house. Peering through a glass door into the backyard, the women pointed out where trees from neighbors on three different sides crashed into different sections of the backyard’s cedar fence.

“Thank God everything is fine,” said Lory Ponce, a receptionist at a car dealership. Clara and Lory Ponce have lived in the house for 30 years and share the residence with Clara’s 28-year-old granddaughter, Omnee Ponce.

Lory Ponce said she was home with her mother on Wednesday night when they heard the first crack. The three Ponce women remained hunkered down, collectively worrying about the sound of each falling branch, until the storm subsided around 6 p.m. Thursday.

In many parts of the city, which Mr. Abbott designated on Saturday as a state disaster area with surrounding Williamson County, piles of chain-sawn tree trunks and branches made many lawns look like wooden fortresses. Homeowners, aided mostly by paid tree maintenance services, continued to lament the destruction of the once-loved green canopies that shaded their yards.

Andrew Morris, a marketing executive, spent his Sunday afternoon ferrying members from his south Austin backyard to the front sidewalk for pickup, a scene repeated across the city and surrounding suburbs. He stopped to describe the “creak and rattle” that accompanied the sound of ice and falling tree branches during the storm.

More than 30 traffic lights across Austin are still without power, Cronk said, but city officials have placed temporary stop signs at those intersections.

“There have been concerns that people aren’t treating dark signals as all-way stops,” said Austin Department of Transportation spokesman Jeff Stensland.

The pace of restoration could be slowed by this week’s weather: Another round of rain and high winds are expected to hit Austin early Tuesday.

“These weather conditions could slow the work of crews and even cause additional damage to the electrical system,” Mr. Mitchell said in a statement. He added that customers who were still experiencing outages on Sunday afternoon “may want to look for alternative accommodation for at least the rest of the week”.


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