Texas’ tech capital again fumbles digital communication amid a power crisis

A fallen tree blocks most of Barton Skyway in South Austin during a winter storm Wednesday. (Jay Janner/Usa Today Network Via Reuters, Jay Janner/Usa Today Network Via Reuters)

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After Austin officials fumbled warnings about a persistent power crisis that could leave tens of thousands of people in the dark for more than three days, Mayor Kirk Watson admitted a need to overhaul the city’s emergency communications.

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[Austin doesn’t know when it’ll fully restore power as hundreds of thousands of Texans remain in the cold]

But critics and residents — many still raw from the statewide power outages in 2021 — had little room for forgiveness as this week’s ice storm proved an early test of Watson’s administration just weeks after he took office. In fact, many of the missteps this week suggest little was learned about emergency communications in the past two years. A city report from November 2021 reviewing that response then hammered Austin’s lack of planning, but particularly its history of lackluster communication skills during an emergency event.

Watson and Austin Energy officials waited more than 24 hours after people began losing power this week to hold the first press conference. And hours after they spoke Thursday, the electricity provider walked back its estimate that power would be restored by the end of the third day of outages, extending the sense of uncertainty. As just under 150,000 customers sat without power Thursday afternoon, Austin Energy said it could no longer promise when electricity would be fully restored.

“By having a black hole in communications, unfortunately, the city of Austin has set themselves up for a narrative that they can’t deliver on the services,” said Steven Pedigo, the director of the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ Urban Lab, which focuses on urban policy.

And so it was that Austin, a city of explosive growth and a hub of tech and crypto talent, could not manage to do the seemingly simplest of tasks: send text messages to tell residents when they’d get their power back or that they should prepare for days in the dark.

At Thursday morning’s press conference, Watson said he shares the frustration of many residents about delayed communications.

“I will admit that I deferred to folks so that they could be doing the jobs that they needed to do and [are] experts in the area, but I am frustrated and I know others are frustrated,” Watson said Thursday morning. A press conference about the power outages should have taken place earlier, he added.

Austin Energy is owned by the city, and, in turn, an extension of the local government.

Since the start of the winter storm Monday, Austin Energy used its website and social media to provide meager progress reports, which provided little help for people without an internet connection or with strained cellphone data. The messaging didn’t give specific or individualized timelines about power restoration.

On Wednesday morning, the utility tweeted that some customers could be without power for 12 to 24 hours. Around 4 p.m. Wednesday, it urged people without power to relocate because outages would continue into Thursday. On Wednesday night, after tens of thousands of people had endured much of the day with no electricity, the company extended its timeline of fixing the local power outages to Friday at 6 p.m. Then on Thursday afternoon, the company said it could no longer provide a systemwide restoration estimate.

“We had hoped to make more progress today on restorations and that simply has not happened,” Austin Energy general manager Jackie Sargent said during a press conference Thursday afternoon. “We understand that this makes an already challenging situation even more difficult. We have more than 100 crews and additional resources headed to our area to assist with restoration efforts.”

Residents also criticized the city for not using its text alert system and for not providing details about the scope of the crisis and how long they might go without electricity. But Sargent said Thursday morning that officials opted to wait because of the fluidity of the situation.

“The texting feature is a bit challenging, because if you’re going to text out information, you want to have accurate information,” she said.

Complicating matters for people without electricity, Austin Energy’s online outage reporting tool crashed Wednesday evening. The company asked people to call in their issues instead but customers faced long wait times on their telephone line.

The reporting tool was back up and running Thursday. Sargent said the utility’s system was overwhelmed by the “unusually high” volume of inquiries from residents Wednesday, but it has since worked to manage the demand for information.

While the information from the reporting tool is now accurate, Sargent said customers could still experience “glitches” from time to time.

During the Thursday afternoon press conference, Watson said the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee will begin examining the response to this winter storm with a work session as early as next Tuesday.

“We need to have questions answered including how we communicate with the public, how we make sure the public knows what’s going on and how we prevent this sort of incident in the future,” he said.

During the same press conference, Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk said staff will also be doing an “after action” report to document the challenges and lessons learned from the current crisis. In particular, he pointed to the need for officials to communicate what they can in real time as a lesson learned.

“With every response, we look at how we can do things better in the future,” Cronk said. “We took the lessons that we had from Winter Storm Uri, from previous water boil notices and applied them to this situation. But this situation was unique, so it has its own unique set of challenges.”

But while the local power outages in 2023 are different from the blackouts in February 2021, emergency communication has been a problem in both crises. During Winter Storm Uri — when millions of people lost access to power and water amid record-low temperatures — the Texas Division of Emergency Management failed to send out cellphone notifications via the national Emergency Alert System. In the end, 246 Texans died in the 2021 disaster per the official estimate, though some experts said the true toll could be much higher.

In a November 2021 report, Austin’s city auditor similarly documented a communication collapse and noted the Texas capital had almost a one-year head start when it came to planning for that previous storm.

In February 2020, both Austin and Travis County employees participated in a winter weather training. In attendance were then-Mayor Steve Adler, Cronk, department leadership and operational staff. An “after action report” following that training identified several specific issues with Austin’s preparedness. But according to the city auditor’s office, that 2020 training yielded little action because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That lack of planning was evident to all during Uri as the city underplayed the severity. Warnings to the public were generic at best and included nothing about possible sustained outages.

Officials here “could have done more to indicate the unusual and severe nature of the storm which may have encouraged residents to take the pending storm more seriously and better prepare,” the report said.

“If there were problems in communication or early warning … we don’t expect to see the same problems crop up in the new disaster,” said Irwin Redlener, a senior research scholar at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “You worry about negligence.”

Without adequate communication, power outages can be dangerous because some residents are dependent upon a reliable source of electricity to operate medical devices and ventilator machines, Redlener said.

“The very first rule for a city or any kind of jurisdiction that is dealing with the possibility of a major disaster, they need to have a clear line of communication,” Redlener said. “As soon as people are aware of the fact that we may be dealing with a potential power outage, then people have to be told and they have to be advised about how to make arrangements.”

Redlener said officials need to use multiple platforms, including an intact and robust text messaging system, to be reaching residents.

“It’s just crisis after crisis that’s happened in such a short term that you would imagine that we would have some sort of a communication plan,” Pedigo said. “It just doesn’t seem like we’ve gotten there.”

Pedigo has developed strategies for more than 50 cities and regions in the United States and other countries. He said the city could have intentionally used elected officials as communication ambassadors, as many counties did with COVID-19 protocols.

Katie Blackwell was walking one of her three dogs in her South Austin neighborhood about 3 a.m. Wednesday when the power went out. She immediately reported the outage to Austin Energy via its website and at 3:10 a.m. received a ticket confirming the report’s receipt.

“We are aware of your power outage,” the ticket read. “The next available crew will be assigned. Updates will be provided as available.”

That was about the last helpful communication she received from the utility company.

Not seeing her neighborhood on an outage map, she said she tried reporting it again repeatedly only to encounter a litany of errors.

When she tried reporting through the company’s website again, she received a pop-up message about the system not being available “due to maintenance,” according to a screenshot she shared.

When she tried reporting the outage through a text message, she was told at least twice that her request had “timed out,” according to copies of the messages she shared.

By 7 p.m. Wednesday, the outage would still not appear on the map. She called a help line and after about an hour’s wait got through. A representative told her the ticket had been closed because apparently someone with Austin Energy had driven by the neighborhood early in the morning and determined power was restored, Blackwell said. Another reported ticket would start at the bottom of the queue, she was told.

“We have had no further communication,” Blackwell, 38, recounted Thursday. “You would think with states of emergency happening more and more frequently that that would be in the reverse — that we’d be getting more communication now. But it almost seems like there is less manpower, less people accountable.”

When she tried calling again Thursday morning, she received an automated message offering to schedule a callback starting Sunday.

She said in prior years and incidents, Austin Energy would notify residents of the potential impact of any outages.

“To not have answers, it leaves you feeling like you’re out of control,” Blackwell said. “It’s like a natural disaster right now.”

It took Cage Johnson more than 24 hours after he first lost power to be able to use Austin Energy’s outage reporting tool. He recognized that this year’s outages have different causes than the 2021 storms. But for him, the root cause isn’t the issue.

“The level of service is what we should be focused on — and having power,” he said.

He wasn’t able to commute to his office and couldn’t work from home without power. He also couldn’t leave to warm up somewhere else for very long before coming back to check on his dog. He thinks the city needs to better prepare for such emergencies.

“I don’t think we should throw up our arms and act like it was unavoidable,” Johnson said.

Watson, who is three weeks into his job as mayor, said the city will revisit its disaster communication protocols after it fully addresses the current outages. He told The Texas Tribune that at a minimum, residents should be able to ask questions and receive answers “as opposed to [the utility] just sending press releases.”

Austin Energy also committed to improving its reporting tool for future extreme weather events.

“The best way to assure your residents have faith in what’s going on is good, clear communication,” Watson said. “I’m not sure you can overly communicate under those circumstances, particularly when people are suffering. They’re cold and then they’re in the dark.”

Samantha Aguilar, Alejandro Serrano and Terri Langford contributed to this story.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin and Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chair, have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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