How freezing rain, tree-lined neighborhoods and above-ground power lines prolonged Austin power outages

Austin Energy lineworker Brian Behrens repairs power lines on Saturday. (Leila Saidane/The Texas Tribune, Leila Saidane/The Texas Tribune)

A damaging ice storm swept across Central Texas beginning Jan. 30, plunging much of Austin into darkness for days after causing trees and power lines to fall. Statewide, more than 400,000 Texas electricity customers didn’t have electricity at one point. The state’s capital was the epicenter as more than 170,000 Austin Energy customers were without power at the height of the crisis. And as of Feb. 7, many may have to wait several more days for crews to get them back online.

Austin city officials have faced criticism about fumbled communications. Some residents could end up going more than 10 days without power.

The ice storm was worse than predicted

Icicles hang from telephone poles and power lines after an ice storm in north Austin on Feb. 1, 2023.
Icicles hang from telephone poles and power lines in North Austin on Feb. 1 after an ice storm. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

At a news conference on Feb. 2, Elton Richards, Austin Energy’s vice president of field operations, said that although crews were on call on the morning of Feb.1, the storm was worse than expected. The weather forecast called for a quarter-inch of ice but as conditions worsened three-quarters of an inch accumulated.

“I just want customers to know we didn’t get blindsided. We do prepare for you guys and we did the best that we could on this one,” Richards said. “We got the crews here as fast as we could.”

Half an inch of ice on trees can mean the difference between limbs staying up or falling and taking power lines down with them. Ice can increase the weight of tree branches up to 30 times, according to Kerri Dunn, a communications manager for electricity provider Oncor. This becomes a larger issue when it comes to live oaks and evergreen trees that keep their leaves throughout the winter, collecting more ice than trees that shed their leaves in the fall.

Austin officials said the sheer number of downed trees, power lines and electricity poles — and the complicated task of making repairs — obstructed efforts to quickly restore power for tens of thousands.

“I’m sorry for how long this is taking,” Austin Energy general manager Jackie Sargent said at a press conference.

Texas cities aren’t built for extreme cold

A technician from the Pedernales Electric Cooperative arrives to check on a power line in northwest Austin, Texas on February 1, 2023. Power outages swept across the region as a result of damage to power lines from ice and fallen tree limbs.
A technician from the Pedernales Electric Cooperative arrives to check on a power line in Northwest Austin on Feb. 1. Power outages swept across the region as a result of damage to power lines from ice and fallen tree limbs. Credit: Angela Wang for The Texas Tribune

Much of Texas’ infrastructure was not built to sustain such extreme cold weather. And local governments historically have not prepared for winter weather — in large part due to the costs. Experts said cities and states across the U.S. must rethink their winter weather preparedness. That can include burying power lines, redeploying emergency response units and keeping trees trimmed,

“When we talk about adaptation, when we talk about resilience, what it means is that day to day, it costs more money to do that,” said Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. “Now, it saves it in the long run. It saves it both in terms of economic loss as well as lives and livelihoods. But that [cost] is unavoidable.”

The 2023 outages differed from Winter Storm Uri. During that 2021 storm, the state’s electric grid nearly collapsed due to imbalances in electricity demand and power supply amid subfreezing temperatures across a large swath of the state. Still, the weather in 2023 ultimately caused major disruptions and closures.

“One thing Uri showed us is how vulnerable we are to any weather event that’s even a little bit outside of our normal operating conditions,” said Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist and the director for the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M University. “Just a few degrees outside of that, and things go to hell very quickly.”

Austin fumbled warnings about prolonged outages

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson speaks with the press to discuss the city's response to mass power outages after a ice storm, at the Combined Transportation, Emergency, and Communications Center in Austin on Feb. 3, 2023.
At the Combined Transportation, Emergency and Communications Center, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson speaks with the press on Feb. 3 about the city’s response to mass power outages after an ice storm. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

This year’s storm and subsequent prolonged power outages suggested little was done to fix city emergency communications systems after the 2021 winter storm. Austin Energy customers did not receive communications about when their power would be restored — or that they should prepare for days without electricity — until many had gone two days without. Austin Energy originally said power would be restored by 6 p.m. Feb. 3. But then Austin Energy said it could no longer promise when electricity would be fully restored. Austin Mayor Kirk Watson and Austin Energy officials took more than 24 hours after customers began losing power to hold their first press conference. On Feb. 5, Austin Energy said some customers wouldn’t have power back until Feb. 12 — or maybe later.

“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.

People helped their neighbors and worked to occupy young children

Hua Chen, Huilan Liu and Juxiang Wang gather at a neighbor’s house for an improvised potluck cooked using propane and butane burners during the power outages onset by ice storms in Austin, Texas on Wednesday, February 1, 2023.
Hua Chen, Huilan Liu and Juxiang Wang gather at a neighbor’s house on Feb. 1 for an improvised potluck cooked using propane and butane burners during the power outages caused by ice storms in Austin. Credit: Angela Wang for The Texas Tribune

Parents around the Austin area faced an added challenge of finding places to keep their children warm and occupied when schools were closed for most of the week. Jennifer Parker and Justin Havird spent their Saturday looking for places to go to escape their powerless home with their two small children, Arlo and Vernon, ages 5 and 2.

“We woke up and started hunting for warm places to go,” Havird said. The day started with a trip to Whole Foods for breakfast, then a playground stop to give the kids some exercise time outside and finally a library visit for another distraction.

As the days without electricity persisted, Austinites stepped up to help their friends and neighbors — from sharing hand warmers and bringing by warm meals to loaning out chainsaws for tree removals.

The 2023 storm opened previous wounds

P.D. Perry Jr. looks out at the fallen tree limbs in his backyard in South Austin on February 4, 2023.
P.D. Perry Jr. looks out at the fallen tree limbs in his backyard in South Austin on Feb. 4. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

After days of freezing rain, icy roads and power outages, many Texans were reminded of the power grid disaster from 2021. Some experts worry these winter crises can be damaging to people’s mental health.

Luz Maria Garcini, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Rice University, said weather events over the past couple years have been traumatic for Texans.

“The loss of control and autonomy in their environment leads to anxiety,” Garcini said. “This sustained anxiety leads to depression because you get exhausted and people start isolating.”

Disclosure: Oncor, Rice University, Texas A&M University and University of Texas at Austin 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.