Rural Central Texas’ plentiful trees make power outages a frustrating fact of life after storms

A snapped tree limb hangs precariously on Feb. 2, 2023, as a result of the ice storm that knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of Texans. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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LUFKIN — By the glow of a flashlight, Stacy McAlpine and her 10-year-old granddaughter played Go Fish and other card games as they snuggled up next to a propane fireplace.

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Thirty miles south in Robertson County, Elizabeth Smith and her husband cooked freeze-dried camp food over a portable stove.

As she cooked, Smith worried about her elderly mother. She prayed the 83-year-old wouldn’t fall as she navigated her home in the dark.

For nearly six days, folks across Central and East Texas lived without power after an ice storm downed power lines and caused widespread outages last week. Smith and McAlpine lost electricity early Feb. 1. They were among more than 800 customers in rural Leon and Robertson counties who did not have their power restored until Feb. 6.

Their experiences are common among rural Texans. Isolated in hard-to-reach areas with aging infrastructure and limited funds, rural utility companies lack the economies of scale of their urban counterparts. When local infrastructure is stressed, it’s often rural customers who are the first to lose power and the last to regain it.

Unlike in February 2021, when Winter Storm Uri caused the state’s power grid to nearly collapse, this storm caused more localized power outages, including in urban areas such as Dallas and Austin. Ice from the storm broke tree branches, pulled down power lines and in some cases felled entire trees.

Damage was particularly severe in rural areas, where trees outnumber people. McAlpine had two trees fall onto power lines near her home, and a utility pole collapsed near Smith’s home.

“We’ve learned that if a storm is coming in, we better fill up our Jacuzzi bathtub in our master bathroom so we’ll have water to flush the toilet,” Smith said. “Because when our power goes out — which it does when it rains or the wind blows heavily — it’ll stay out for six to eight hours at a time.”

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for seven counties that experienced significant damage last week. The declaration enables the state to provide assistance to people and communities with property damage. Neither Leon nor Robertson was included in the disaster declaration.

Smith and McAlpine both receive power through Navasota Valley Electric Cooperative, a nonprofit, member-owned utility company that serves about 13,000 customers in Central Texas.

During last week’s storm, 68% of Navasota Valley’s system was down.

The company’s linesmen worked nonstop to restore lines and they recruited help from three neighboring electric cooperatives and five contract crews, adding about 150 more crew members to assist with repairs, according to Navasota Valley Electric Cooperative general manager Steve Jones.

But even that wasn’t enough to rapidly address the widespread damage across a service area that touches nine counties.

“It felt like we were right in the heart of the storm,” Jones said. “It was an overwhelming amount of work to do, and we got through it as fast and as efficiently as we could with the resources we had available to us.”

“A very expensive proposition”

When Smith woke up to no power on Wednesday morning, she was prepared. She grew up in this part of Texas — an unincorporated area about 30 miles north of Bryan-College Station — and knew that an incoming storm meant she should expect power outages. And since Smith’s water source is a domestic well that uses an electric pump, no power would also mean no running water.

Smith stocked up on water bottles. She’d filled her bathtub with water and had plenty of freeze-dried meals ready to go.

But facing freezing temperatures, Smith and her husband decided to abandon their home and stay in a hotel in Bryan on Wednesday and Thursday night. It was expensive, but they needed a warm place to sleep and shower before going to work the next day.

“It’s very inconvenient and it’s costly,” Smith said. “We are young and we can survive, but I feel for the elderly and the parents of young children.”

At the end of the weekend, after they were back home, the lights flickered back on. Smith and her husband both held their breath, hoping the power would stay on. But a few hours later, electricity was out again. The couple again checked in to a hotel so they could have a place to shower before going to work on Monday morning.

By the time power was finally restored on Monday, Smith had had enough. She’d gotten an estimate for a whole-home generator and had already signed a contract to purchase it for $14,000.

“This go-around was kind of our last straw,” Smith said. “When you have these frequent outages of this duration, you almost have to have an alternate power source.”

For McAlpine, the incident was reminiscent of January 2022, when she similarly lost power for several days as a result of fallen branches. At the time, she asked the linesmen if he could remove some of the brush from the power lines to prevent a similar issue again.

“And he told me he’d already put in a work order three years earlier,” McAlpine said. “So I am very frustrated.”

Utility companies often have plans to manage trees and other vegetation around power lines. Navasota Valley implemented such a program just three years ago, and it will likely take eight to 10 years to complete. There is already a huge backlog of tree-trimming service orders, Jones said.

So far, the company has completed trimming along five of their 23 substations, Jones said.

“It’s a long process,” he said. “It’s not something that is going to happen overnight.”

Leon County Judge Byron Ryder said that while companies are ultimately responsible for clearing vegetation, the state should step in to offer support.

“It’s a very expensive proposition to do anything these days,” Ryder said. “To make sure we got the power we need, the state needs to help, especially when there are so many lines that need to be taken care of.”

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