'We have let the people down': Austin mayor apologizes for city's response to power outages

As the Austin area entered Day 3 of widespread electric outages in the Texas state capital, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson on Friday apologized for the city's response, saying that it was unacceptable and promised change going forward.

“I accept responsibility on behalf of the city and I apologize that we have let the people down in Austin,” Watson said. “Providing clear, 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.”

The response has garnered criticism from the community as nearly 115,000 customers were still without power as of 3 p.m. Friday, leaving many in the dark and cold and forcing the closures of businesses and schools. Despite thawing temperatures, some roads remained challenging because of fallen debris and knocked-out traffic signals.

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Austin and Travis County officials said they will continue to work on restoring power and clearing debris, but it could still be several more days before things return to normal.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown said the county is still seeking a disaster declaration in conjunction with the city, which could help fund and speed up recovery, but that decision won’t be made until late Friday.

“Today I will focus on Travis County’s recovery efforts and how do we best support our community as we try to get back to normal,” Brown said. Here's what we know so far:

Does the situation qualify as a disaster?

Officially, yes. Austin and Travis County planned to jointly issue a disaster declaration late Friday as the area prepared to go a fourth day with widespread outages. Neighboring Hays County issued its own disaster declaration earlier Friday.

This comes days after Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell issued a disaster declaration to activate the recovery and rehabilitation steps outlined in the county's Emergency Management Plan. He issued the county's declaration late Tuesday.

A disaster declaration can help cities and counties draw down additional federal resources for local recovery. In many cases a declaration can also help aid people on private properties and private right of ways, officials say.

How many Austin Energy customers are still without power?

According to outage map, there are still more than 119,000 customers without power as of noon Friday.

Jackie Sargent, general manager for Austin Energy, said that crews were still working to restore power throughout the area.

There was still not update on how soon power could be restored to customers, but Sargent said the more than 100 crews are out addressing each outage to restore power as soon as possible.

She said a total of 182,159 customers have seen power restored since outages began early Wednesday. Since 7 a.m. Friday, she said more than 49,000 customers have had power restored.

“I know this has been incredibly frustrating,” Sargent said. “We have seen extensive damage from icing that has slowed our restoration efforts, but today we are cautiously optimistic that we have turned a point overnight in efforts to restore power.”

She said that more outages continue to be addressed as temperatures warm and fewer trees fall, and believes the utility is moving in the right direction to restore power.

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Are Austin water supplies still relatively normal?

Shay Roalson, director of Austin Water, said the utility's treatment plants have operated normally and have not seen a spike in line breaks, and storage levels have remained healthy.

There have been a number of power outages at lift stations, but several have been operating on generators as Austin Energy continues to restore power across the city.

A city wide boil water notice or outage is not expected, Roalson said. However, a boil water notice was issued for West Travis County Public Utility Agency customers after losing power at one of the treatment plants.

Roalson said they are working with the affected customers to get water delivered.

All customers are still encouraged to conserve, by postponing running laundry or using dishwashers, in the short term, until power is fully restored.

What's the best way to stay warm during Austin power outages?

The first rule, safety experts say, is: Do not use generators inside, and give space heaters plenty of room.

Wes Hopkins, assistant chief for Austin-Travis County EMS, said paramedics have received 10 calls for carbon monoxide poisoning involving 32 people. It is unclear if any deaths from the freezing temperatures have been reported.

Most of the poisoning calls involved residents running generators in their garages. One family was running their car in their garage to keep warm.

Vehicles drive down William Cannon Drive between a neighborhood without power and an apartment complex with power Thursday Feb. 2, 2023 in Southwest Austin. Freezing rain and ice damaged trees and power lines across the city.
Vehicles drive down William Cannon Drive between a neighborhood without power and an apartment complex with power Thursday Feb. 2, 2023 in Southwest Austin. Freezing rain and ice damaged trees and power lines across the city.

Hopkins is encouraging the community to not use generators or grills inside. For those using generators , the device needs to be at least 20 feet from your home and exhaust should be facing away from the home. Do not use stoves or ovens for heat, he said.

For those still without power, he said residents should wear multiple layers, including mittens, gloves, and hats, keep curtains closed and wrap in plenty of blankets.

If residents are using space heaters, he reminded everyone to make sure it has plenty of room and an automatic off switch.

Warming centers are also still open for those without power.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Austin Mayor Kirk Watson says city let people down with power outages