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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Austin, recovery from winter storm is slow and piecemeal


Omar Hernandez takes a chainsaw to branches of a fallen tree outside the home of Lory Ponce in Austin, Texas, Feb. 5, 2023.


By DAVE MONTGOMERY and AVA SASANI


Warmer weather has returned to Austin, Texas after the winter storm that began to hit the state early last week. It was a balmy 73 degrees in the city Sunday. But to many residents in and around the capital who were still dealing with the storm’s fallout, progress in the recovery seemed frozen.


More than 30,000 customers in Austin remained without power Sunday night, according to Austin Energy, down from more than 100,000 last week but still a puzzling total to many residents who lost electricity Wednesday. Adding to the misery was the continued presence of fallen trees and downed utility poles throughout the area.


Life without lights, heat and electricity — and, in many cases, water — was a dominant theme of conversations over breakfast and before and after church services. All of it has tested residents’ patience.


“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. Her family had power, unlike her neighbors across the street.


Deepak Swamy, 57, a technology executive who lives in southwest Austin with his wife, Priya, 52, and their 12-year-old twin daughters, was finally notified early Sunday that the power was back on after being without electricity since Wednesday. But as he and his family worked to get their life back to normal, his frustration had not faded.


“I’m past the point of madness,” he said.


Jackie Sargent, general manager of Austin Energy, which powers the city, said in a news conference Sunday that she could not provide an estimate on when the remaining outages would be resolved.


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


The power issues reminded some people of the outages in Texas in 2021, when more than 4 million customers lost electricity and more than 200 people died during a major power grid failure in one of the worst winter storms in the state’s history. But this time, the state’s power grid has maintained “ample supply,” said Gov. Greg Abbott, who added that the current outages in the Austin region, a metropolitan area of about 2.2 million people, were caused by fallen trees and power lines.


Spencer Cronk, Austin’s city manager, said at Sunday’s news conference that the ice that initially covered Austin’s trees weighed down branches and toppled some trees at the root.


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


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


Outside, a tree crew with chain saws was taking apart a giant oak that fell into the front yard from their next-door neighbor’s home. Looking through a glass door into the backyard, the women pointed out where trees from neighbors on three different sides crashed over different sections of the backyard cedar fence.


“Thank God, we’re all OK,” said Lory Ponce, a receptionist for a car dealer. Clara and Lory Ponce have lived in the house for 30 years and share the residence with Clara’s 28-year-old granddaughter Omnee.


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


In many neighborhoods across the city, which Abbott on Saturday designated a state disaster area along with surrounding Williamson County, stacks of chain-sawed tree trunks and limbs made many front lawns look like wooden fortresses. Homeowners, many aided by paid tree services, continued to lament the destruction of once-beloved green canopies that shaded their yards.


Andrew Morris, a marketing manager, spent his Sunday afternoon hauling limbs from his South Austin backyard to the front curb for pickup, a scene repeated across the city and surrounding suburbs. He paused to describe the “cracking and pinging” that accompanied the sound of ice and falling tree limbs during the storm.


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


“There have been concerns of people not treating dark signals as all-way stops,” said Jeff Stensland, a spokesperson for the Austin Transportation Department.


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


“These weather conditions could slow crews’ work and even produce additional damage to the electrical system,” Mitchell said in a statement. He added that customers who were still experiencing outages Sunday afternoon “may want to seek alternative accommodations for at least the remainder of the week.”

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