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News / Nation & World

Austin mayor apologizes as city struggles to restore power

By KEN MILLER and DAVID SHARP, Associated Press
Published: February 3, 2023, 1:06pm
5 Photos
An iced over pedestrian walkway is lined by trees that are covered with ice from a few days of sleet and rain, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, in Dallas.
An iced over pedestrian walkway is lined by trees that are covered with ice from a few days of sleet and rain, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez) Photo Gallery

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Widespread power outages in the Texas capital stretched into a third day Friday for thousands of residents following a winter storm that was spiraling into a management crisis as city leaders remained unable to say when all the lights would come back on.

Impatience among frazzled, freezing and fed-up families in Austin escalated even as milder weather returned. On Friday, the newly elected mayor stood before cameras and apologized after a week of slow repairs, failed technology and lacking communication with the public.

“The city let its citizens down. The situation is unacceptable to the community, and it’s unacceptable to me,” said Mayor Kirk Watson, a Democrat who took office in January. “And I’m sorry.”

While New England began shivering and closed schools under an Arctic blast expected to bring the coldest weather in a generation, temperatures finally started to moderate Friday and bring some relief to Austin, where at any given time about 30% of customers in the nation’s 11th-largest city have been without electricity since the ice storm swept into Texas late Monday.

City officials said Friday significant progress was finally being made as frozen equipment and roads thawed. About 117,000 still lacked power, according to Austin Energy.

But frustration was not melting away for residents who still had no assurances or sense of when their power would return.

“I just honestly think they were not prepared for any of this,” said Edward Kim, 43, whose home had been without power or heat since Wednesday. He was using a generator to keep his house “on life support,” while his wife took her 7-year-old daughter to her office to get a shower.

Steve Spencer, 63, had also been without power since Wednesday — despite the city’s utility calling him twice to tell him his power was on, he said. “I don’t know what’s going on down there,” he said.

Will Rison didn’t lose power, but his parents, who are in their 70s, have been without electricity since Wednesday. They’ve been coming to his to charge their phones and take showers.

“You can only wrap yourself in so many blankets and wait it out,” Rison said.

The outages recalled the 2021 blackouts in Texas, when hundreds of people died after the state’s power grid was pushed to the brink of total failure because of a lack of generation. That was not the case this week, as the grid maintained sufficient reserves.

Energy experts said Austin’s dense tree canopy made the outages caused by fallen trees and iced-over power lines more widespread. Most power lines are overhead, and Austin officials said burying existing lines would be expensive and more difficult to repair.

Austin Energy, the city’s utility, at one point said power would be fully restored by Friday evening but then backtracked, saying the damage was worse than originally calculated.

“This was a reminder you can have plenty of power plants but still have an unreliable grid,” said Michael Webber, professor of energy resources at the University of Texas at Austin. “The wires and poles are the weak point of the system.”

There have been no reports of deaths from this week’s power outages, though the storm and freeze have been blamed for at least 12 traffic fatalities on slick roads in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Two fatal crashes occurred in Fort Worth as streets refroze overnight. Lows on Friday night could reach freezing again and potentially glaze over the streets again.

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In New England, temperatures began plunging Friday morning, and forecasters said wind chills — the combined effect of wind and cold air on exposed skin — in some higher elevations could punch below minus 50 (minus 45 Celsius). Winds in some of those spots have already topped 80 mph.

Wind gusts began cutting power Friday to some homes in New England, and many communities opened warming shelters, including in Maine and Connecticut.

Schools closed Friday in Boston and in Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city. “This is simply too cold for students who walk home,” read an announcement on the Manchester district’s website.

Some ski areas in the two states scaled back operations, eliminating night skiing or reducing lift operations. In Maine, a popular weekend pond hockey tournament was postponed, and the National Toboggan Championship pushed Saturday’s races back by a day.

Some of the most extreme weather was expected atop New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the Northeast’s highest peak and home to a weather observatory, where winds gusted to nearly 100 mph (160 kph) and wind chills could reach minus 100 (minus 73 Celsius).

The system is expected to move out of the region Sunday.