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City crews clean up, restore power after thunderstorm

Friday, May 16, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Following a surprisingly strong thunderstorm Wednesday night that pelted Central Austin with golf ball-size hail and ripped up massive trees across the area, Austin Energy crews are working steadily to restore power to thousands of customers. A line of heavy thunderstorms hit the Austin area about 12:30am, causing widespread wind damage and forcing the closure of some elementary schools and most city golf courses.


“We have over 360 locations we have identified where we have to send a crew and do the work to restore energy,” Austin Energy General Manager Roger Duncan said during an afternoon briefing at the city’s Emergency Operations Center. “We have restored the large individual blocks. What we are experiencing now is numerous calls from customers where there are between one and five customers out of energy. It’s going to be very slow work to restore these individual outages in people’s homes. We think the estimated time for restoration of full service is mid-morning, Saturday morning.”


By Thursday evening, the number of locations needing attention from crews had dropped from 360 to 260. The number of customers without power was just 6,000, down from a peak of 40,000 immediately after the storm.


Still, the prospect of hundreds or thousands of homes without electricity prompted the city to open an emergency shelter at the Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center, which will remain open until Saturday evening if necessary. “We do not want to assume that everyone has an alternate location or can easily get into a hotel,” said Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza. “For those individuals that may need somewhere to go, we will be providing shelter.”


Austin Energy crews will work around the clock to get service restored to all customers. The city-owned utility had 34 repair crews on the streets on Thursday and an additional 20 contract tree-trimming crews. The fiscal impact of the storm has not yet been determined.


As utility crews work to restore service, employees of Solid Waste Services will be making the rounds to pick up storm debris. “We’ve all been through this before,” said Assistant Director Don Birkner. “Get your trees cut up and to the curb, and Solid Waste Services will pick up the debris. We will make as many runs through the affected area until we get all the debris picked up.” The department will also hold a special collection on Saturday for food that has spoiled due to lack of refrigeration.


Thursday evening, the city deployed four electronic message boards in storm-affected areas to relay information about the cleanup efforts. Volunteers from the city’s Community Emergency Response Team placed fliers with information at neighborhood fire stations. Those volunteers will also assist with the distribution of ice to homes still without electricity.


City facilities were not immune to damage from the storm. Almost all of the city-owned vehicles that were parked at CTECC when the storm hit suffered hail damage, and more than 20 had their windows destroyed. The high winds knocked down tree limbs at city parks, including Pease Park and Zilker Park. Trees at most city golf courses were also damaged, causing the Parks and Recreation Department to close all city courses except Roy Kizer in southeast Austin.


The storm was even felt at City Hall. While the building itself was not damaged, “we lost our significant cypress tree here at City Hall. It snapped the trunk in two,” Mayor Will Wynn noted during the opening of Thursday’s Council meeting. “There’s lots of damage all over this community, and we want to help as quickly as we can.”

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