Photo by TxDOT Austin
Tuesday, February 16, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Winter weather shuts down the city

The storm that brought Austin to a standstill continues to impact city operations this week. Services are closed across the city due to extreme weather with an expectation that more winter is on the way.

City officials announced Monday that all city operations, save essential services, would be shut down on Tuesday and Wednesday. All city meetings on those days are canceled as is today’s Travis County Commissioners Court meeting.

The state of Texas, Travis County and Austin have all issued disaster declarations due to the extreme winter weather. All flights scheduled for arrival or departure today at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport have been canceled.

“The winter weather conditions we are experiencing are serious and can be deadly if we don’t all take precautions,” Travis County Judge Andy Brown said. “We encourage everyone to seek shelter and stay off the roads unless it is an emergency.”

Throughout the day, city officials reiterated pleas to stay home and urged those who still had power to conserve it. Some 189,000 homes in Austin were without power all of Monday and going into Tuesday after mandatory rolling blackouts cut off power to all circuits in the city that did not support critical infrastructure like fire stations or hospitals. Statewide, more than 2 million Texans were without power Monday.

At a press conference, Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent urged the city to “come together as a community and help each other during this very unprecedented time.”

“We take direction from (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas), and the things that we do are helping to strengthen and maintain the Texas grid,” Sargent said. “Hopefully, we can work together and reduce demand enough so that we can get power back on to our customers.”

The dangerous winter storm that brought icy roads, dumped snow and caused power outages throughout the state also led to an outage at the city’s data center, according to Communications and Technology Management spokeswoman Kate Wilson.

As a result of that outage, which lasted from early morning until about 3 p.m. Monday, the city’s website was down and Austinites were unable to reach anyone at 311.

Wilson explained that the city information hotline and the website are connected, with both using the same VPN, or virtual private network. That network allows city employees to log in safely and access city documents as well as respond to 311 calls.

Wilson said she did not know whether the data center power outage was a result of a request from ERCOT, which has control over the state’s electric grid, or some other reason. But as a result, city officials had to provide a gas-powered generator for the data center. The generator, which is likely running on diesel fuel, will continue to power the data center until the outage is over. That is unlikely to happen before late Tuesday or Wednesday.

Though the city has set up warming centers for those who need shelter, officials repeatedly cautioned residents not to leave their homes unless it was necessary. The city has set up a hotline at 512-305-4233 for those looking for information about the shelters, and advised those in need of food to call 211.

Throughout the week, the city will continue disseminating information directly through Twitter and other social media channels.

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, which is the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.

Public Works Department: This city department oversees major capital improvement projects; maintains the city's trails, roadways, and bridges; and promotes safe travel on city thoroughfares.

Transportation Department: This city department is responsible for municipal transportation planning including roadways and bikeways.

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