Ice storm leaves students, teachers in dark

Lasting power outages leave Austinites angry, overwhelmed


Dave Winter

A worker for Asplundh Tree Expert Co., a private tree service company that works with Austin Energy, cuts branches away from power lines moments before Austin Energy restored power to about 20 homes in the Northwest Hills neighborhood late Sunday afternoon. The homes had been without power since Wednesday afternoon. A walk around the block on Monday morning revealed that two home were still completely dark, and one of them had a generator running in the driveway, a indicator that some homes in the neighborhood are likely still without power.

Ingrid Smith, co-online managing editor and co-news editor

This week, as an icy storm passed through Austin, what began as a picturesque winter wonderland quickly turned into an electrical power catastrophe. As layers of ice grew thick, and silence was pierced by splitting limbs and shattering branches, the city went dark. Austin was transformed into a wasteland of fallen tree limbs, iced-over roads without traffic signals and pitch-black neighborhoods. According to Austin Energy, nearly 265,000 customers, an estimated 660,000 people, had been affected by power outages by Thursday. 

As mayor, I accept the responsibility on behalf of the city and I apologize that we’ve let people down in Austin.

— Mayor Kirk Watson

On Jan. 30, The Shield asked 42 people to predict the number of school cancellations the week had in store. The majority predicted two days, but only seven voters were correct. With many facilities out of power and students unable to leave their houses, AISD canceled four days of school in a row. With power now restored at all campuses but Hill and Perez, AISD will resume classes on Monday

During a Friday morning press conference, Mayor Kirk Watson issued Austinites an apology.

“As mayor, I accept the responsibility on behalf of the city and I apologize that we’ve let people down in Austin,” Watson said.

Residents were originally told that the outages would last no more than 12 to 24 hours. Then, they were told that power would be restored by 6 p.m. on Friday. Despite the help of out-of-city energy crews, Austin Energy now reports that it is unable to provide estimated restoration times. 

Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent echoed Watson’s sentiment.

“I’m sorry for how long this is taking,” Sargent said during a Sunday press conference.

As of Sunday night, Austin Energy reports that 94% of customers have power. 

We’re kind of all frozen, like we are kind of just trying to survive at this point.

— junior Angelina Rowley

But according to Austin Energy’s outage map, five major zip codes within McCallum’s attendance zone (78722, 78731, 78751,78756, 78757) reflect over 8,900 standing power outages combined. Although significant progress has been made toward restoring power, Austin Energy claims that remaining power outages will likely require more complex repairs and take longer. 

“We are now focusing on the most complicated & time-consuming restoration efforts,” Austin Energy tweeted on Sunday night. “Incoming wind & rain will pose additional challenges. Based on current information, we expect to restore power to nearly all remaining customers by Sunday, Feb. 12.”

For freshman Crow Newman, power outages caused an unexpected family reunion. But card games are no fun in the dark, and Newman’s family quickly split up.

“We went to my grandma’s apartment and played cards and stuff for a few hours,” Newman said. “My dad and I decided to sleep at home, even though it was cold, and the rest of my family stayed at my grandma’s. That night, her power also went out, so they split up. Every one of us was in a different place.”

Implying that some customers lost power more than once, Austin Energy claims that 308,000 customers have regained power since the beginning of the historic storm. Newman’s family was one of them. After days spent nestled up against the heater in his family’s car, Newman’s power returned on Friday night.

“I was watching a movie with my boyfriend when I got like eight texts from my family telling me that the power was back on,” Newman said. “It was really nice to be at home again with warmth and light and stuff.”

Weighed down by ice, a tree brings down a power line in front of McCallum on Feb. 1. (Dave Winter)

Junior Angelina Rowley has been without power since Wednesday morning. As of Sunday, Rowley has received no more than 15 random minutes of power and no Austin Energy crew assigned to her area. She has, however, caught a cold. Triple-layered socks, a sweatshirt, two hoodies, a scarf and earmuffs have become Rowley’s uniform. 

“We’re kind of all frozen, like we are kind of just trying to survive at this point,” Rowley said. “Everything’s kind of just about trying to stay warm. I’m not really processing anything, like the days just keep going by.”

With no internet connection at her house, Rowley is unable to do homework remotely. Late assignments are piling up, tests are in limbo and she has to drive to her mom’s office just to get her computer to work. 

I take so much pride in what I do as a chemistry teacher, but I also recognize that my class is not at the forefront of people’s minds right now.

— chemistry teacher Tabitha Villarreal

“I’ve been freaking out,” Rowley said. “I feel really isolated without the internet. I was trying to be really productive during this period, but I’ve literally been shut off from like the world. I literally have no internet in my house or anything, so I’m having to go places and see if I can get internet to do homework. Even then, it’s not comfortable because I don’t know where anything is.”

After being in college during Austin’s “Snowmageddon” of 2021, chemistry teacher Tabitha Villarreal knows what it’s like for a power outage to put a student’s life on hold. As the teacher this time, Villarreal postponed tests and due dates in an effort to save students without power from even more stress.

“I take so much pride in what I do as a chemistry teacher, but I also recognize that my class is not at the forefront of people’s minds right now,” Villarreal said. “Recognizing that, I need to make sure that my class is not causing any stress for my students.”

After losing power Tuesday night, Villarreal nearly jumped for joy when her lights came back on Saturday morning. While Villarreal welcomed the chance to catch up on comics and spend time with her roommates and their cats, these were the opposite of fun snow days. With no way to charge her computer, doing work was off the table. With no way to cook food, she had no choice but to spend money on fast food. 

“I’m a bit annoyed if anything,” Villarreal said. “I was fine without power, but I’m also young and able to get around easily. I could only imagine how people with young kids or people who are diabetics with their insulin had to deal with this whole ordeal. Like, yes, not having a heater sucks, but the problem is so much bigger than that.”

I don’t think I have ever come out of these weather storms and thought the city handled it well.

— chemistry teacher Tabitha Villarreal

On Rowley’s fifth day without power, food rotting in the fridge and no promise of a warm shower in the near future, she feels overwhelmed and anxious at the prospect of returning to school.

“I need power. Please,” Rowley said. “I have the ability now to go to school. My electronics will be decently charged. I’ll be fine maybe the first day, but if it progresses during the week and if I have to travel to my uncle’s house in Pflugerville to take a warm shower, that would be terrible. Like, I don’t know how I would be able to function.”

While an Austin Energy official likened restoration efforts to a “full-blown war” during  Sunday’s press conference, residents like Rowley and Villarreal find it hard to be forgiving. The lack of power, lack of communication and lack of projection for power restoration have left residents feeling like something needs to change.

“City officials have to do better with their response and transparency with the public,” Villarreal said. “It’s a hard thing to predict and prepare for, but I don’t think I have ever come out of these weather storms and thought the city handled it well.”