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Generators, spoiled food: Slow power repairs anger Austin, Texas

Power outages have left thousands of people without electricity in the Texas capital for nearly a week and are likely to drag on for days longer.

Katy Manganella protesting Austin Energy's handling of an extended power outage.
Katy Manganella protests Austin Energy's handling of an extended power outage.
Paul Weber / AP
SMS

Like thousands of other residents in Austin, Texas, Darin Murphy began a sixth day Monday with no power in his home, wrapping his head around the city's latest demoralizing update: Getting the lights fully back on may take another week.

“We are planning for worst-case scenario,” he said.

Making any plans has been difficult — and downright infuriating — for nearly 20,000 customers who still had no electricity Monday nearly a week after a deadly ice storm crippled the Texas capital and brought down power lines under the weight of fallen and frozen tree limbs.

Winter storm causes 3rd day of dangerous, icy conditions
Winter storm causes 3rd day of dangerous, icy conditions

Winter storm causes 3rd day of dangerous, icy conditions

The storm began Monday as part of an expected "several rounds" of wintry precipitation through Wednesday in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee.

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Schools finally reopened, but noisy generators rattled before dawn and outdoor extension cords running 100 feet or longer became lifelines between neighbors who had power and those who didn't.

The boiling frustration over the slow pace of restoring power, and officials repeatedly saying they could not offer timetables for repairs, escalated Monday as the future of Austin's top city executive plunged into jeopardy even as the number of outages continued falling.

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, a Democrat, called a meeting for this week that will put City Manager Spencer Cronk's job on the line. The move reflected the rising discontent in America's 11th-largest city, where late Sunday night, Austin Energy issued a statement in the face of growing criticism that full power restoration may not happen until Feb. 12 — nearly two weeks after the outages began.

“To all our Austin citizens who are furious about the ongoing power outage, you’re right,” Watson tweeted. “There must be accountability.”

Cronk, who oversees city staff, responded by telling reporters he was focused on the storm recovery and restoring power. Watson did not outright say whether he thinks Cronk should be fired but said Thursday's meeting would “evaluate the employment" of the city manager.

For the vast majority of Austin residents, the lights were on Monday or never went out in the first place. At the peak of the outages, about 170,000 homes and businesses — nearly a third of utility customers in Austin — had no electricity, and in many cases, no heat. By Monday, the outages were down to about 4% of all customers.

But in neighborhoods still without power, familiar scenes unfolded.

What makes the U.S. power grid so vulnerable to blackouts?
What makes the U.S. power grid so vulnerable to blackouts?

What makes the U.S. power grid so vulnerable to blackouts?

The U.S. power grid is extensive — and precarious.

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Spoiled food piled up in trash bins. Power outlets in coffee shops and restaurants were snatched up by people charging battery packs and devices. And on text message groups and social media apps, the sights of repair crews were treated as urgent developments.

Katy Manganella, 37, grew so fed up that when Austin Energy came to her neighborhood Sunday with a charging station for residents — but still no repair trucks — she paced in front of the station holding a poster that read, “This pregnant lady is over it!”

“It’s been pretty miserable,” said Manganella, a therapist who is seven months pregnant and was unable to work last week because of the outages. “How is there no plan for this?”

Austin Energy has described the remaining outages as the most complicated and time-consuming. The storm plunged temperatures near or below freezing and coated trees with ice across Austin, weighing down branches that eventually snapped and crashed onto power lines. Iced-over equipment and crews driving on slick roads also slowed recovery efforts, according to city officials.

Crews have also come across “irate customers” out in the field, said Craig Brooks, director of operations for Austin Energy, including one instance in which police were called. He did not provide specifics about the encounters, describing them as, “Some verbal. Some people protecting their property.”

The utility warned Monday that a new front of high winds and potential storms starting Tuesday could further hamper restoration efforts.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.