AUSTIN, Texas - The February 2023 ice storm left 30% of Austin Energy customers without power at one point, damaged 10.5 million trees and left behind 170,000 tons of debris that required clean-up by Austin Resource Recovery, according to the Austin-Travis County Winter Storm Mara After-Action Report.
"This amount of debris management compares to a level 1 hurricane," said an HSEM spokesperson in a statement shared with FOX 7.
The report lists almost 80 recommendations for Austin and Travis County going forward. Each recommendation falls into one of six areas: Communications, Planning & Preparation, Operational Coordination, Resource/Asset Management, Technology & Infrastructure and Shelter Management.
"Austin’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has taken steps to improve items found in the After-Action Report as outlined in the report’s adjoining memo, and under new leadership, will continue to make operational improvements to emergency preparedness, response and recovery," said the HSEM spokesperson.
Included in the recommendations, evaluating the process of supporting Medically Vulnerable Registry (MVR) customers and exploring the possible development of a comprehensive technology tool to consolidate disaster-related data.
Included with the Austin-Travis County report are an Austin Resource Recovery report and an Austin Energy report, which comes on the heels of an audit of the utility’s vegetation management program.
"I want to be clear that the vegetation management efforts are not the culprit of the widespread outages that we had. The tree canopies were much higher than our trim zone," said Lisa Martin, deputy general manager and chief operating officer of Austin Energy. "Trees that were outside our trim zone broke and fell into our power lines, causing some of those outages. "
However, vegetation management improvements will be part of overall efforts to improve infrastructure resiliency going forward. Those efforts include exploring the option of putting power lines below ground.
"What we're doing right now is conducting an undergrounding feasibility study to determine where are the best locations to move power lines underground," said Martin. "And in a lot of places, it's in new construction as we build out the city even more."
Many residents during the storm were left in the dark, literally and figuratively. Something the report addresses is Austin Energy’s handling of estimated times of restoration (ETRs).
"We're looking at new damage assessment procedures. We're looking at a phased approach. When a storm passes, it's really hard to be able to tell you what time the restoration will be completed without a big picture," said Martin. "So damage assessment gives you a big picture of all the damage that's out there. And then if we break the restoration into a phased approach, then we can provide more information to the community."
The report also notes some changes implemented by Austin Energy immediately after the storm, including learning from peer utilities and improving the outage map, so it can handle more data traffic.
"I think it's just important to recognize that it takes all of us. So every city department has an area of expertise, and this After-Action Report highlights the ways that each department is doing its part to improve," said Martin. "But the community is an essential part of this as well. They have to get ready and stay ready. "
According to HSEM, Austin residents can attend monthly Emergency Preparedness Pop-Up Events in every Council district, attend the new Ready Together preparedness classroom training, and use the Neighborhood Preparedness Guide to plan with their families and neighbors.
To read the full report, click here.
Recommendations will be incorporated into a 'Corrective Action Plan' that is expected to be completed by December.