Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Austin Resource Recovery's estimate of debris left by the storm.

Amid ongoing recovery and cleanup efforts from last week's ice storm, City Council members held their first public discussion of the event and Austin's response Feb. 7.

Officials spent about two hours during their work session hearing from the leaders of several city departments with a focus on Austin Energy as hundreds of power outages remain citywide, affecting thousands of AE customers. The utility says it still expects to restore power to most residents and businesses before Feb. 12—although forecasted heavy winds could further complicate restoration work and potentially bring another round of outages this week.

City resources, including shelter opportunities, remain available for those in need.

During the February briefing, officials shared thanks to the hundreds of city employees involved in disaster response and power recovery as well as their frustration and disappointment with aspects of Austin's emergency management.

City Manager Spencer Cronk, who now faces council evaluation for his oversight of the storm response, opened the meeting with an apology to residents for the city's shortcomings over the past week and said his priority remains on getting the lights back on.

The Feb. 7 briefing was cut short by technical issues, but council will be hearing from AE again in two weeks during a utility oversight committee hearing Feb. 21. Officials may also approve an update to Austin's emergency shelter policies for extreme weather events later this week.

Austin Energy inquiries

Austin's city electric utility is also in line for a formal review over its handling of the ice storm as the council is set to vote for an audit of AE on Feb. 9. Ahead of that and an internal after-action report AE will complete, General Manager Jackie Sargent and interim Chief Operating Officer Stuart Reilly appeared Feb. 7 to share the latest on recovery and next steps.

Both spent time detailing the unique challenges faced by the more than 1,000 crew members still in the field working to restore power, including mutual aid workers from multiple states. Despite the force managing that work, they also said AE cannot provide any more individual or localized outage information given the difficulties tied to remaining outages.

“We’ll just keep whittling away at it. As we get further and further along with fewer and fewer outages, the outages are getting more and more complex, so the pace of it kind of slows down,” Reilly said.

Several council members also forwarded questions about AE's communications during and after the event, a top complaint from officials and constituents. AE leaders said actions such as the utility's use of media briefings instead of customer contact and the early release of overly optimistic power restoration timelines last week will be examined in the forthcoming after-action report.

District 4 Council Member Chito Vela called attention to the issue of managing residents' expectations, which he said was one of the city's top failings last week. Moving forward, he asked AE to consider better ways to avoid overpromising and underdelivering results to avoid losing credibility during an emergency.

Vela also asked about the outlook for burying AE power lines in the future to avoid the risk of damage thanks to ice, wind and other weather effects. Reilly said moving local electrical systems underground would be a costly proposition, based on an estimate that 1 mile of overhead line costs $150,000 compared to $1.5 million for the same work underground.

Given city development rules requiring new buildings to address power lines, Reilly also said that change could mean costlier new construction in town. Still, Vela—who has vocally pushed for lower development costs on the council dais—said council should weigh policy related to buried lines.

“After the last three years, if there’s one place that I would give on housing costs, it would be ... strengthening our critical infrastructure,” he said. “You can’t put a cost on it. It’s just so horrible when things go down.”

Officials also drew parallels between failures in the city's response this year and many similar issues raised in the aftermath of events such as 2021's Winter Storm Uri.

While the situations are broadly different—a statewide power grid collapse and a regional ice storm—council members including District 10's Alison Alter said Austin has yet to adapt to recommendations raised in recent years. Alter, comparing the lacking early February storm response to Groundhog Day, said things such as public communications, issues with AE's outage map, vegetation management around power infrastructure, high-level disaster planning and internal organization were all previously noted as areas for attention.

“Every single thing that we’ve observed, that my colleagues here—many of whom are new to the dais—have seen, we saw before. ... There’s so many places where we heard these challenges; we talked about them; they were raised,” Alter said. “We have got to figure out how we learn the lessons.”

AE leaders said residents still affected by outages can expect multiple daily updates from the utility as work continues. Crews are still responding to outages based on priority and will likely be facing the most complicated incidents in the next days, Reilly said.

Cleanup continues

As AE remains focused on outages and readying for this week's heavy winds, other city departments are also working to keep public spaces safe and assist residents clearing trees and other debris citywide.

After service disruptions last week, Austin Resource Recovery has caught up to its regular collection schedule while managing large loads of downed limbs. According to department leaders, ARR and public works teams are collaborating on pickup work that has already outpaced demand from the 2021 winter storm.

Thanks to both city workers and contracted help, ARR Deputy Director Richard McHale estimated there is around 25,000 dump trucks’ worth of debris to be cleared in Austin as a result of the weather event. He said ARR has logged around 13,000 service orders in the past week alone, compared to 4,900 orders logged in more than five weeks of Winter Storm Uri response.

Pickups will continue throughout town, although work on the east side—where trees tend to be smaller—could move along faster than in West Austin's and Northwest Austin's denser tree canopy. McHale said most storm pickups should be completed before the end of the month but could stretch on later into the spring in some cases.