City departments continue to evaluate their response to the ice storm and related power outages that hit Austin in late January and early February, including some operational changes and ongoing reviews now underway at Austin Energy.

A detailed breakdown of AE's work amid the winter weather and power blackouts—and recommended improvements—will be released later this year through an internal after-action report. For now, utility leaders provided several updates on new actions taken and reflections from the storm during a Feb. 21 City Council committee meeting for AE oversight.

Although all of the hundreds of thousands of storm-related outages have now been addressed by the city, recovery and cleanup efforts remain in progress citywide. Officials said they now remain focused on further analysis of the initial response that, in part, cost former City Manager Spencer Cronk his job.

“In a crisis, an organization needs to be adaptable, empathetic, prepared, resilient, transparent and trustworthy. While as an organization we made an effort to have fidelity to all of those principles, it is clear that from the public response that we may have fallen short on some of those items," interim City Manager Jesús Garza said.

Austin Energy updates

Much like with 2021's Winter Storm Uri, an after-action report on this year's Winter Storm Mara will not likely be completed for many months. For the time being, however, AE General Manager Jackie Sargent shared several notes on what she highlighted as signs of progress within AE so far.

“We know that there are many questions about the response effort, and we know waiting months for an after-action report will not provide the answers that our community is demanding of us right now," she said.

Pointing to public frustration over the shifting timeline for power restoration provided by AE and the city during the worst of the outages, Sargent said she has directed utility staff to re-examine how information on systemwide restoration work can be shared going forward. And following resident reports of system errors this month, AE leaders also said they are taking on several potential fixes to the online outage map.

AE has also requested two additional emergency management staff positions to handle future disaster responses; is evaluating how peer utilities in New York and Florida handle severe weather emergencies; and is cooperating with a council-ordered vegetation management audit.

Sargent also said AE will request funding for a third-party study into the potential cost of moving civic power distribution lines underground. While no formal cost evaluation for that process exists, Sargent said she believes burying AE's lines would likely be "prohibitively expensive and very disruptive."

AE staff noted that placing power lines underground has become a standard practice for new development in Austin. Looking ahead, several council members expressed interest in finding ways to encourage burying more existing lines as well.

Communication breakdown

A key issue that has been identified by residents, council members and city staff in the storm's wake is the way in which Austin gets emergency information out to residents—a process Mayor Kirk Watson labeled as "horrendous."

“Communication is very much lacking during these climate crises. People don’t know where to go, who to talk to," said Susana Almanza, executive director of the East Austin environmental and social justice group PODER, during the public comment period Feb. 21. "Even though all the information was on the internet, we have a digital divide, and we have people that don’t know how to navigate the internet. So we have to really come up with a communications strategy where we can make sure that everybody’s informed and that everyone is protected.”

During the most recent storm, Sargent said AE initially focused its storm-related communications on messaging through the press and social media. She also said customers who previously registered for outage notifications were texted information immediately, but that much of the city remained in the dark about the situation without any personal updates to rely on in the moment—something that could change going forward.

“In addition to the automated texts, I acknowledge that we should have started directly texting and emailing customers sooner with what limited information we had at that time," she said. "It’s clear the public wants and needs information to make decisions, even if it’s not a definitive estimated time of restoration. Next time, we’ll send out those communications more quickly.”

The utility continues to work with other city offices on communications coordination for disasters, according to Sargent. Council members also asked AE to improve notifications of non-English speakers and find ways to connect with those without internet access or proficiency, such as radio announcements.

Overall, Watson said he hopes to see a reformed communications plan rolled out within 45 days. In the weeks after that process is complete, he said he would also like to run a disaster simulation to evaluate where the city stands given his view of Austin's flawed messaging during emergencies.

“I don’t know how other cities do it, but my goodness I hope we’re not leading the pack," he said.