The communities of Pflugerville and Hutto are working to clean up fallen tree branches and repair damage from the February winter ice storm that left tens of thousands of residents temporarily without power.

The efforts could take months, and city officials and community leaders are informing residents about available resources and services offered.

City, county and state officials said they will not have damage estimates for at least several weeks, but leaders from Travis and Williamson counties and Texas have already issued disaster declarations. Officials said those measures were key to open up federal resources to boost local relief efforts.

“The damage that we experienced was similar [to] a tornado, if you will,” said Armando Perez, area manager for power provider Oncor. “The devastation across the communities was severe.”

What happened

Beginning Feb. 1, ice began accumulating on trees and infrastructure for roughly two days, weighing them down and resulting in thousands of power outages and wide swaths of debris in roads and residential and business areas through both cities. Local officials said icy roads were also unsafe for travel through Feb. 2.

Arborist Lee Evans said his company, Austin-based Certified Arbor Care, received more than 850 calls for service by noon Feb. 1. That included calls in Williamson and Travis counties, he said.

“I thought [Uri] was a once in a lifetime event,” Evans said. “Obviously this is proving me wrong. I hope this is not the new norm, but if it is, then as arborists we’re going to have to do a lot more mitigation work that includes tree trimming.”

To help explain the destruction, Evans said just a half inch of ice accumulation can add an extra 7,000 pounds to a tree that is 30 inches in diameter at the trunk.

Perez said even though thousands lost electricity during the storm, the power outages were not tied to grid conditions or power availability.

Oncor, which services tens of thousands of residents in the Hutto and Pflugerville area, could not provide extensive outage information for the area.

However, in Williamson County, Perez said the number of outages reached about 31,300 on Feb. 1, and in Travis County, outages peaked at about 16,000 on Feb. 2.

Hutto Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Zito Jr. said the outages were difficult to predict, and the city worked closely with Oncor in the days following the storm.

“Everybody likes to point fingers when things go bad, but really this is just one of those things where you just have to work through getting the infrastructure put back in place,” Zito said.

Next steps

Now that winter storm disaster declarations are in place, more federal funding can be allocated to assist with relief efforts.

Officials in Hutto and Pflugerville said it is still too soon to know what federal resources will come or how they will be used, but local cleanup efforts are already in progress.

The city of Hutto scheduled a debris removal event March 11 at Adam Orgain Park, and in Pflugerville, officials opened three debris drop-off areas through Feb. 20 and will offer curbside pickup for debris through Feb. 17.

Officials and staff from both cities said aid efforts will continue to evolve as the scope of the damage becomes more clear.

Pflugerville staff said in a Feb. 3 email to Community Impact that the city’s emergency management team is working with regional partners to identify resources for storm recovery.

One entity working with local governments to provide aid after the storm is a Central Texas nonprofit called the Austin Disaster Relief Network.

ADRN Communications Director Kat Cannon said the organization, which is a network of more than 200 Central Texas churches, is coordinating volunteers to help residents clean up tree branches. That includes those living in Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto.

Meanwhile, representatives from Pflugerville and Hutto ISDs said they will explore options for making up lost instructional time. Both districts were closed for four days during the storm—double the two days of inclement weather closures Texas school districts are allowed per school year.

In February 2021, the Texas Education Agency offered waivers to school districts that had to close because of Winter Storm Uri. As of Feb. 6, the TEA had not announced a similar program for this school year.

PfISD officials were not available for an interview as of press time, but HISD Assistant Superintendent of Operations Henry Gideon said TEA waivers notwithstanding, the district will likely have to add two school days to the end of the year.

“There are things that we don’t know for sure yet, but certainly we’re going to have to make up for lost instruction,” Gideon said.

To prevent outages during similar freezes in the future, Zito said the simplest and most immediate measure is to more diligently trim trees to keep branches clear of power lines.

However, Zito also said the city should consider steel power poles instead of wood for its future build-out.

As the city works through the aftermath of the storm, Zito said he and his department are already working to more effectively respond to future freezes.

“You identify the lessons learned and room for improvement,” Zito said. “I think it’s important for folks to understand that we are committed to improve every time.”