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Warming up in cars, leaning on friends: Austin faces another night without power as resources dwindle
Jimena Gamboa Bonilla grew up in Houston, so she says she's familiar with natural disasters. When her power went out early Monday morning, the Barton Hills resident turned her faucets to a drip, filled up some water bottles in case of burst pipes and began covering her windows for some insulation.
"I'm concerned about the situation right now," she told Austonia. "But I'm really concerned about what's going to happen with the water later this week."
By 5 p.m. on Monday, Gamboa Bonilla realized that her power wasn't likely to return and made a last-minute effort to escape her place, where the internal temperature was in the thirties. Aware of the risks of driving, she mapped out a route that avoided hills. But while trying to cross I-35, her car spun out. "I miraculously skidded toward the side of the road," she said.
Gamboa Bonilla called a friend who lived nearby, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Because her car was in a relatively safe spot, she left it to walk to her friend's apartment. "I'm so grateful she said."
Jimena Gamboa Bonilla, left, is staying with her friend in Capitol Hill until it is safe for her to return to her Barton Hills home. (Jimena Gamboa Bonilla)
Nearly 200,000 Austin Energy customers are without power, and the local utility has said they should be prepared for the outage to continue through Tuesday night—and perhaps longer. As a result, many residents are stuck in near-freezing homes, unable to leave because of the snow or iced-over roads, and concerned about their and others' safety.
Bill Kibler's power went out early Monday morning. Thanks to a working fireplace, he was able to heat his home to around 60 degrees. A gas stove allowed for tea and warmed up leftovers. His kitchen sink pipes have frozen but not yet burst. On Tuesday morning, he was "rescued" by his son-in-law who had borrowed a car with four-wheel drive. "Now doing fine in their heated and on the grid home in Circle C," he wrote in an email.
Not everyone has been able to find shelter elsewhere.
John Dwyer lives in a Northwest Hills duplex on a steep hill that is "impossible to navigate." He has been shuttling back and forth between his home and his car, where he can warm up and charge his cell phone. "We burned everything that was combustible last night to keep the temp inside the duplex 41 degrees as we attempted to sleep under a mountain of blankets, waking to almost freezing temperature inside and having to again move to the car," he wrote in an email.
Dwyer is concerned because it seems unlikely that his power will be restored by Wednesday, when his cars will have run out of gas. "To say we're enraged by (a) state government that would allow this to happen is a gross understatement!" he added.
Local officials recommend that people without power stay inside, dress in layers and use flashlights and battery-operated lanterns rather than candles and kerosene lanterns, which can carry fire risks and fume hazards. They also say that generators should not be used indoors.
Austin Travis County EMS is on track to receive more than 1,000 calls on Tuesday for the second day in a row. Since Monday, the agency has received at least 22 calls related to carbon monoxide, which can be deadly. Other noteworthy trends include falls, exposure and collisions.
#ATCEMS is again poised to break the 1,000 call for service mark today! As of noon we have received 524 calls. Noteworthy: Falls-48, Exposures-26, Carbon Monoxide-9, & Collisions-6. By eliminating preventable calls for service we can respond to higher priority medical emergencies pic.twitter.com/RiUfFlWogR
— ATCEMS (@ATCEMS) February 16, 2021
Austinites are also concerned about their loved ones, especially those with medical conditions that require electric devices.
Tom Banning lives in the Allendale neighborhood and lost power around 3 a.m. on Monday morning. Yesterday afternoon, his household relocated to his mom's house. But he remains concerned about his 80-year-old aunt, who lives in a local assisted living facility that is also without power. "There is a reason she and others live in assisted living," he wrote in an email. "It's because they need help."
The city of Austin has opened three additional warming centers since Monday, bringing the current total to four. But space remains limited and officials are asking residents who can remain home, even without power, to free up room for vulnerable individuals or those with medical needs.
Although Gamboa Bonilla is "so grateful" that she has found a safe haven at her friend's place, she doesn't expect to return home until the weekend—at the earliest. And she is worried about how elderly people and Austin's homeless population will survive another night in the cold, especially given the number of sirens she heard last night.
"It's truly heartbreaking," she said.
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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that Texas will opt out of further federal unemployment benefits related to the pandemic effective June 26, citing the number of current job openings and concern about potentially fraudulent unemployment claims. The benefits include a $300 weekly supplement.
"The Texas economy is booming and employers are hiring communities across the state," Abbott said in a statement. "According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the number of job openings in Texas is almost identical to the number of Texans who are receiving unemployment jobs."
TWC listed 837,273 job openings as of Monday afternoon compared to 226,849 unemployment insurance claims filed statewide between March 31 and May 1. An estimated 1 million Texans were unemployed as of March, according to latest estimates released by the state agency.
Some local business owners, including Doc's Backyard Grill owner Charles Milligan, suspect unemployment benefits are deterring Austinites from returning to work. But others agree with economists who say multiple factors are at play, including health concerns and child care availability.
We're seeing lots of posts about how nobody wants to work right now. Just wanted to share our experience.
We received over 60 resumes for a taproom bartender position we posted last week. Every applicant we've set up an interview with has shown up.
People want 𝘨𝘰𝘰𝘥 work.
— Austin Beerworks (@AustinBeerworks) May 11, 2021
Abbott also cited fraudulent unemployment claims. Between March 2020 and April 2021, TWC received 4.48 million unemployment benefit applications, 611,000 or around 14% of which were tagged as suspicious. Most of those tagged were blocked before any benefits were paid out, according to an April 29 press release.
Federal law requires the effective date of such benefits change to be at least 30 days after the U.S. Department of Labor is notified.
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