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Day 4: Austin sees some power return amid continuing energy, water and natural gas crises

(Christa McWhirter)

As Austin heads into the fourth day of a statewide super crisis, an increasing number of residents have had their power restored, but a citywide boil water notice precipitated by low water pressures and a power outage at the city's largest treatment plant has left many without water—or power to boil it. The Texas Gas Service is also urging conservation measures and warning of additional outages, which could further exacerbate the situation.


A power update

Austin Energy was able to restore power to more customers overnight as additional generation became available across the statewide grid. As of 8:52 a.m., 64,616 customers or about 12% are still without power—significantly less than the peak of around 220,000 earlier this week.

The local utility is working to restore power to every affected customer but cannot provide an estimated timeframe for when that will occur. "If we power everyone back up at the same time, we will overload the system," Austin Energy tweeted Thursday morning. "Just like we shut down power in sections, we will restore power in sections."

In addition to outages that were intentional, to lessen demand on the statewide grid and prevent a total blackout that could take months to restore, some Austin customers have also lost power due to broken equipment caused by ice or downed trees. "Some of that damage won't even be obvious until we've reenergized our equipment," according to the tweet update.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which maintains around 90% of the state's power grid, is no longer requiring local providers to increase outages and is instead allowing them to restore some power. Although there was "significant progress overnight restoring customer power, the entity warns that "it is possible that some level of rotating outages will be needed over the next couple of days to keep the grid stable," according to a Thursday morning press release.

Some customers may also remain without power if they're in areas where the recent ice storms damaged equipment or where power lines need to be restored manually. Large industrial facilities that voluntarily went offline to help during this emergency will also likely remain in the dark.

A water update

Austin Water issued a citywide boil water notice Wednesday evening due to power loss at the Ullrich water treatment plant, the city's largest, and drops in water pressures to below minimum standards, which could introduce contaminants into the water distribution system. The local utility is working with Austin Energy to restore power at the treatment plant.

The drop in pressure was caused by the winter storm, which led to a surge in water usage due to dripping faucets, broken pipes and line breaks.

City residents should boil tap water vigorously for at least two minutes before using it for drinking or cooking. (Start your timer when the water begins to bubble.) This applies to water used for brushing teeth, making ice, preparing baby formula, washing raw foods and serving pets. Boiling water removes harmful bacteria in the water that may cause illness. Residents should throw out any ice made during the notice period, as freezing does not kill bacteria.

Unboiled tap water is safe for washing dishes but residents should use hot, soapy water and rinse dishes in boiled water. It is also safe for bathing.

Residents without power but who have access to working gas stoves can use them to boil water, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said during a press conference Wednesday. Otherwise they will need bottled water.

St. David's South Austin Medical Center lost water pressure earlier Wednesday, along with "a number of other hospitals in the Austin area," according to a statement issued by St. David's HealthCare CEO David Huffstutler Wednesday evening. The facility's boiler relies on water, so it is also losing heat.

Austin residents have taken to social media to coordinate water distribution efforts.


A natural gas update

The Texas Gas Service, which serves about 250,000 Austin customers, responded to a natural gas outage on East 12th Street Wednesday night and is urging residents to conserve natural gas amid the possibility of further outages.

The outage affected more than 300 homes in the neighborhood between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and East 12th Street.

An emergency update

Austin-Travis County EMS received more than 1,000 calls for service on Wednesday for the third day in a row. Notable calls included 129 related to falls, 24 related to carbon monoxide and 21 related to exposure.

Austin Fire continues to respond to structure fires and broken pipes caused by the weather emergency and power crisis.

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