Austin faces power outages, downed trees after debilitating ice storm

Fallen trees block the road on Barton Skyway in Austin, Texas on Feb. 1. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/AP)
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Lizzie Chen and her husband didn’t realize they had lost power until a loud crackle Wednesday morning startled them out of sleep.

A massive branch from their hackberry tree, caked in ice from the winter storm that swept through Central Texas this week, had come crashing down in their backyard in northeast Austin, narrowly missing their roof.

The house was dark, and the temperature was falling by the hour. As officials waffled on when electricity might be restored, the couple worried about whether they would need to find a warm place to take their 13-month-old son for the night. Memories of the 2021 cold-weather outages they lived through were still fresh in their minds — but those happened before they were parents.

“In 2021, I thought this was once in a lifetime. This doesn’t happen in Austin,” said Chen, 36. “Here we are two years later with a small child. I just can’t believe it.”

The weather is finally starting to warm, after freezing rain, sleet and thunderstorms this week blanketed the landscape in ice and knocked out power in Texas and several other southern states. But Chen’s family and hundreds of thousands of others remain in the dark, with many residents stuck in stopgap living arrangements while they await word from utility officials on when their electricity will return.

A winter storm that hit Texas froze the net surrounding a trampoline in an Austin neighborhood on Feb. 1. (Video: Brett Hillier via Reuters)

As of Friday morning, more than 120,000 homes and business in Travis County, which encompasses Austin, remained without power, according to, which tracks outages across the country. About 35,600 in neighboring Williamson were in the dark, as well.

Short-term rentals and hotels in the region are booked up with people affected by the outages. Some residents said they were heating their homes with gas stoves and charging their phones and computers in their cars. Others have hunkered down with friends and neighbors who have had their power restored. At least 10 people have died in traffic accidents on icy roads since Monday.

For many, the situation feels like a repeat of winter 2021, when the Texas power grid failed amid severe storms, triggering widespread blackouts and leading to the worst electricity crisis in the state’s history.

This week’s winter event, however, exposed a different weakness in the electrical system. Trees that were already weakened from extreme heat and drought earlier in the year are weighed down with half-inch-thick ice, which has caused many to topple onto electricity distribution lines. Austin officials have compared the damage to destruction from tornadoes.

In the Austin service area alone — where there are roughly 10 trees for every resident — recovery crews are working to respond to more than 2,000 incidents, according to Matt Mitchell, a spokesman for Austin Energy, the city’s electrical utility.

“It’s just an incredibly painstaking exercise,” Mitchell said. “You can take a circuit offline and find the limb where the line has failed and make that repair but still have a fault on that same circuit.”

Officials have come under fire for giving shifting timelines on when power would be restored. Initially, they predicted electricity would be back online by Friday but said later that they couldn’t give a firm estimate because the damage was more extensive than they realized.

“If your power is still out, please be patient. We know you are frustrated. We are too. Remaining outages are complex, but there are close to 400 crew members from Austin Energy and neighboring utilities working to get customers back online,” the utility said in a statement Friday morning.

Jason Fowler walks his dog as ice snaps tree branches during an ice storm in Austin. (Video: @jasonfowler via Storyful)

In southwest Austin, Chris Spears has been in the dark since 4 a.m. Wednesday.

Keeping the house warm for his wife, 8-year-old daughter, two dogs and menagerie of tropical fish has been a continuous struggle. He keeps a five-gallon pot of water boiling on the gas stove, leaving the hood open to prevent any gas buildup indoors. He periodically places bowls of hot water into his fish tanks to maintain a safe temperature for the fish, and he charges battery packs and USB bubblers in his car every few hours. The family lights the house with headlamps and rechargeable camping lanterns.

Trees were a California city’s salvation. Now they’re a grave threat.

Spears figured that even if the storm was bad, the family would avoid outages because their house is on the same part of the grid as a fire station and a hospital. But as ice blanketed their area, the lights went out. Trees tumbled down in their backyard, collapsing onto their patio furniture.

For now, the family is passing the time by cooking and playing board games while awaiting answers from the utility.

“The storm is historic, but they are failing to communicate and making it much worse,” Spears said. “They had said everyone would have power back today, but now they changed that to unknown.”

Across town, Chen, too, has grown anxious as the blackouts stretch into a third day.

She and her husband spent the bulk of the day Wednesday watching for updates from officials and wrestling with where to seek refuge from the cold.

As the temperature in their house dropped into the 50s, a neighbor who had power insisted on taking them in for the night. They slept in a spare room, then went back to their frigid house the following afternoon, hanging on early reports from the utility company that the power might soon be restored.

By evening, their son’s hands were bright red from the cold. After dinner with a friend, they went back to their neighbor’s house for a second night. At this rate, Chen said, they may be there all weekend.

“We can’t stay here forever. I hate invading other people’s space,” she said. “But if it wasn’t for them, I don’t know how we’d keep our son warm. I consider us lucky. There are still people who don’t have this.”

A guide to surviving winter weather

Stay warm: If you’re going to be outside for extended periods on frigid days, it’s important to bundle up. Here are our tips for staying warm when it’s super cold — and some ideas for picking the best winter coat. Indoors, power outages can be a major issue this time of year too, so make sure you’re prepared for them.

Travel safe: Driving in snow? Here’s what to do if you get stuck in a winter storm — plus some winter essentials to keep in your car. If you’re riding a bike, here are our tips for staying safe in the dark and cold.

Prepare your home: If there’s a snow storm coming your way, here’s how to get your home ready for extreme cold. It’s also a good idea to make sure your phone and internet are ready for a disaster.