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Ice-laden trees have caused widespread power outages in Austin, Texas

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In Austin, Texas, this week, widespread power outages after an ice storm. And as member station KUT's Mose Buchele reports, now there are questions about why the storm hit the electric system so hard.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Earlier this week, two sounds characterized life in Austin, the crackling of ice in tree limbs...

(SOUNDBITE OF CRACKLING ICE)

BUCHELE: And the ominous crash as those limbs fell to the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF FALLING TREE LIMBS)

BUCHELE: It was those broken trees that caused most of the outages here in what the head of Austin Energy, Jackie Sargent, called a historic weather event.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACKIE SARGENT: We are experiencing one of the most widespread ice storms to hit Austin and certainly one of the worst.

BUCHELE: But as rare as ice storms like these are, they do happen. To answer why this time was so bad, some point to a change in city policy around 15 years ago that relaxed rules for tree trimming around power lines. Michael Webber is a UT mechanical engineering professor who served on Austin's utility commission back then. He says the change came after politically connected neighborhoods complained that the city was too aggressive when it came to vegetation management.

MICHAEL WEBBER: They didn't want their pretty trees in their yards touched by the city.

BUCHELE: For years, the utility let trees grow much closer to lines that is industry standard. Finally, in 2019, it reversed course. Elton Richards, who runs the utility's vegetation management program, says it will take years more to go back and clear overgrown lines. But lax trimming standards don't explain the extent of the damage.

ELTON RICHARDS: This truly is an act of God. There's no other way that you can say it. You take a 40-foot tree. It's coming down. There's no vegetation management in the world that would prevent that.

BUCHELE: Austin has gone through a string of extreme weather events recently, from the big Arctic blast of 2021 to a drought and heat wave last year. Even this January was, up until the ice storm, one of the warmest on record for Austin. Tree experts say all those extremes have a cumulative effect to weakened trees. Camille Wiseman is a woodland ecologist with the Texas A&M Forest Service.

CAMILLE WISEMAN: In addition to the accumulating ice, those weaknesses are kind of emphasized. And so that is what can lead to some of these breaks.

BUCHELE: The outages have brought renewed debate over the benefits of burying power lines. Austin Energy says it's just too expensive. But Michael Webber thinks it might make financial sense.

WEBBER: Closing schools or economic activity four days in a row is really expensive and very disruptive. Then we tend not to price in the cost of disruption or lack of reliability into our analysis.

BUCHELE: While that debate unfolds, a new sound has taken over the city...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAWS RUNNING)

BUCHELE: ...The sound of chainsaws as crews work to clean up the mess. For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.