Updated Feb 7, 2023 - News

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson falters in power outage crisis

Photo illustration of Austin Mayor Kirk Watson with lines radiating from him.

Photo Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: Hutton Supanci/Getty Images

He campaigned as someone who could solve Austin's big problems, but weeks into his tenure as mayor, Kirk Watson finds himself on an abject apology tour.

The big picture: “The city has let its citizens down," Watson said at a news conference on Friday, as Austin Energy officials once more dodged questions about when power would be fully restored. "It’s unacceptable and I’m sorry."

  • Utility officials tweeted Wednesday morning, "It's possible some customers may be without power for 12-24 hours."
  • They amended that timeline late Wednesday, saying "major restoration efforts" would be wrapped up by Friday evening.
  • On Thursday, they backtracked again, saying they couldn't forecast when lights across the city would be back on.
  • On Friday, the utility reported "400 highly skilled professionals" working to restore power, including line workers from Houston and San Antonio.

The irony: The new mayor, who's gregarious and folksy, generally excels as a communicator.

  • But Watson held his first press conference on Thursday — more than 24 hours into a crisis that caused hundreds of thousands of his constituents to lose power.
  • Of note: He disclosed he tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday.

Flashback: Watson returned to City Hall after narrowly winning a runoff against fellow Democrat Celia Israel in December.

  • He previously held the post in the late 1990s, before becoming a state senator.

What they're saying: "Austin Energy, Watson failed to communicate during storm" was the headline of a front-page rebuke in Friday's Austin American-Statesman.

  • "There’s a lot elected officials are doing behind the scenes, but you need to be out there early showing you're actively involved — and expressing compassion about what people are experiencing," Keri Stephens, a professor specializing in crisis communications at the University of Texas, tells Axios. "The faster you jump on and acknowledge these things the better — otherwise frustration builds over time."

What we're asking: We've filed open records requests to examine whether city officials ignored warnings about the freeze and how they communicated internally as the crisis unfolded.

  • Plus, with questions remaining about why more branches weren't trimmed away from power lines ahead of the storm, we're asking for city tree-cutting contracts.

What we're watching: Who will lose their job?

  • Austin Water General Manager Greg Meszaros stepped down last year after a four-day boil-water debacle.
  • Jackie Sargent has held the chief post at Austin Energy since 2016.
  • On Monday, Watson announced he had added an emergency item to Thursday's city council agenda to evaluate the employment of City Manager Spencer Cronk, hired in 2017, in the wake of the winter storm

What's next: Restoring power to remaining customers will likely be more difficult and take longer, per Austin Energy officials, with damaged lines in hard-to-reach areas like greenbelts or buried beneath heavy debris.


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