Hollywood Park resident Misty Ptasnik and her husband David were heartbroken to step out into their front yard Wednesday morning to see that one of their beloved live oaks had half collapsed under the weight of ice on its branches.

The couple set out to find a local tree specialist who could help them remove the fallen portion of the oak and save the tree. They were relieved to find one in Christian Taylor, a local certified arborist operating with Certified Tree Care, who told the San Antonio Report he’d been working nonstop.

“The past 72 hours have been wild; northern San Antonio’s tree canopy definitely had some damage, but parts of Bulverde and Spring Branch looked like someone dropped a bomb on them,” Taylor said Friday, taking a quick call as he drove between clients. “We’ve had over 1,000 calls; we’re averaging about 10 phone calls per minute.”

Taylor said the current damage to local trees appears even more severe than what resulted from Winter Storm Uri in February 2021. That’s likely because Uri weakened many of the trees, which were probably also affected by last summer’s intense drought, said Michael Holinsky, the City of San Antonio’s forester.

When precipitation froze and covered trees this time, branches likely couldn’t handle the weight of the ice in their weakened state, he said.

“What we’re finding is the trees across the state were weakened from both the last freeze and from the intense drought we’ve been seeing,” Holinsky said. “And it was not just at the canopy, but at the root level — some trees entirely came down.”

Some took to Twitter to lament the “oakpocalypse,” a term Texas Monthly used in a headline that described how live oaks, because they don’t lose their leaves in fall, have more surface area to accumulate ice and so may have been harder hit than other species. But the story noted that trees of all kinds were affected.

So did Alison Baylis, a Texas A&M Forest Service woodland ecologist, who told the San Antonio Report that this freeze was especially heavy in ice accumulation, and that many oaks, cedar, junipers and Mexican plum trees failed under that weight.

The damage depended on the state of each tree and how much care it received in recent years. “In general, a trend I would like to see in tree care is pruning to improve structure,” Baylis said.

Austin and the Texas Hill Country were especially hard hit, she noted, leading to widespread power outages.

Trees and power lines

As of Friday night, Austin Energy was still working to return power to more than 100,000 customers, and by Sunday morning, more than 44,000 remained without power. Austin officials estimated that in total, about half of all Austin Energy customers — 265,000 residents — lost power at some point starting Wednesday.

Northern Bexar County was affected, but less severely. About 45,000 CPS Energy customers lost power at some point during this freeze. The utility announced it had restored all weather-related power outages as of 8:30 p.m. Thursday.

CPS Energy crews work to restore power to thousands of customers throughout Bexar County on Wednesday morning.
CPS Energy crews worked to restore power in northern Bexar County on Wednesday morning. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Following a cold snap last year that resulted in 37,000 CPS Energy customers losing power, many from downed trees, the utility told the San Antonio Report it was boosting its tree-trimming efforts to help avoid future tree-related weather outages.

CPS Energy spent approximately $12.5 million on tree trimming in 2022, which resulted in 689 miles of cleared lines, CPS Energy spokeswoman Milady Nazir said Friday. That’s up roughly 66% from the $7.1 million the utility allocated in 2021.

That year, CPS Energy reported 1,675 tree-related outages affecting 67,944 customers, up slightly from 2020, when it counted 1,433 tree-related outages that affected almost 50,000 customers.

Nazir said it is too early to assess the impact of the utility’s increased tree-trimming effort on outages during the most recent freeze. She said CPS Energy allotted another $12.5 million in this year’s budget, which the board of trustees passed late last month.

“CPS Energy’s vegetation management is a long-term program and after every storm, we reassess and readjust,” she said. “Trees are always the number one concern creating issues for power lines, especially after storms.”

A state of infrastructure needs

While some Texans feared their power outages were related to state grid failures, that was not the case for any outages in Central Texas during this freeze, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas stated in a press release Friday.

The Texas grid operator also announced it will be adding a new six-day forecast feature on its supply and demand dashboard, to provide Texans an extended view of upcoming grid conditions.

Still, experts told the Texas Tribune that the most recent outages are fresh evidence that Texas and its cities should be preparing their infrastructure for the worst — especially as climate change makes severe weather more common.

Despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s assurances that the grid is stable, Texans took to social media Thursday and Friday to criticize his response to the latest winter storm.

State Rep. Elizabeth “Liz” Campos (D-San Antonio) of District 119 told the San Antonio Report Friday that she and her House colleagues feel now is the time for Texas to invest in infrastructure upgrades across the state, including efforts to winterize the grid.

With a surplus of state funds to allocate this session, it would be a good time to invest in infrastructure at the state and local level, Campos said.

“It wasn’t as bad as [Uri], thank God,” Campos said. “But, yes, now is definitely the time to invest in our state’s infrastructure.”

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.