Austin’s outdoor workers tough out the cold

As record lows gripped the Austin area Wednesday morning — falling to 15 degrees at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport — not everyone was able to huddle inside. Construction workers, city public works employees, airport tarmac workers, and heating and air conditioning technicians were among those out in the kind of cold that the Austin area rarely encounters.

Like many Central Texas businesses, the Austin Zoo closed to the public during Tuesday’s ice storm, but behind the scenes employees stepped into high gear, working overnight in the bitter cold.

“Our admission, ticket sales staff went home, but our animal care and facilities staff were here because the animals have to be fed, have to have water,” Austin Zoo Director Patti Clark said. Staff members “have to make sure their heat sources are operating correctly.”

Tropical birds cawed loudly from tarp-covered cages Wednesday, while the lions strutted through their enclosures, seemingly unconcerned by the chill.

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Busy Austin Zoo employees had a broken water pipe in the lion enclosure to contend with, and pools in some of the big cat enclosures were frozen, lead keeper Whitney Miller said. “It’s inevitable when it drops so low,” Miller said. “We want the keepers to stay warm, but we also want the animals to stay warm.

“It’s a stressful situation,” she said. “A lot of us have multiple gloves on our hands or have hand warmers. It’s very slippery conditions out there, so you have to step carefully. And the heaters in the big cat enclosures are for the big cats, but sometimes you warm up by those, too.”

Trash and recycling pickup was canceled Tuesday morning, Austin Resource Recovery spokeswoman Suzanne Hurt said. But employees did brave the cold Wednesday, making up for lost time.

“Typically they’re out the door at 5 a.m.,” Hurt said, “but there was a (schedule) slide. Can you imagine, those 30,000-pound trucks on the icy roads?”

Employees of Champion Windows and Home Exteriors of Austin also headed out to work Wednesday morning, though the cold did hinder some of their work.

“It can get too cold for some things,” Champion district manager Robert Kubiak said. “We use caulk for some things, and below 30 degrees, it makes a big difference in its ability to be applied. And there are some products, like the vinyl we put on siding, we don’t want to work with it in the cold because it can become brittle. So sometimes we delay that type of work. Things get like they’re almost frozen, and they’re not as pliable.”

RELATED: Road closures, crashes reported in Austin as ice accumulated

City of Austin Public Works employees had to go out in the frigid weather to maintain roads and sidewalks, de-icing Austin’s roadways.

“Making sure our people are protected from the elements is our first priority,” Public Works spokeswoman Alexandria Bruton said. “The weather also impacts our equipment and operations. (Workers make) sure the air tanks on our equipment with air brakes are drained daily so condensation doesn’t build up in the tanks and freeze, causing mechanical and safety problems.”

Austin Energy announced that customers set a record trying to keep warm Wednesday morning, using 2,377 megawatts of electric power, the most electric power of any winter day. (That doesn’t hold a candle to summertime consumption peaks: On Aug. 23, 2015, Austin hit 2,735 megawatts as high temperatures climbed to 105 degrees.) The Wednesday record was about 28 percent more electricity than was used the Friday before the storm, officials said.

That kind of use was echoed along the state’s electric grid. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, reported that its 24 million Texas customers used a record 65,731 megawatts Wednesday morning.

According to Austin Energy, relatively few customer outages occurred as the cold front settled on Austin. But its employees were still out in the cold, which is nothing new for them.

“They’re used to being out in any kind of weather,” Austin Energy spokeswoman Jennifer Herber said. “We have to be prepared for anything that comes at us. They’re used to hot temperatures and really cold temperatures. … I’m always so impressed with them. I’d last five minutes out there.”

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