Race to restore power to 1.5 million as Houston sweats after Hurricane Beryl

Pressure mounts on Houston power company to quickly restore service as city sweats after Beryl

AP Photo/Maria Lysaker

Pressure mounted Wednesday on Houston's power utility as millions of residents still had no power nearly three days after Hurricane Beryl made landfall, amid questions over how a city that is all too familiar with destructive weather was unable to withstand a Category 1 storm better.

With frustration growing as people searched for places to cool off, fuel up, and grab a bite to eat, a CenterPoint Energy executive faced a barrage from city leaders who wanted to know why it was taking so long to get the lights back on again.

Mayor John Whitmire said CenterPoint "needs to do a better job" restoring power. "That's the consensus of Houstonians. That's mine."

Beryl came ashore as a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest type, but has been blamed for at least seven U.S. deaths - one in Louisiana and six in Texas. Earlier, 11 died in the Caribbean.

The storm's lingering impact for many in Texas, however, was the wallop to the power supply that left much of the nation's fourth-largest city sweltering days later in hot and humid conditions that the National Weather Service deemed potentially dangerous.

"Maybe they thought it wasn't going to be so bad, but it's had a tremendous effect. They needed to be better prepared," construction worker Carlos Rodriguez, 39, said as he gathered apples, oranges and ready-to-eat meal packs at a food distribution center. His family, with two daughters ages 3 and 7, was struggling, he said.

AP Photo/Eric Gay
Houston residents Janice Taylor, left, and her daughter Janell spend time at Gallery Furniture, which is being used as a temporary shelter, to cool off and charge their electronic devices, in Houston, Tuesday, July 9, 2024. The effects of Hurricane Beryl left most in the area without power.

"We have no power, we're going to bed late and I'm using a fan made out of a piece of cardboard to give my kids some relief," Rodriguez said.

Power outages peaked at 2.7 million customers after the storm made landfall Monday, according to PowerOutage.us.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, 1.6 million customers, including 1.3 million CenterPoint customers, were without power in the Houston area.

Brad Tutunjian, the CenterPoint vice president for regulatory policy, faced pointed questions from the City Council but defended the company's response. He said more than 1 million customers had their power restored by Wednesday morning, although the company's online tracker put the figure at just under a million at the time.

"To me, I think that's a monumental number right there," Tutunjian said.

The company acknowledged that most of the 12,000 workers it brought to help the recovery were not in Houston when the storm arrived. Initial forecasts had the storm blowing ashore much farther south along the Gulf Coast, near the Texas-Mexico border, before it headed toward Houston.

CenterPoint would not ask third-party workers from other companies and municipalities to pre-position and "ride out" the storm "because that is not safe," Tutunjian said. Instead, they are asked to be as close as possible to respond after the storm moves through.

One major difficulty with Beryl was restoring power knocked out by fallen trees and branches, Tutunjian said.

"When we have storms such as this, with the tree completely coming down … taking out our lines and our poles, that's where all the time comes in to do the restoration work," he said.

AP Photo/Maria Lysaker
Houston Mayor John Whitmire, right, greets a man in-line for supplies at Acres Homes cooling center in Houston, Wednesday, July 10, 2024. After Hurricane Beryl slammed into Texas, the storm knocked out power to nearly 3 million homes and businesses.

But council members pressed for answers about why CenterPoint, which has been in the Houston area for about 100 years, hasn't been more aggressive in trimming trees during calm weather or putting more of its power lines underground. Tutunjian responded that the company has been installing new underground lines in residential areas for decades.

Two council members said they received a text about a house that burned down after reporting a downed power line. The texts reported that the fire department could not do anything and that the utility did not respond. City Council member Abbie Kamin called the extended lack of power a "life safety concern."

It's hardly the first time the Houston area has faced widespread power outages.

In 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall on Galveston Island as a Category 2 storm, causing flooding and wind damage to the Houston area. According to the Harris County Flood Control District, about 2.2 million CenterPoint customers were left without power, but 75% of the power was restored within 10 days.

Houston was also hit hard in 2021 when Texas' power grid failed during a deadly winter storm that brought plunging temperatures, snow and ice. Millions lost power and were left to ride out the storm in frigid homes or flee.

As recently as May, storms killed eight people and left nearly a million customers without power.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who is in Asia on an economic development trip, questioned why Houston has repeatedly been plagued with power problems after severe weather. In an interview with Austin television station KTBC, Abbott, who has been governor since 2014, said he would direct the Texas Public Utility Commission to investigate that, as well as the preparations for and response to Beryl.

Sharon Carr, 62, a lifelong Houston resident, was frustrated.

"Every little thing affects us that way. There's too much wind, we don't have power. It's raining a long time, we don't have power," Carr said. "And it takes three, four, five days to get it back up. Sometimes that's too long for people that are sickly, can't stand the heat or don't have transportation to get to cooling centers."

Raquel Desimone has lived in the Houston area since about 2000 and has experienced many storms. Still, she was surprised and frustrated to have to scramble yet again for power and shelter from the heat.

"I went through Rita, Ike, Imelda and Harvey," Desimone said. "That the infrastructure can't handle a basic storm, leaving for a Category 1, (it) is sort of crazy to me that I'm having to do this."

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is acting as governor while Abbott is away, said Tuesday that he would wait until after the recovery effort to focus on CenterPoint's response and whether the company was poorly prepared.

"CenterPoint will have to answer for themselves, if they were prepared, if they were in position. Their company is responsible for that. The state was in position," he said. "I'll tell you whether I'm satisfied or not when I have a full report of where their crews were when they were asked to come in."

Vertuno reported from Austin. Nadia Latham in Austin contributed.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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