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Frustration builds in Houston as utility struggles to restore power cut by Hurricane Beryl

By The Associated Press - | Jul 10, 2024

People fill gas cans the day after Hurricane Beryl made landfall nearby Tuesday, July 9, 2024, in Freeport, Texas. (Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle via AP)

HOUSTON (AP) — Houston’s biggest utility came under mounting pressure Wednesday over its response to Hurricane Beryl, as nearly 1.4 million area homes and businesses remained without power and residents searched for places to cool off, fuel up and find something to eat.

City Council member Abbie Kamin called the extended lack of power a “life safety concern.”

“We say ‘everything we can do’ to get the lights back on. In my opinion, respectfully, they should be on,” Kamin told a CenterPoint Energy executive during a council meeting.

“This was a Category 1 (storm),” Kamin said, referring to the weakest type of hurricane. “We know that this severe weather, the extreme weather due to climate change, is real and we’ve known for some time.”

Power outages peaked at 2.7 million customers after the storm made landfall in Texas on Monday, according to PowerOutage.us. Brad Tutunjian, vice president for regulatory policy for CenterPoint Energy, defended the company’s response and told council members that 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,” he said.

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

The company would not ask third-party workers from other companies and municipalities to pre-position and “ride out” the storm, “because that is not safe,” he said.

“We ask you to get as close as possible, so you can respond as efficiently as practical,” he said of the instructions given to the workers.

Tutunjian noted how difficult it is to quickly restore power that was cut off by falling trees and branches.

“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.

Council members pressed Tutunjian about why the company, which has been the Houston area for about 100 years, hasn’t lain more of its power lines underground. He replied that it has been laying all new lines underground 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 the fire department said it could not do anything, and the utility company did not respond.

Beryl has been blamed for at least seven U.S. deaths — one in Louisiana and six in Texas — and at least 11 in the Caribbean. It weakened as it moved deeper into the U.S. and early Wednesday was a post-tropical cyclone centered over northeastern Indiana.

A flood watch was in effect for parts of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The storm spawned suspected tornadoes in parts of Indiana and Kentucky.

In the Houston area, Beryl compounded and repeated the misery of May, when storms killed eight people and left nearly a million customers without power.

High temperatures in Houston on Wednesday were expected to climb into the 90s (above 32.2 Celsius), with humidity making it feel even hotter.

People coped as best they could. Kyuta Allen took her family to a Houston community center to cool down and use the internet.

“During the day, you can have the doors open. But at night, you’ve got to board up and lock up — lock yourself like into a sauna,” she said.

Raquel Desimone, who sought relief in a cooling center, has lived in the Houston area since about 2000 and has been through multiple hurricanes and tropical storms. Still, was surprised and frustrated having to scrambled 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.”

Nim Kidd, head of the state’s division of emergency management, stressed that restoring power was the top priority.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is acting as governor while Gov. Greg Abbott is overseas, said nursing homes and assisted living centers were the highest priority. Sixteen hospitals ran on generator power Tuesday morning, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

State officials planned to use a sports and event complex to temporarily hold up to 250 hospital patients who are awaiting discharge but cannot be released to homes with no power.

Patrick 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 positions. 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.”

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