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Millions of Texans face third day without power in summer heat

Electrical workers gather supplies early Wednesday morning to provide support to people experiencing major power outages after Hurricane Beryl in Houston.
Joseph Bui
/
The Texas Tribune
Electrical workers gather supplies early Wednesday morning to provide support to people experiencing major power outages after Hurricane Beryl in Houston.

Millions of Texans are beginning a third summer day without power after Hurricane Beryl wreaked havoc through several counties — including the state’s most populous one — and temperatures again rise dangerously into the 90s. The heat index is projected to push past 100 degrees in some areas, compounding the risk for an already battered and worn out area.

Power companies have deployed thousands of workers to restore power while state and local officials navigate residents’ frustrations at what’s becoming routine in Texas: massive power outages after winter storms, thunderstorms, tornadoes or hurricanes.

As of 10:22 a.m. Wednesday, more than 1.6 million electricity customers concentrated in the southeastern corner of the state that bore the brunt of Beryl’s fierce winds still didn’t have electricity. Power companies and elected officials said it could be days before everyone has electricity again, meaning people without air conditioning would have to figure out how to cope with the heat.

“The power system is a life saving critical infrastructure — it’s the difference between life and death,” said Costa Samaras, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “The era of nobody could have foreseen these conditions is over.”

Heat is known as a silent killer. The harm it causes can be more complex than, say, a tornado or fire. But extreme heat causes more deaths per year than any other weather-related hazard, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Heat can make people weak, dizzy and faint. In severe cases, people develop heat stroke that causes organ damage or death.

“When you factor in not only having no AC, warmer temperatures, and then also a higher heat index, that increases humidity, that muggy feeling out there, which adds to the uncomfortable feeling,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Ryan Knapp. “With the heat index being higher, it can definitely lead to heat stress and heat related illness. It makes it feel like it's significantly warmer out there than it actually is.”

As of Wednesday morning, most electricity customers in coastal Brazoria County lacked power, as did most of Polk, San Jacinto and Trinity counties outside of Houston. A sizable portion of Harris County, the state’s most populous, also remained without power. It was initially unclear exactly how many customers were without power in greater Houston because CenterPoint Energy’s outage tracker was unavailable. The company published a map late Tuesday showing the status of power restoration the Houston area, though some customers said the map is inaccurately shows their neighborhood's power has been restored. CenterPoint maintains the power poles and wires that deliver electricity in Houston and its surrounding communities.

Restoring power to Texans is the state’s No. 1 priority, officials emphasized during a Tuesday press briefing in Galveston County, where at least 35% of people still lack power, based on estimates from PowerOutage.us, which is not tracking customers who rely on CenterPoint. About 60% of Galveston customers who rely on CenterPoint didn't have power Tuesday afternoon, based on CenterPoint's county-level data. But progress is slow, and questions linger about whether the state and its primary power utilities were adequately prepared for the storm.

Hurricane Beryl formed in the Atlantic in June, set records for its strength and devastated several Caribbean islands days before landing on Texas’ coastline in the early morning hours of July 8. Beryl was initially forecast to hit South Texas. It took a turn east before moving inland while retaining its hurricane-force winds as it walloped the Houston area.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick emphasized that the state had been gearing up for the storm as early as July 4. Patrick said he texted Texas Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd on the holiday and expressed concern about the storm and an urgent need for preparation.

“In my text, I said, ‘I'm not comfortable with this track. I'm not comfortable with this storm. It reminds me of Ike,’” he said in reference to the 2008 hurricane that ravaged Galveston and flooded parts of Harris County.

CenterPoint said in a Monday press release that the storm more heavily impacted the company’s infrastructure and customers than it anticipated based on earlier storm path projections.

On Tuesday, Patrick said that he would be “shocked and surprised if someone didn't say you should be ready for that.”

The utility rejected the idea that it wasn’t sufficiently prepared for the storm, saying during a Tuesday news conference that it had readied thousands of extra crews and resources, and was not able to deploy them until after the storm cleared its service territory around 3 p.m. on Monday.

“I can share with full confidence that we were prepared,” CenterPoint Vice President of Regulatory Policy Brad Tutunjian said.

Thousands of crews had to be “trained, onboarded, fed, put to bed” before the storm cleared, he said, and the utility’s systems had to be de-energized before its workers could be safely deployed.

CenterPoint expects to get power back to a total of 1 million customers by the end of the day Wednesday. At least 640,000 customers had their power restored Tuesday afternoon, and a company spokesperson said the utility was “very much on track” to hit the 1 million mark by end of day on Wednesday. About 1.5 million of CenterPoint’s Texas customers remained without power as of 5:56 p.m. Tuesday. A timeline detailing when all customers can expect to have power back has not yet been released.

The combination of a hurricane and extreme heat makes it all the more imperative for utilities to design for the climate of the future, not the climate of the past, said Samaras, the Carnegie Mellon professor. Climate change driven by people burning fossil fuels has only exacerbated the danger that heat poses — especially without air conditioning.

Utilities can take several measures to ensure resilience in the power systems: put power lines underground where appropriate, have backup power lines in areas that suffer more blackouts and encourage people to make their homes more energy efficient by weatherizing them.

Regulators would face the difficult equation of balancing the cost of improvements versus benefit against extreme weather and deciding what risk they were comfortable with facing.

Patrick said the state will conduct an assessment of CenterPoint’s preparation and restoration. Patrick is filling in for Gov. Greg Abbott while he is out of the country.

"My focus is right now to get power on as quickly as we can to those who do not have power,” Patrick said at a Tuesday afternoon press briefing in Houston. “We will decide after the fact to go back and look, could they have done better? Could they have been positioned better? We'll figure that out later.”

The Public Utility Commission of Texas, which regulates electricity, said in a statement that its staff had been working “around the clock” to help with recovery efforts and that thousands of crews were working to restore power across the region while utilities tried to assess the extent of the damage and how long repairs would take. The PUC maintains an electric outages viewer for people to monitor where power is out.

Temperatures are projected to rise steadily over the coming days, said Knapp, the meteorologist. That could leave the most vulnerable Texans at particular risk. Temperatures in the 80s and 90s can create unsafe conditions, especially in a home with no power, and finding ways to keep cool will be paramount, he said.

“The upper 80s can obviously heat the inside of the home pretty quickly,” Knapp said.

Heat doesn’t impact all communities equally. Older people, children and people who have chronic illnesses can be more at risk for heat-related illnesses. Some neighborhoods in Houston already have more health risks and may have fewer options for how to stay safe, said Stefania Tomaskovic, executive director of the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience.

Many in the region already lost power or dealt with damages when a strong wind storm hit in May.

“We’re concerned about the heat issues because when power outages happen a lot of vulnerable people are left even more vulnerable,” Tomaskovic said.

One woman in Galveston County died when her oxygen machine ran out of battery. In Harris County, two people died from carbon monoxide poisoning from their generators.

Along the coast, hospitals and assisted living facilities lost power and flooded on Monday, leaving county officials to transport vulnerable patients to safety. Not everyone has found safety, though.

On Tuesday, as more than 2.1 million electricity customers lacked power, public spaces that typically serve as cooling centers could not always be counted on as safe havens. In Brazoria County, most libraries were closed Tuesday morning due to power outages.

"It's chaotic, as it always is with any natural disaster," Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta said. "We are dealing with it as best we can."

North of Houston, 81.6% of Montgomery County customers served by Sam Houston Electric Cooperative were without power Wednesday morning, as were 88.5% of Polk County customers and 100% of Trinity County customers, according to Sam Houston Electric Cooperative, which maintains the poles and wires for that region.

The company wrote on social media platform X that it had deployed approximately 500 lineman, contractors and vegetation crew and expected more to arrive on Tuesday.

By Tuesday evening, the cooperative had restored power to 16,000 of its members, according to a post on X. Transmission service had not been restored to seven substations, and the utility couldn’t provide an estimate of when power would be restored for customers in those service areas.

“As soon as we have this information, we will provide additional updates,” the post stated.

Some people have found safety in churches, like in Houston where a pastor opened his doors to residents. But experts worry about those who might be left behind.

“The next few days are decisive,” said Mark Hollis, spokesperson for the AARP. “First responders, utility operators and those who care for vulnerable people have a heavy burden right now, but it’s imperative that everything possible is done to protect older and other infirm residents from hazards, such as long durations of heat exposure.”

Disclosure: CenterPoint Energy has beena financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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