A lethal combo: Power outages, extreme heat devastate Texas

By Thomas Frank, Ariel Wittenberg | 07/11/2024 06:28 AM EDT

Days after Hurricane Beryl hit Houston and left millions without power, the city was hit with a dangerous heat wave.

Workers clear debris from city streets in Houston on Wednesday after Hurricane Beryl slammed into Texas, knocking out power to nearly 3 million homes and businesses.

Workers clear debris from city streets in Houston on Wednesday after Hurricane Beryl slammed into Texas, knocking out power to nearly 3 million homes and businesses. Maria Lysaker/AP

More than 1 million homes and businesses remained without power in the Houston area Thursday morning, raising questions about the resiliency of the region’s electricity infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Beryl.

The Category 1 storm made landfall three days ago, knocking down power lines and leaving 1.3 million utility customers without electricity and air conditioning. Now, the nation’s fifth-most-populous metropolitan area is in the midst of a heat wave, with heat indexes exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The area spent Wednesday under a National Weather Service heat advisory, indicating “extremely dangerous heat conditions.”

“It’s important these systems are designed to handle not just one climate-amplified extreme event but a couple because it’s life or death,” said Costa Samaras, a former Biden administration official who now leads the Institute for Energy Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University.


“If it’s this hot, vulnerable people are at risk when there’s no power,” Samaras added.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas on Wednesday directed utilities affected by Beryl to appear at its regularly scheduled meeting Thursday “to discuss preparedness and recovery.”

The widespread outages created havoc in the region’s hospitals. Five had been closed and then reopened by Wednesday morning, while 16 were operating on generator power, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Many hospitals refused Wednesday to discharge patients whose homes did not have power and were considered unsafe, according to Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd.

That forced arriving patients at some hospitals to wait for three hours in ambulances before they could be admitted or seen in emergency rooms, Kidd said. In Houston, a city police officer who had been shot in the leg Monday waited more than a day to be admitted to a local hospital, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told reporters Wednesday.

The state set up an emergency field hospital in a sports complex to temporarily hold up to 250 patients awaiting discharge from 29 hospitals that were backed up.

The power outages were particularly alarming because they came less than three months after storms and tornadoes left nearly 1 million Houston-area homes and businesses without power.

“The system is an old system,” said Dave Cortez, director of the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter. “We are living with 20th century infrastructure in a 21st century climate crisis. We do not have the grid system we need to endure these types of extreme storms.”

“When trees come down, that takes days and weeks to repair,” Cortez said, advocating for small, localized power sources such as rooftop and community solar panels and home battery systems.

Remains of the wind damage from the May storms are still visible, with stacks of dead branches in city parks and rights of way. Beryl added to the debris, splattering newly downed tree limbs and leaves across yards and streets. Street signs are tilting or missing. Many streetlights and traffic signals are inoperable.

Nearly 20 percent of cellphone sites in the Houston area were not working Wednesday, down from 29 percent on Tuesday when the Federal Communications Commission began tracking outages.

‘A big miss’

CenterPoint Energy, the area’s largest electric utility, has come under criticism for not having sufficient repair crews available in Beryl’s aftermath.

“What’s concerning here is that CenterPoint has been very slow to get power restored. It appears they didn’t call in enough help from out-of-town repair crews early enough to be able to bring power back on line for more people more quickly,” said Dan Cohan, an environmental engineering professor at Rice University in Houston.

Cohan noted that before Beryl hit Texas early Monday, tracking models showed the storm was likely to remain south of the U.S.

“There was a big miss early on,” Cohan said. “It’s that critical three- to four-day ahead [of landfall] time that really determines how many out-of-town repair crews companies bring in.”

Samaras, the former Biden official, said resilience in the power sector is measured by “how fast does the power come back on and for how many people.”

“It sure looks like the utility is not performing at a high level of resilience if the power is still off,” Samaras said of CenterPoint.

CenterPoint said in a statement Wednesday that its system “largely operated as intended during the storm.”

Transmission towers, high-voltage lines and substations were not significantly damaged, the investor-owned utility said. The power outages “have been largely related to” damage to the distribution system of poles and wires.

“We fully understand our customers are hot and growing more impatient with their outages,” Lynnae Wilson, CenterPoint’s senior vice president for electric business, said in a statement Wednesday.

CenterPoint posted on its Facebook page videos and photos of knocked-over electric poles and repair crews at work. Hundreds of people replied with angry and sarcastic comments such as, “Something is very wrong with centerpoint infrastructure! This was a cat 1 hurricane.”

Houston was a patchwork of power Wednesday. Clusters of darkened homes stood next to clusters of fully functioning homes. Businesses whose power was restored Wednesday were quickly flooded with customers.

Many of the city’s 2.3 million residents waited in long lines at gas stations, desperate to fill up with gasoline or diesel or to find a small oasis with air conditioning.

More than 100 cooling centers were opened across the region. Houston set up five drive-through sites Wednesday afternoon to distribute bottled water and bags of ice.

Beryl had initially left nearly 3 million homes and businesses without power — a startling number compared to previous storms.

Hurricane Harvey, which devastated southeastern Texas in 2017 with heavy rains and winds, affected 2 million power customers, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corp. Harvey caused $160 billion in damage and is the second-most destructive storm in U.S. history, according to NOAA.

The number of outages from Beryl was down to 1.7 million Wednesday morning.

On Thursday morning, 1.3 million homes and businesses still didn’t have power. That accounts for roughly 40 percent of the customers in the affected area, according to an analysis by POLITICO’s E&E News of data from CenterPoint and PowerOutage.us.

In April, CenterPoint filed a 100-page Transmission and Distribution Resiliency Plan with the Public Utility Commission of Texas, seeking approval to spend $2.2 billion on improvements such as system hardening, flood protection and wildfire mitigation.

“That’s great,” Cortez of the Sierra Club said, “but how many of these storms have we been through already?”

Reporter Edward Klump contributed.

This story also appears in Energywire.