CenterPoint faces questions about preparedness for Hurricane Beryl
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CenterPoint faces questions about preparedness for Hurricane Beryl

CenterPoint Energy faced an early round of scrutiny Tuesday over its preparedness for Hurricane Beryl as more than a million Houston-area customers faced days of power outages.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, utility experts and local residents questioned whether the company that manages the electrical infrastructure serving nearly all of Harris and Fort Bend counties could have done more to limit widespread power outages and speed restoration times.

The review comes after CenterPoint leaders acknowledged they did not expect Beryl to hit Houston as hard as it did Monday morning, when the Category 1 hurricane slammed into the Texas coast and brought winds approaching 100 mph. A CenterPoint spokesman said Tuesday that the company did not anticipate the storm would head toward Greater Houston, although meteorologists had widely predicted the potential for high winds and scattered flooding in the region.

About 1.4 million customers remained without power as of Tuesday evening, about 36 hours after Hurricane Beryl made landfall in Greater Houston. CenterPoint officials said most of them could be without power through Thursday.

Patrick, who is acting governor while Gov. Greg Abbott is in Asia on an economic development trip, said Tuesday he expects the state Legislature and the Texas Public Utility Commission to review CenterPoint’s actions before the storm. The lieutenant governor said he would reserve judgment on CenterPoint’s approach until he receives a full report on how the company planned and dispatched work crews, though he was skeptical of claims that the storm’s path had changed.

“Any idea that people were surprised that the storm could come to Houston is shocking to me,” Patrick said. “CenterPoint will have to answer for itself if they were prepared and deployed.”

CenterPoint leaders tried Tuesday to dispel the notion that the company was unprepared for Hurricane Beryl, pointing to the 12,000 front-line workers from outside the area who were working to restore power Tuesday. CenterPoint coordinated with about 2,500 utility crew members from outside the region and state before the storm to jump into action, then called in nearly 10,000 more as the hurricane passed through Houston.

“No two storms are the same. We looked at the predicted path and the impacts and then prepared for that,” CenterPoint communications director Alyssia Oshodi said in an interview Tuesday.. “However, the result was slightly different from what we had expected and had a much more serious impact than we initially thought.”

About 2.2 million customers lost power in the storm, CenterPoint leaders said. The company expects to repair about 1 million outages by Wednesday evening, but it did not provide a timeline for restoring power to customers.

CenterPoint’s Outage Tracker, a map of the Houston metro area that charts power outages, has been offline since May, when a storm knocked out power to nearly 1 million customers. The lack of detailed neighborhood-level information has left frustrated customers without real-time information on restoration estimates. CenterPoint released a reduced version of the map late Tuesday showing where power has been restored and where work is still ongoing.

A power line was knocked down by Tropical Storm Beryl on Monday in Houston. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

A complex issue

As online criticism and political pressure mounted Tuesday against CenterPoint, meteorologists and engineers warned that preparing for the storm is a complicated calculus for utilities.

Michael Webber, professor and chairman of the energy resources department at the University of Texas at Austin, said utilities must conduct a cost-benefit analysis before any major weather event to determine how many outside utility crews to hire. Webber said he doesn’t think CenterPoint was “particularly negligent,” noting that many people were caught off guard by the severity of the storm.

“You don’t know how bad the hurricane is going to be, and you don’t want to have 10,000 people there if you only need 3,000, because you have to pay for that,” Webber said. “It’s a balancing act.”

Matt Lanza, editor and meteorologist at Space City Weather, said in an interview Tuesday that Beryl was much more destructive in some areas than expected. Lanza said the storm intensified rapidly as it made landfall and lingered longer than expected over land, causing damage more typical of a stronger Category 2 storm.

“The meteorologists had been talking about it for a few days before, saying we were really going to have some issues, especially south of I-10,” Lanza said. “The only thing that surprised me a little bit was the damage north of I-10. I didn’t expect to see that much.”

Still, Lanza said government officials and utility companies had at least two to three days of advance notice that the storm could cause major problems for Houston. Paul Lock, CenterPoint’s local government relations manager, argued Tuesday that the storm changed direction in the 24 hours before it hit Houston.

“Especially after a derecho, why not prepare appropriately for something that may be more intense,” Lanza said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she has also heard questions from the public about CenterPoint’s response, prompting her to seek additional information. For now, Hidalgo has signaled support for CenterPoint’s leadership.

“We’re all watching, we’re all nervous, and I’m trying to figure out, with my head on my shoulders, to figure out: Are they acting in good faith or not?” Hidalgo said. “And now I’m on the front page.”

Crews work to install a new utility pole on Durham Drive on May 19 in Houston after a powerful windstorm hit the city. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

“Basic Settlement”

As CenterPoint answers questions about preparing for Hurricane Beryl, Webber pointed to long-standing weaknesses in Texas’ power infrastructure — such as old poles, wires and transformers — as a problem that will continue to make it difficult for Houstonians to survive the hurricane season.

“What’s happening now is more of a sign of the future than people realize,” Webber said. “As a society, we have to face the fact that we built our network for 1970s weather, and now we have 2020s weather.”

Webber noted that CenterPoint filed a wide-ranging resiliency plan with the Texas Public Utility Commission in April, outlining more than $2 billion in updates it wants to make between 2025 and 2027. The largest portion of the spending, about $1.5 billion, will go toward replacing poles and towers, rebuilding circuits and upgrading equipment near the Gulf Coast.

Funds for modernization may come from, among other things, government grants or increases in customer rates.

“We need to make a fundamental reckoning as a society,” Webber said. “That means investing more to make the system more robust, and that will cost more.”

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Tuesday called on the region to “build back the smart way,” such as strengthening energy infrastructure and continuing to lobby for construction of the “Ike Dike.” The Ike Dike is a proposed coastal barrier to protect the Houston-Galveston area from hurricane surges.

“Let’s not rebuild in exactly the same way that we repeat the same disaster,” Cruz said. “I think that’s a very important question to focus on.”

Our journalist Paul Cobler helped us prepare this report.

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