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Houston's main utility company faces criticism and power outages persist post-Beryl

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

More than 1 million customers remain without power in the Houston area two days after Hurricane Beryl hit Texas as a deadly Category 1 storm. Officials describe this week's outages as historic, but big questions are being raised about inadequate storm planning by the city's main utility and the city itself. Houston Public Media's Dominic Anthony Walsh has this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF GENERATOR RUMBLING)

DOMINIC ANTHONY WALSH, BYLINE: To the northwest of downtown Houston, a generator rumbles in front of a town home. Across the street, Carl Sudduth says his power went out early Monday.

CARL SUDDUTH: I have two children. And we had got an emergency radio, so we were listening to the radio. Yeah, checked on friends, made sure everybody we knew was OK.

WALSH: For them, power came back on late Tuesday as temperatures climbed.

SUDDUTH: I was like, this is going to be awful to sleep in. It was a lot warmer yesterday than the day before. And my daughter was really concerned about her cat, so she was like, we need to get the cat out of here. And I was like, yeah, what about us (laughter)?

WALSH: The city's main utility company, CenterPoint Energy, is coming under criticism for not doing enough to plan for the storm and poor communication with customers. Residents initially relied on the Whataburger restaurant chain's mobile lap, which shows which stores are open and closed, before CenterPoint got its outage map up and running. Houston Mayor John Whitmire says he expects the utility to follow through on its promise to restore power to 1 million customers by the end of today, though that would still leave about 1 million without power.

JOHN WHITMIRE: We are all sharing the frustration of Houstonians in our region for lack of power.

WALSH: At the peak of the outages, more than 2.2 million CenterPoint customers were without power. That's more than when Ike, a Category 4 storm, hit Houston in 2008. Once Beryl passed, attention turned to the heat. Houston faced triple-digit heat indexes Tuesday and today. Alyssia Oshodi is a CenterPoint spokesperson.

ALYSSIA OSHODI: We're very aware and recognize that it's uncomfortable due to the heat and critical for some that we get power back on so that they have air conditioning.

WALSH: Before the storm, CenterPoint had fewer than 5,000 workers on standby. Critics say the company didn't preposition enough out-of-town crews before the storm made landfall early Monday. After the storm passed, company spokesperson Oshodi says, CenterPoint more than doubled its field crews to nearly 12,000 workers.

OSHODI: Based on the projections that we were getting, we believed that we were staffing appropriately. What then happened, as often does with weather - it's unpredictable - is that we had a more significant impact than what was projected for our area.

WALSH: Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says CenterPoint will be held accountable once power is restored.

DAN PATRICK: CenterPoint will have to answer for themselves if they were prepared and if they were positioned. Their company is responsible for that.

WALSH: There aren't just questions about CenterPoint's readiness for this storm. Energy consultant Doug Lewin says regional planners need to take the risk of future hurricanes more seriously.

DOUG LEWIN: These hurricanes are going to become more severe in the future. The data is very clear on that. Climate change is going to make these storms more and more severe going forward.

WALSH: Experts say CenterPoint needs to install more resilient distribution poles. But the process has been expensive and controversial. University of Houston energy fellow Ed Hirs points to community backlash last year when the utility installed weather-hardened poles in a west Houston neighborhood. Residents complained about blocked sidewalks and argued the poles were eyesores.

ED HIRS: My God, the furor was astonishing. You know, these are the big, storm-hardened poles that are supposed to take hurricane-force winds.

WALSH: With extreme weather becoming more common, the historic outages and lack of planning for this Category 1 storm raise concerns about the region's preparedness for stronger storms in the future.

For NPR News, I'm Dominic Anthony Walsh in Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dominic Anthony Walsh