Houston City Council criticizes CenterPoint’s inability to keep lights on during Hurricane Beryl – Houston Public Media

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media

A CenterPoint representative was in the hot seat Wednesday, addressing concerns from the Houston City Council about how Beryl, a Category 1 hurricane, caused the largest power outage in the utility’s history.

Brad Tutunjiun, CenterPoint’s vice president of regulatory policy, repeatedly told council members the company was prepared for Hurricane Beryl. He said they began field drills last month, that emergency operations began 72 hours before the hurricane made landfall, and 24 hours before they made sure “all our resources are available.”

Council members asked Tutunjiun to then explain how more than 2.2 million people in and around Houston lost power. Fewer outages occurred during Hurricane Ike, a Category 2 storm in 2008.

He pointed to Houston’s trees and broken branches that had fallen on power lines.

“When we have storms like this, with the trees completely coming down from the ground and taking out our lines and our polls, that’s where all the time comes in to do the restoration work,” Tutunjiun said.

He said the number of Houston residents without power has since dropped to 560,000 as of Wednesday morning. According to CenterPoint’s website, over 1.2 million customers are still without power as of Wednesday afternoon. The council pressed Tutunjiun on how so many lost it in the first place.

“We can never fully weather a hurricane without an outage, but there are a lot of things we could look at doing differently,” he said, later adding that “the storms are more frequent. They’re more severe, and our paradigm of how we look at things must change.”

Tutunjiun added that despite weather forecasts, Beryl’s strength and direction were unpredictable.

“It’s hard to know exactly how many resources you need, and so the way it’s usually generated is as the storm goes through, you assess the damage, you figure out what your needs are,” he said.

But council member Abbie Kamin said even if the storm’s northern path wasn’t in the initial forecasts, they should have been prepared anyway.

“We are past the time to say this was not predictable,” Kamin told Tutunjiun.

She stressed that being without power for days is a health risk, especially during this week’s triple-digit heat index.

“It’s hot outside, isn’t it? This is now a security issue,” Kamin told Tutunjiun. “So when we say everything we can do to get lights back on, in my opinion, they should.”

Councilman Edward Pollard said his office, along with the other council members, has been inundated with calls from residents.

“These are heartbreaking calls from seniors, those with little means, with children, with elderly parents, and they don’t understand why the power isn’t being restored,” he said.

Council members asked CenterPoint to focus on efforts to prevent outages, rather than fixing after they occur.

Ramirez said he’s one of the more than half a million Houstonians without power, and that he’s “not a happy camper, especially since I went through this for four or five days just a few weeks ago with the dirt.”

He said he understands the need to trim trees, “but it’s not a cure-all. . . . I’m looking for CenterPoint to start doing things that will prevent this from happening again.”

Ramirez suggested burying power lines.

Tutunjiun said CenterPoint’s new standard is to put wires underground, but Houston’s power infrastructure is over a century old and has “been above ground for a long time, and to go back and try to put those facilities underground” would be “monumental as far as the costs are.”

But Kamin asked Tutunjiun for an estimate of the costs of both May derecho and Beryl. He said that while there are still outstanding invoices for the outage, the total cost exceeds the many, many millions. He also said it is too early to say how much Beryl has cost the city.

Kamin said she asked because the cost of losing power could outweigh the cost of burying power lines to prevent such widespread outages.

Council members also asked him to explain why CenterPoint’s outage tracker was down during Monday’s hurricane.

“What we experienced was basically capacity constraints from all the people who got access,” Tutunjiun said. “What we hadn’t anticipated was the number of bots and third-party companies that were basically just constantly pinging our facility, and it caused our outage tracker to crash.”

At-Large Council Member Sallie Alcorn stepped back and asked a simple question: When can Houstonians expect power to be restored?

Tutunjiun said it is difficult to predict.

“For us to do that, we have to have someone physically walk the entire course, and because there’s debris on the ground that’s going to slow them down,” he said. “A lot of our circuits are in backyards, where they’re blocked off by fences, and so it takes time. And for us to have full confidence in what we’re looking at, we have to have all that information in, and we understand that’s frustrating. “

Mayor John Whitmire said he shares that frustration and that they “should do a better job.”

“Someone just asked me on social media, was I angry? Yes, I am angry this morning.”

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