CenterPoint ‘rapidly losing faith and trust’ with communications decisions after Hurricane Beryl – Houston Public Media

Celeste Schurman/Houston Public Media

Electric workers brought in from outside Texas showed up in the Nottingham Country neighborhood of Katy on Wednesday, July 10, 2024, to help with power restoration efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Beryl.

Molly McPherson was deployed to Houston during Hurricane Ike in 2008, while working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), so she knows what it’s like to lose power during the summer in Southeast Texas.

The Massachusetts-based crisis communications strategist also works with energy companies, so she understands why CenterPoint Energy is taking heat from Houston-area residents and elected officials in the aftermath of Hurricane Beryl. More than 1.2 million of its customers remained without power Wednesday afternoon — more than 48 hours after the deadly storm tore through the region, downing trees and causing widespread flooding — and the company has yet to provide many details on when their service will be restored .

Meanwhile, the Houston area is under a heat advisory, with temperatures above 90 degrees and heat indexes above 100, according to the National Weather Service.

“There’s no faster way to go from a loved to hated tool than when there’s no power,” McPherson said. “People living without power in intense circumstances, intense heat, will create an emotional state where nothing will make them happy until power is restored. The only way to restore confidence is to restore power.”

RELATED: Houston area residents share photos and experiences of Hurricane Beryl

McPherson said CenterPoint is “rapidly losing faith and trust” from its customers while adding that the new outage map rolled out late Tuesday by the company “works against the utility by letting people know how bad the service is.”

CenterPoint removed its original online outage map, which was color-coded to indicate when affected residents could expect power to be restored, after a deadly mid-May wind storm knocked out power to more than 900,000 homes, schools and businesses. It was another point of criticism in the immediate aftermath of this week’s storm, with one social media user noting that the map feature on the Whataburger app could act as a de facto outage map because it indicated which 24-hour fast food restaurants were open and which were closed.

Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy consultant and author of the Texas Energy and Power Newsletter, said there was “no excuse” for CenterPoint not to have an outage map. He also said the company’s communication so far “hasn’t been good.”

CenterPoint’s outage map returned in a different format Tuesday night, showing which areas had power, which were assigned for repairs and which were still being evaluated, but did not indicate when the outages were expected to be restored. And its accuracy was widely criticized by customers on social media.

Celeste Schurman/Houston Public Media

Utility trucks line a street in the Nottingham Country neighborhood of Katy on Wednesday, July 10, 2024.

Bill Kelly, a First Ward resident who worked for former Houston mayors Bill White and Sylvester Turner, said the new outage map showed power had been restored to his neighbor who works as a lineman for CenterPoint. But that wasn’t actually the case, according to Kelly, who said the situation reminded him of an emergency meeting led by White in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

A national nonprofit that was part of the meeting was prepared to publicize a helpline created when White asked Kelly to dial the number herself to see if it worked. It didn’t, prompting the nonprofit to call back and fix the problem before the phone number was released to the public, Kelly said.

“Accuracy matters a lot,” Kelly said. “For CenterPoint, No. 1, to not have a map, and No. 2, to put out a map that’s full of inaccuracies, that doesn’t inspire public confidence at all.”

McPherson said the company needs to provide clear expectations for power restoration to regain trust and also needs consistent messaging from its management.

Above all, McPherson said, CenterPoint needs to get people’s lights and air conditioning back on. Depending on how long it takes, it still might not be enough to satisfy exhausted, overheated and stressed Houstonians.

“They’re dealing with a wave of public protests that just dominates a news cycle,” McPherson said. “It’s harder for energy providers to restore their reputation in a massive outage when they come up short than it is for them to restore power to customers.”

RELATED: Cold storage centers, shelters open across Houston area in aftermath of Hurricane Beryl

Local and state trustees have said they will hold CenterPoint accountable after more than 2.2 million of its residential and commercial customers — representing about 80% of its customer base in the region — lost power during the peak of Monday’s storm. Company officials have said they did not anticipate the Category 1 hurricane would cause as much damage to infrastructure as it did, while noting that CenterPoint has hired more than 12,000 restoration workers from Texas as well as several other states.

As of Wednesday afternoon, power had been restored to nearly 950,000 of the CenterPoint customers who lost it. The company said in a news release that it recognizes that remaining customers “need information about the status of their service” because much of the criticism leveled at CenterPoint has centered on a lack of detail about which parts of the region are most affected and when electricity. will be restored.

“As the company continues its progress on damage assessment, it expects to provide more specific estimated restoration times beginning (Thursday) morning,” CenterPoint said.

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