As the city of Houston continues to respond to needs caused by Hurricane Beryl, members of the Houston City Council spent the morning of July 10 discussing how to reduce damage and stress caused by future storms, including by trying to get more backup generators installed at city facilities.

Council members touched on other elements of storm preparation they said could be improved, including holding independent living operators accountable, installing safety mechanisms at high water areas and improving the resilience of the electric grid.

Catch up quick

Houston Mayor John Whitmire expressed his frustrations at a July 9 press conference about the lack of backup generators at city facilities, including fire stations, multiservice centers and wastewater pumping stations. Whitmire described the issue as one that was inherited by his administration, which took over in January.

Many multiservice centers that were pre-designated as potential cooling areas before the storm hit could not be used because they did not have power, said Tom Muñoz, the city's acting director of public safety and homeland security.

At the Sunnyside Multiservice Center, a backup generator was in place, but the center still lost power, council member Carolyn Evans-Shabazz said.

"That’s a new building," she said. "That AC system goes out quite frequently. I think we need to go back and look at that. That should not be happening. There's obviously something wrong with the system itself."

Moving forward, Whitmire said transparency from city department heads will be key in figuring out where problems need to be fixed and coming up with a plan for improving fire stations and other facilities.

"We can’t go around saying we have a $400 million surplus when we have critical needs," Whitmire said. "We have a lot of work to do but it starts with transparency."

Zooming in

Council members spent part of the meeting addressing CenterPoint Energy officials in attendance about their preparations for the storm and plans to improve resiliency. CenterPoint is pursuing a $2.2 billion resiliency plan that calls for making improvements over a three-year period, including replacing old transmission lines, replacing utility poles and putting some utility lines underground at strategic locations.

Several council members called on CenterPoint to take a more aggressive approach to maintaining and trimming vegetation around utility lines.

Brad Tutunjian, CenterPoint's vice president of distribution operations and service delivery, said CenterPoint's vegetation efforts are currently based on circuit performance, but the company is looking to move toward a system where circuits that cater to vulnerable populations are put on a cycle of repeated maintenance.

Also of note

Muñoz said the city averages about 58 cooling centers per day during periods of dangerous heat and when no electricity issues are in effect. Because of power issues after Beryl, the city had only been able to operate 27 cooling centers, he said, but five more were opened July 10 in collaboration with the YMCA.

The city is also focusing on assisted living facilities and places where medically fragile residents may reside, Muñoz said. Attention was called to several facilities after the May 16 derecho storm—including Heights Tower and Independence Hall—where officials said residents were left in dangerous or uninhabitable conditions after power went out.

Muñoz said it will be imperative for those facilities to come up with plans for keeping residents safe. He expressed dismay about information he said he heard from a nonprofit partner that an assisted living facility was relying on their volunteers to get food to residents.

"A plan should not be dependent on volunteers to feed those that we’re taking care of," he said.

The city is coordinating with CenterPoint to prioritize restoring power to areas with vulnerable populations, Muñoz said.

Evans-Shabazz suggested the city look into an ordinance that requires assisted living and nursing facilities to have backup generators. One challenge, she said, are loopholes that allow some facilities to cater to senior and disabled populations while not registering with the state. City officials said they are looking into ways to close that loophole at the state level.

Houston has also started the process of making the third round of calls to 3,856 medically fragile residents registered to the State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry, Muñoz said. If residents don't pick up on the third attempt at contact, first responders who visit the scene and will potentially knock the door down to make sure the individual is safe.

By the numbers

Randy Macchi, chief operating officer with the Houston Public Works Department, said that, of the city's 378 lift stations—stations within the sanitary sewer system that help move waste—178 had no power. Of 38 wastewaster treatment plants, 12 were running on partial power and seven had no power. However, the city's drinking water supply remained safe despite the challenges, he said.

As temperatures rise, Macchi said he expects to see water consumption needs change among city residents. He did not give specifics on what point would trigger an actual water supply crisis.

"While we're doing OK right now, if we aren't able to make sure we are operating at full power we'll start to get a little more nervous about our ability to operate at the levels we expect to be able to do so," he said.

As of the morning of July 10, 515 of the city's traffic lights had no power, 75 were flashing and 53 had significant damage, Macchi said.

What else

During the July 10 meeting, Whitmire also said he wants to do a better job of barricading streets that are known to flood during heavy rain events. He said the city has identified 49 areas where "railroad-type crossings" could be installed to prevent drivers from entering unsafe waters, including at Allen Parkway and Waugh Drive; at Shepherd and Memorial drives; and along Houston Avenue.

One more thing

Council Member Amy Peck, chair of the city's public safety committee, said the city should have its own comprehensive plan—separate from plans already in place with the Houston Fire Department—for setting up cooling centers and emergency centers after a disaster, and distributing resources. She said it was a topic she planned to introduce at a future committee meeting.

Council member Willie Davis suggested the city create a directory of churches and faith-based institutions that can be turned to in times of disaster, including to house people in need.

"I've talked with many pastors and have had many phone calls about what to do," Davis said. "They are ready to offer their facilities, and I think they could be a good place to add for providing food."

Council member Edward Pollard pushed on the city to seek more funding at the state level to tackle deferred maintenance projects, especially projects that improve multiservice centers and the electricity grid.

"Houston gets hit with these storms every year, sometimes multiple times a year, and we have something called a Rainy Day Fund that seems to never get used for a rainy day," Pollard said. "The city can only do so much. The state has much more resources than we do. I think that’s what will help the city of Houston more than anything."