The Greater Houston area is recovering from a storm that swept through the region May 16, causing widespread damage, days of power outages and the death of at least eight people.

The National Weather Service classified the storm as a derecho, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines as a widespread, long-lived wind storm that follows straight lines. The NWS recorded wind speeds of approximately 110 mph in some areas of Houston, including downtown, and a tornado touched down near Cypress.

Two-minute impact

According to a preliminary report by AccuWeather, the storm is estimated to have caused $5 billion-$7 billion in total economic impact with many residents and business owners in Harris County experiencing property damage.

CenterPoint Energy estimates that nearly 1 million residents also lost power during the storm. The utility company had to replace 2,000 electric poles, 700 transformers and 800 miles of electrical wires to restore energy, a process that took roughly 7-8 days.

“The combination of the strong, straight-line winds, and all the rain that happened leading up to this event, made this storm very different from the typical summertime thunderstorms we often see,” said Jason Ryan, executive vice president for regulatory services and government affairs for CenterPoint Energy. “A lot of the damage to our infrastructure was from trees falling into power lines, and it wasn’t just limbs, but entire four-story trees being uprooted.”
  • 110 mph winds recorded
  • About 1M residents lost power
  • 800+ miles of electrical wires replaced
  • $5B-$7B potential economic impact
  • $90.8 M+ given in federal funding aid, including individual assistance for incident period starting April 26, as of June 5
How it happened

Jason Ryan, executive vice president for regulatory services and government affairs for CenterPoint Energy, said the wind played a large role in the damage on energy infrastructure, including trees falling on power lines. Ryan said CenterPoint enlisted 1,000 crew members to remove trees and debris, and 4,000 linemen to restore power lines.

“With hurricanes, we usually have advanced notice and we will have these crews coming in this direction before the storm even hits,” he said. “Here, we only had 15 minutes of advance notice.”

Ryan said critical facilities, such as 9-1-1 centers and hospitals, receive first priority for restoring power. Neighborhoods located next to an electrical substation often see repairs next, he said.

“We don’t discriminate,” Brad Tutunjian, vice president of regulatory policy at CenterPoint, said at a May 22 Houston City Council meeting. “When you have a very diverse spread-out system like we have ... it’s like roads going off of the highways. You want to start at the beginning and work your way down.”

Going forward

Pablo Vegas, CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, said the lesson that all energy leaders in Texas can take away from the storm is resiliency. ERCOT works to maintain electric system reliability in Texas, but it does not own any actual electrical infrastructure, he said.

Prior to the storm, CenterPoint filed a System Resiliency Plan on April 29 with the Public Utility Commission of Texas to start projects that will strengthen Houston’s electric grid. The $2.7 billion investment will assist with system hardening and modernization, flood mitigation, vegetation management, wildfire mitigation, physical security and infrastructure technology.

“This will create a more resilient system,” Ryan said. “It’s our intent to do significant work over the next number of years so that we can take a punch like this and get back up quicker.”

According to CenterPoint’s $2.7 billion Resiliency Plan, the agency will:
  • Replace wooden poles with composite poles on transformers, which are built to be more resilient to high winds
  • Replace old transmission lines
  • Convert wooden transmission towers to steel or concrete
  • Move power lines at freeway crossings underground