‘[I] had difficulty breathing for 6 hours’: Brownouts in Montgomery County risky for medically fragile residents

Entergy rolled back its planned outages Aug. 28. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Entergy rolled back its planned outages Aug. 28. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Entergy rolled back its planned outages Aug. 28. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

When Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana Aug. 27 as a Category 4 storm, Montgomery County residents were spared the brunt of the damage.



But despite mostly clear skies, thousands of residents were left without power Aug. 26-28 due to brownouts—or deliberate reductions of electricity flow by the utility provider to prevent blackouts—and some reported up to 10 hours with no electricity.



Officials with Entergy, the utility company that services 2.9 million utility customers in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, said the brownouts were critical to prevent a more extensive and prolonged outage.



At its peak, Entergy experienced 291,000 outages, with the hardest-hit areas in Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties, according to an Entergy news release. At one point Aug. 27, nearly 60,000 Montgomery County customers were reportedly out of power.



"We understand many of our customers were affected by these outages and how inconvenient and frustrating it can be," Entergy Senior Communications Specialist Allison Payne said. "These steps were only a last-resort measure taken to ensure the overall stability of the electric grid."



But residents said they did not receive a warning from Entergy that the power was going to be shut off and did not know when power would return. Some said they had prepared for a blackout but were frustrated by the lack of communication. Others were caught by complete surprise; two occupants were reportedly trapped in an elevator at a three-story doctors office off I-45 and League Line Road and had to be rescued, the Conroe Fire Department said.



For the medically fragile and elderly, the wait was agonizing.



“I was unable to use my oxygen and had difficulty breathing for six hours,” said Betty Menville, a 73-year-old April Sound resident who relies on oxygen tanks. “I did call Entergy to inquire, and the Entergy representative told me, ‘We have no idea if the power will be out [Aug. 28].’ Very disappointing.”



Lights out



Entergy officials began bracing themselves for the storm’s impact days before it made landfall. When Laura was still brewing in the ocean, the company had assembled a workforce of nearly 7,400 that was prepared to begin restoration work as soon as the storm passed, officials said Aug. 25.



The following day, Entergy announced it had requested assistance from workers in 20 states in addition to the company’s local workforce, bringing the total standby workforce to nearly 10,000. It also secured high-water vehicles, drones, helicopters and boats to assist in restoration efforts.



“We will begin restoring power as soon as it is safe to do so, but depending on the severity of the damage caused, customers in the hardest-hit areas should be prepared for extended outages when developing their personal plans,” said Allen East, the vice president of distribution operations for Entergy Texas, in a news release.



Then the storm hit, causing widespread damage along southwest Louisiana, ABC13, Community Impact Newspaper’s media partner, reported.



Laura also significantly damaged Entergy transmission lines connecting Texas to the broader electric grid, Entergy announced. This caused an order by Midcontinent Independent System Operator, the company’s reliability coordinator, to begin rotating outages for customers.



“While we were spared the worst of Laura, the damage it did cause forced us to take these rolling outages as a last resort to stabilize the broader grid,” Entergy Texas President and CEO Sallie Rainer said.



The rotating outages lasted hours. Around midnight Aug. 27, Entergy rolled back its outage plans across its service area in Southeast Texas.



In the meantime, crews worked to restore the integrity of the electric grid, placing a high-voltage power line back into service and starting units back up at Sabine Station, the power plant along the Texas-Louisiana state line. This added a generation to the Texas area that allowed Entergy to serve additional load, officials said.



Left in the dark



Throughout the brownouts, county officials such as Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough and Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack provided regular Facebook updates on when power may be restored.



But many residents were still left in the dark. Tamarac Pines, a low-income community in Spring, was reportedly out of power for six hours, and residents said it was difficult for the elderly, disabled and those with health conditions to cope.

Melville, who claims Entergy has a letter on file for her submitted by her pulmonologist, said her power was out from 3-9 p.m. She said she has been quarantining at home because of various health conditions, including heat issues and malignant blood pressure, and she is pre-diabetic.

“My portable [oxygen tank] only lasts for about 30 to 45 minutes fully charged. I called Entergy, and it made no difference,” she said. “Due to this experience, it is necessary to have a home generator system installed at my home for approximately $9,000 to $12,000.”

Christine Steinhauser, a resident of The Woodlands, said she spent over four hours driving her medically fragile child around during the unexpected brownouts, unsure of when power would return. Her 12-year-old daughter Ellie was born with a rare syndrome, Koolen-de Vries syndrome, which causes her to have epilepsy. She also has heart defects and other issues.

“Heat and getting too hot is just one of the things that triggers Ellie's seizures,” Steinhauser said. “It only takes 10 minutes of being in the heat, and she will start to go downhill fast.”



The family has a motorized suction machine that is sometimes used during one of Ellie’s seizures to keep her airway clear, as well as a portable machine that does not require electricity, although that one does not work as well, Steinhauser said. They have a generator, but Steinhauser said she is not allowed to use it in her apartment, so they loaned it to her parents.



Steinhauser said she always plans ahead whenever they have to leave home, and if the power unexpectedly goes out during the warmer months, they need to act fast.



“When Hurricane Laura spared our area, we assumed by noon the next day when it was sunny and clear that we were in the clear,” she said. “So, imagine our shock when in the middle of a sunny day our power went out and stayed out.”



For the first 30 minutes, the family stayed at home, assuming the power would be back on, she said. However, Ellie began to feel unwell, so the family grabbed a few items, got in the van and drove around for a few hours. Ellie can only eat specially prepared food, which added to the challenge, Steinhauser said.



"If we had been given even 15 minutes warning of this outage, we could have left prepared with food, chairs, masks [and] her medications,” she said. “Not only was there no warning, but we also weren't given any ETA of when to expect to have power back. We didn't know if we should reserve a hotel room nearby or try to leave town for a few days.”



Overall, many residents said they wished they had been better informed of the brownouts and their duration. Gabriella Finney, a resident of Caney Creek in Conroe, said she went almost seven hours with no power and no updates.



“I've only lived in the Conroe area for three years, and Entergy has always been on point with communication, but they really dropped the ball with this brownout,” she said. “I didn't get an alert at all. .... I understand not overwhelming the grid and all, but better communication has to take place.”



Andrew Christman contributed to this report.

By Eva Vigh
Eva Vigh joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2018 as a reporter for Spring and Klein. Prior to this position, she covered upstream oil and gas news for a drilling contractors' association.


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