Hundreds of thousands of Houston-area residents were without power for days after a storm brought 110 mph winds through the region May 16.

Lakewood Forest resident Kim Kewney said she lost power for nearly a week and missed several days of work since she works from home.

As a single parent to a 12-year-old with special needs, she said she is concerned about energy infrastructure holding up this summer as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a particularly active hurricane season.

“We haven’t had food. We did ... try to cook on the outdoor grill, but then it just got too hot,” she said. “We’ve been sleeping ... with fans on us that we were running on the generator, but you can’t really sleep because it’s so hot, and it’s just miserable.”

The gist

The National Weather Service classified the storm as a derecho—a widespread, long-lived wind storm that follows straight lines.

According to the NOAA, a derecho hits the Southeast Texas region roughly once every four years. The last major derecho to hit Texas and cause a number of deaths was in 1986.

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

Utility company CenterPoint Energy had to replace 2,000 electric poles, 700 transformers and 800 miles of electrical wires to restore energy, a process that took roughly eight 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.”

Although power was restored to 99% of Houstonians by May 23, another storm May 28 caused outages for more than 300,000 customers.

How it happened

Ryan said the wind played a large role in the damage to Houston’s energy infrastructure, including trees falling on power lines.

CenterPoint enlisted the help of 1,000 crew members to remove trees and debris, and 4,000 linemen to restore power lines, Ryan said.

“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.”
Crews collect storm debris including downed trees in Jersey Village on May 23. (Kelly Schafler/Community Impact)
Crews collect storm debris including downed trees in Jersey Village on May 23. (Kelly Schafler/Community Impact)
The impact

Many Cy-Fair neighborhoods sustained damage with downed trees and power lines throughout the community. Harris County officials said debris removal following the May 16 storm would take weeks.

In the days following the storm, local first responders received about twice as many calls as normal, Cy-Fair Fire Department officials said. All fire stations in the department lost power and temporarily operated on generators.

“It wasn’t quite like [Hurricane] Harvey or any other previous events we had. It was kind of like a little dress rehearsal for us, but it was still a good opportunity to see everybody come together and make this thing work," said Brent Scalise, chief of operations for the Cy-Fair Fire Department.

Christina Garavaglia, executive director of the Texas Restaurant Association - Southeast Region, said many businesses lost power for two to three days, leading to supply and revenue losses.

“The series of storms that have been occurring are changing the way that our operators are ... handling these ... weather events both from a supply perspective [and] from a hardening perspective," Garavaglia said.

Power outages also affected Cy-Fair ISD. The district closed all campuses May 17, 20 and 21, and a few remained closed through May 22. Officials said the first of those inclement weather days was built into the academic calendar, but the administration requested a waiver from the Texas Education Agency to avoid having to make up the rest.

Once campuses reopened, attendance rates were as low as 85.7% the week following the storm, officials said. CFISD waived final exam requirements for high school students “due to the loss of instructional time.”Jersey Village received about 1.25 inches of rain and experienced about 30 minutes of street flooding due to the storms, City Manager Austin Bleess said on May 22. Residents with weather stations on their roofs reported wind speeds of 107 miles per hour that night, but only a few houses were damaged by falling trees with one home sustaining “moderate damage,” he said.

Bleess said he does not expect the storm to change the city’s usual preparation for hurricane season, as the main storm recovery task was tree debris management, which began May 22. City officials may look into hazard mitigation grant opportunities, he added.

Going forward

Pablo Vegas, CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, 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.”

Emily Lincke & Hannah Norton contributed to this report.