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.

Parts of North Houston—including the Heights and Lazybrook/Timbergrove areas—were among the hardest hit. In the days and weeks following the storm, hundreds of mature trees were uprooted and left scattered across city streets, and residents, business owners and school officials were left to assess property damage.

As the recovery process continues, local leaders said the community has stepped up to help those most in need.

“We’ve had a lot of community support,” said Kim Ludlow, parent teacher organization president for Houston ISD’s Sinclair Elementary School, where 16 portable classrooms were damaged. “Families are constantly reaching out to see how they can help.”

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
A closer look

Speaking at a May 18 media event after the storm, HISD Superintendent Mike Miles said Sinclair Elementary School was the most damaged of HISD’s 274 campuses during the May 16 storm.

Roughly 45 trees around Sinclair fell, causing damage to portable classrooms used mainly by second- and fifth-grade students. Miles said the main building itself did not sustain much damage.

Summer classes will take place in Sinclair’s main building as usual, Ludlow said. Officials have to limit where recess can take place after fallen trees damaged the school’s playground, which has been blocked off along with the 16 portable classrooms, Ludlow said.

The cost of damage and timeline for a full reopening are still being determined, HISD officials said.

“We’re hoping to do everything in our power to make sure buildings are fixed and they’re safe, and students can come back to campus,” Ludlow said.

Ludlow said various individuals and groups stepped up in the aftermath of the storm to help the community. Houston restaurateur Aaron Bludorn, a Sinclair parent, donated lunch to all teachers one day while school was still in session, and the owners of a local Rita's Ice location gave discounts on Italian ice to students. When storm damage left the school without a venue for an end-of-year dance event, officials with SPJST Lodge 88 offered to host, Ludlow said. Sinclair students also raised $200 toward the recovery effort through a lemonade stand, she said.

Moving forward, Ludlow said the PTO will look for ways the help the district with the recovery process, including through potentially helping with the planting of new mature trees and helping restore the school's PTO-funded garden, which was started up during the COVID-19 pandemic as a place where students could learn about planting and harvesting as well as enjoy butterflies kept on site.

The garden was demolished when pine trees fell on the site, ruining benches and the fence where students left handprints. Officials with Ready to Grow Gardens, the enrichment program used on site, helped kickstart the recovery by bringing in new basil plants in May, Ludlow said.

The loss of the garden and the general loss of the mature trees at Sinclair were among the harshest losses, Ludlow said, and are among the top priorities to restore.

"The garden grew during COVID when teachers wanted to get class outside, and it became this really beautiful area of Sinclair," she said. "We have a lot of acres, and the trees were old and beautiful. They were so impactful so it’s a big change. I know it was really hard for a lot of teachers when they came back for the first time and saw the destruction."

Damage to residents and business owners in the Greater Heights was also extensive. At Mutiny Wine Room, co-owner Mark Ellenberger said the roof and walk-in freezer took damage. Ellenberger runs the wine room with his wife Emily Trout.

Mutiny was able to reopen after a few days, with Ellenberger estimating about $40,000-$50,000 in damage. Vehicles of six employees were also heavily damaged by fallen trees. He has launched a Go Fund Me to help them pay for vehicle repairs and has pledged to match every dollar donated.

Ellenberger said he has been impressed by how the neighborhood came together to clean up debris after the storm.

“It’s unfortunate that we lost so many beautiful trees because the Heights is known for that,” he said. “I’m just amazed that, by Monday morning, 70%-80% of the debris was taken down and moved into a pile to get rid of. People really came together as neighbors."

Houston officials estimate the storm generated roughly 1.5 million cubic yards of debris, and had cleared roughly 380,000 cubic yards as of early June. The debris removal process is estimated to take roughly 90 days, time for crews to make three passes of all neighborhoods.

What readers should know

At a May 28 meeting of the Timbergrove Civic Club, local representatives provided information on how people can get help with issues related to storm recovery.

District 7 U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston, encouraged everyone with damage to report it to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which she said can help the city bring in more federal relief funding as well.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