'A disaster within a disaster': Harris County, CenterPoint Energy talk carbon monoxide poisoning, prolonged power outages

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told residents Feb. 16 that prolonged power outages across the region could last beyond the duration of the winter weather, stretching another few days as the state's power supply is compromised. (Screenshot via Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management)
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told residents Feb. 16 that prolonged power outages across the region could last beyond the duration of the winter weather, stretching another few days as the state's power supply is compromised. (Screenshot via Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management)

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told residents Feb. 16 that prolonged power outages across the region could last beyond the duration of the winter weather, stretching another few days as the state's power supply is compromised. (Screenshot via Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management)

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told residents Feb. 16 that prolonged power outages across the region could last beyond the duration of the winter weather, stretching another few days as the state's power supply is compromised.

Hidalgo, other county leaders and representatives from CenterPoint Energy and the Memorial Hermann Health System gathered for a press conference Feb. 16.

While CenterPoint Energy corrected weather issues Tuesday that caused nearly 40,000 customers to be without power, Hidalgo said 1.2 million CenterPoint Energy customers remained without power Tuesday evening.

"We've been hit hard by nature this week, but we can't deny that some of this is a man-made disaster as well. The 5 million residents of this region and this state will deserve answers from [the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas] and the state once this is over," Hidalgo said. "I'm talking to counterparts across the state, and we're being told the generators are coming online only to be told more homes are losing power. ERCOT needs to stop being overly optimistic and give us the clarity of what the outlook really looks like. ... Every night since this started, we've seen less [power] generation, not more."

With many homes without power—and therefore without a source of heat—Hidalgo and Dr. Samuel Prater, an emergency physician with Memorial Hermann, said the county is seeing an increased number of carbon monoxide poisoning cases. Causes of poisoning include starting vehicles in garages and bringing equipment inside such as camp stoves, charcoal grills or generators, they said.


"This carbon monoxide poisoning is in many ways a disaster within a disaster," Hidalgo said.

As of Tuesday evening, the county had seen two fatalities from carbon monoxide poisoning, she said.

"In no uncertain terms, this is a public health disaster and a public health emergency," Prater said.

Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen echoed the danger of using outdoor heating sources indoors and said the county is likely to see an increase in house fires as power is restored. Christensen said she encourages residents to unplug TVs and other items not in use while power is lost to avoid a surge as power is restored.

In the pursuit to restore power, Jason Ryan, senior vice president of regulatory services and government affairs at CenterPoint Energy, said the company has been transferring outages around its systems beginning around midnight Monday, prioritizing restoring power temporarily to those customers who lost it first. However, insufficient electricity generation across the state has not allowed for the possibility of rolling outages of 15 minutes to an hour; instead, sustained outages have been necessary, Ryan said.

"That is not the kind of rolling outages that we had expected. So you shouldn't expect those outages to be short in duration. We are transferring sustained outages across our system as we have the power to do so," he said.

Ryan said residents—both those with and without power—should prepare for additional sustained outages, which could go on for several days and continue even after warmer temperatures return.

"Whether you have power or not ... you should plan as if you may have sustained outages until this generation shortfall is over. ... It's not until it gets warmer; it's until this shortfall is over, which could be a number of days," Ryan said. "Let me stress the importance of conservation. Every unit of power that you don't use helps one of your fellow Harris County citizens keep their power. There is nothing too small that you can do."

Hidalgo also encouraged residents to preserve water while they have it, as various portions of the county are seeing boil water notices and low or nonexistent water pressure.

As weather conditions become more clear later in the week, Hidalgo said Harris County Public Health will contact residents on its COVID-19 vaccination waitlist once vaccines are able to again be administered, which could be as early as Friday for second doses.

"Anybody who is contacted that can't make it will have an opportunity to reschedule once the weather passes and the power issues pass, so folks that have been selected out of the waitlist don't have to worry that they're going to be put back into it. We're going to work through that," she said.
By Anna Lotz

Editor, Tomball/Magnolia & Conroe/Montgomery

Anna joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in May 2016 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. In July 2017, she transitioned to editor for the Tomball/Magnolia edition. She began covering the communities of Conroe and Montgomery as well in 2020. Anna covers education, local government, transportation, business, real estate development and nonprofits in these communities. Prior to CI, Anna served as editor-in-chief of Cedars, interned with the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C., and spent time writing for the Springfield News-Sun and Xenia Daily Gazette.



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