Dangerous heat threatens millions of Texans without power for days in largest outage in utility’s history

Life-threatening heat is gripping southeast Texas, where more than 1.5 million homes and businesses remain without power and air conditioning for a third day after Beryl caused major power outages, including the largest in one major energy provider’s history.

Restoring electricity across the region is expected to take days – and in some cases weeks – after Beryl tore through the state as a Category 1 hurricane Monday, flooding coastal communities, shredding homes and ripping down webs of power lines. And what’s left of the storm is still threatening to cause destruction Wednesday in the form of tornadoes and flooding more than 1,000 miles away in the Northeast.

So impactful was the storm in Texas that the utility provider responsible for most of the outages said it was a historic event.

“We have never seen an incident of this magnitude – this is the largest outage in our history,” Brad Tutunjian, CenterPoint’s vice president of Electric Distribution and Power Delivery, said during a Houston City Council meeting Wednesday. The utility has been servicing the area for “over a hundred years,” he noted.

As power outages continue to plague Houston, there has been a three-time increase in call volume from residents contacting emergency officials.

“We’ve seen over 200 carbon monoxide poisoning calls in the last 24 hours,” Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference.

Peña cited the improper use of generators at homes and people turning on their cars to charge devices in their garages. He also said they are seeing an increase in medical emergencies related to the heat.

Homes have become saunas and food languishes in warm refrigerators, mainly from Galveston to north of Houston, according to PowerOutage.us. Phone and internet access has also been cut off in some communities, including Galveston.

“No WiFi, no power, and it’s hot outside. That’s dangerous for people. That’s really the big issue,” Houston resident Robin Taylor told the Associated Press. “People will die in this heat in their homes.”

Beryl has been blamed for at least 11 deaths in Texas and Louisiana, mainly from fallen trees. Two deaths in Houston’s Harris County were the result of carbon monoxide poisoning, Texas emergency officials said, prompting warnings about the dangers using generators in areas where families are living and sleeping. A 71-year-old woman died in Galveston County Monday after her oxygen machine ran out of battery while her power was out, state Sen. Mayes Middleton, confirmed in a news conference Tuesday.

Cooling centers have opened across the region as air temperatures crept into the 90s and the heat index teased 105 degrees. The heat index – a measurement of how the body feels under both heat and humidity – will reach triple digits across Texas each afternoon through at least the weekend.

Most of the West and South of the country are in the throes of a long-lasting heat wave that has seen dozens of records broken and caused multiple deaths.

Prolonged heat exposure poses significant health risks for people without adequate cooling and may be especially dangerous for Texans working outdoors to clear debris or damaged infrastructure. Heat also presents increased risks for the elderly, people with chronic medical conditions, homeless people and children.

Hospitals in Houston are at risk of overcrowding as they cannot release patients to homes without power, prompting city officials to organize overflow beds in an indoor sports stadium, Patrick said Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the office of Houston City Council Member Joaquin Martinez delivered water to two senior facilities without power in his district. One room had some electricity in one of the facilities, but at the second, people had to gather outside to stay cool, a representative from his office told CNN. “They were desperate and expressed concern,” the representative said.

The power outage also shuttered nine fire stations, as they didn’t have generators, Houston Mayor John Whitmire said Wednesday afternoon.

“I get really, really upset when I learn the City of Houston does not have generators at essential services like a fire station,” a frustrated Whitmire said during the news conference. “Great cities should not operate like that – it’s neglect, it’s severe neglect and we’re going to fix it as we go forward.”

Long lines of cars and residents snaked out of fast food restaurants, food trucks and gas stations in the hopes of getting a few minutes of cool air or a bite to eat, according to the AP. Dwight Yell, 54, had power at his house but took a disabled neighbor, who did not, to Denny’s for some food, the outlet reports.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has stressed to CenterPoint Energy the importance of restoring power as quickly as possible. The utility estimates about 80% of its customers in Houston are without power.

“It’s tough to be in the heat. It’s tough not to be able to refrigerate anything and tough not being able to go out and get food,” Patrick said. “I made sure that CenterPoint was aware of that and asked them to pull out all the stops to get power back as quickly as they could.”

But CenterPoint officials say it could be several days before power is fully restored to its customers, though it hopes to restore service to 1 million customers by Wednesday night. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 1.2 million of its customers were still in the dark.

“Almost universally, people have lost patience with CenterPoint,” City Council Member Julian Ramirez told CNN Wednesday. While some people are trying to stay with friends and family who have power, many can’t afford to leave their homes, Ramirez said. Food is another concern, as many stores are still closed, he said, so his office, food banks and public services are trying to quickly distribute food to underserved areas.

“CenterPoint can’t seem to tell us how long this is going to last,” he said.

A home in Surfside Beach, Texas, was destroyed by Hurricane Beryl on July 8. - Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images
A home in Surfside Beach, Texas, was destroyed by Hurricane Beryl on July 8. - Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Tuesday approved a federal emergency disaster declaration that will assist with some recovery costs, including clearing debris, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office said.

But before long-term recovery efforts get underway, many frustrated residents are grappling with how to address their immediate needs.

“It’s catastrophic when you lose everything in your fridge and you are living check to check,” Harris County Commissioner Lesley Briones told the AP.

Beryl barrels into Northeast

Though Beryl has substantially weakened since slamming into Texas as a Category 1 hurricane, its remnants still pose serious flood and tornado threats Wednesday to the northern US.

More than 10 million people are under flood watches across parts of the Midwest and Northeast. The watches will begin to expire for the Midwest by the end of the day Wednesday but will last in New England until Thursday morning.

Heavy rainfall and a serious tornado threat began Wednesday afternoon in parts of the Northeast. Several tornado warnings occurred simultaneously in parts of New York and northern Pennsylvania. The most significant tornado threat will encompass areas from northern Pennsylvania to southern New Hampshire and Vermont through the evening. That includes Syracuse and Albany, New York, and Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Beryl already whipped up more than a dozen tornadoes across Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana on Monday and two in Indiana and Kentucky on Tuesday.

One damaging tornado in southwestern Indiana tore through a warehouse in Mount Vernon and shredded the roof and crushed tractor trailers.

West’s heat wave stretches to second week

Heat alerts engulf more than 140 million Americans on both coasts, but the brunt of the heat is still impacting the West, where communities have been baking under high temperatures for at least two weeks.

Extremely dangerous heat has caused several deaths in the West and will persist in the region through Friday, bringing high temperatures well into the 100s in some areas as temperatures reach between 10 to 30 degrees above average to some areas.

California’s Death Valley has reached or exceeded 125 degrees every day since July 4, and the streak is expected to continue through Friday, marking its second-longest streak of days above 125, behind 10 days in July 1913. In Nevada, Las Vegas hit 119 degrees Tuesday, which is its fourth straight day of breaking a daily high temperature record.

“The multi-day length and record warm overnight temperatures will continue to cause heat stress to anyone without adequate cooling and hydration,” the National Weather Service warned.

Human-caused climate change is driving far more frequent and intense heat waves across the globe, exposing communities to increasingly dangerous temperatures. When a person is unable to cool their body down amid prolonged heat, they are at risk for damage to the brain and other vital organs, as well as other heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and stroke.

The weather service in Houston has advised residents to limit outdoor activities, work early or late in the day, wear light clothing and sunscreen and check on loved ones, neighbors and pets.

CNN’s Robert Shackelford, Sarah Dewberry, Fabiana Chaparro, Mary Gilbert and Christina Zdanowicz contributed to this report.

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