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More than a million homes and businesses were without power in the Houston area Thursday morning, raising questions about the resilience of the region's electrical infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Beryl.

The Category 1 storm made landfall three days ago, knocking down power lines and leaving 1.3 million customers without electricity and air conditioning. Now the country's fifth-largest metropolitan area is in the midst of a heat wave, with heat indices exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The region was under a National Weather Service heat warning on Wednesday, indicating “extremely dangerous heat conditions.”

“It's important that these systems are designed to handle not just a single climate-enhanced extreme weather event, but multiple ones, because then it's a matter of life or death,” said Costa Samaras, a former Biden administration official who now heads the Institute for Energy Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University.

“In this heat, vulnerable people are at risk if there is no electricity,” Samaras added.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas on Wednesday ordered utilities affected by Beryl to appear at their regular meeting on Thursday “to discuss preparation and reconstruction.”

The widespread power outages caused chaos in the region's hospitals, with five hospitals forced to close and reopen Wednesday morning, while 16 hospitals were running on generators, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Many hospitals refused to discharge patients on Wednesday whose homes were without power and considered unsafe, according to Nim Kidd, director of the Texas Department of Emergency Management.

That forced patients at some hospitals to wait three hours in ambulances before they could be admitted or seen in the emergency room, Kidd said. In Houston, a police officer who was shot in the leg on Monday waited more than a day before he could be admitted to a local hospital, Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told reporters on Wednesday.

The state set up an emergency field hospital in a sports complex to temporarily house up to 250 patients from 29 overburdened hospitals awaiting discharge.

The outages were particularly concerning because they came less than three months after storms and tornadoes left nearly a million homes and businesses in the greater Houston area without power.

“The system is old,” said Dave Cortez, director of the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter. “We're living in a 21st century climate crisis with 20th century infrastructure. We don't have the power grid we need to weather these kinds of extreme storms.”

“When trees fall, it takes days and weeks to repair,” says Cortez, advocating for small, local energy sources such as solar panels on roofs and in communities and home battery systems.

The traces of the storm damage from the May storms are still visible, with dead branches piling up in city parks and on public paths. Beryl has added to the rubble, spreading freshly fallen branches and leaves across courtyards and streets. Street signs are crooked or missing. Many street lamps and traffic lights are not working.

On Wednesday, nearly 20 percent of cell sites in the Houston area were unreachable. On Tuesday, when the Federal Communications Commission began tracking outages, the figure was 29 percent.

“A big mistake”

CenterPoint Energy, the region's largest utility, was criticized for not having enough repair crews available after Beryl.

“What is concerning is that CenterPoint is very slow in restoring power. Apparently they did not request enough help from outside repair crews in time to restore power to more people more quickly,” said Dan Cohan, a professor of environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston.

Cohan noted that tracking models showed the storm would likely remain south of the U.S. before Beryl reached Texas early Monday.

“There was a big mistake early on,” said Cohan. “It’s that critical three- to four-day [of landfall] Time is critical in determining how many repair crews companies will call in from outside the city.”

Samaras, the former Biden official, said the resilience of the energy sector will be measured by “how quickly the power comes back on and for how many people.”

“If the power is still out, it looks like the utility is not very resilient,” Samaras said of CenterPoint.

CenterPoint said in a statement Wednesday that its system “operated largely as designed during the storm.”

Transmission towers, high-voltage lines and substations were not significantly damaged, the group's own utility company said. The power outages were “largely” due to damage to the distribution system of towers and lines.

“We fully understand that our customers are hot and becoming increasingly impatient with the power outages,” Lynnae Wilson, senior vice president of CenterPoint's electricity business, said in a statement Wednesday.

CenterPoint posted videos and photos of downed power poles and repair crews at work on its Facebook page. Hundreds of people responded with angry and sarcastic comments like, “There is something very wrong with CenterPoint's infrastructure! This was a Category 1 hurricane.”

Houston was a patchwork of power supplies on Wednesday, with clusters of dark homes sitting next to clusters of fully functioning homes. Businesses that had power restored on Wednesday were quickly overwhelmed by customers.

Many of the city's 2.3 million residents stood in long lines in front of gas stations, desperately looking for gasoline or diesel or a small oasis of air conditioning.

More than 100 cooling centers have opened across the region, with Houston setting up five drive-thru stations to distribute water bottles and bags of ice on Wednesday afternoon.

Beryl initially left nearly three million homes and businesses without power – a staggering number compared to previous storms.

Hurricane Harvey, which devastated southeast Texas with heavy rains and winds in 2017, affected two million electricity customers, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corp. Harvey caused $160 billion in damage and is the second most destructive storm in U.S. history, according to NOAA.

The number of outages at Beryl fell to 1.7 million on Wednesday morning.

As of Thursday morning, 1.3 million homes and businesses were still without power, representing about 40 percent of customers in the affected region, according to an analysis of data from CenterPoint and PowerOutage.us by POLITICO's E&E News.

In April, CenterPoint filed a 100-page transmission and distribution resilience plan with the Public Utility Commission of Texas, requesting approval to spend $2.2 billion on improvements such as system hardening, flood protection and wildfire suppression.

“That's great,” said Cortez of the Sierra Club, “but how many of these storms have we seen?”

Reporter Edward Klump contributed.

This story also appears in Energy wire.

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