Houston expands cooling centers, offers free rides amid continued power outages from Beryl

“We’re really hoping to make contact with those people who are most vulnerable and get them the resources they need to to stay healthy and comfortable,” says Brent Taylor, chief communications officer for the Houston Office of Emergency Management.

By Rhonda FanningJuly 10, 2024 1:31 pm,

About 1.3 million people remained without power in the Houston area on Wednesday, two days after Hurricane Beryl tore through.

Meanwhile, state and federal officials squabbled over emergency relief, with Gov. Greg Abbott calling President Joe Biden’s statements that couldn’t reach state leaders “a complete lie.”

But among those directly affected, the political sniping was largely sound and fury as they struggle firsthand to deal with recovery, with restoring power a top priority. Brent Taylor, chief communications officer for the Houston Office of Emergency Management, joined the Standard with a look at what’s happening on the ground.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Is recovery and power restoration going as fast as it should be? Is it what you expect there in the Office of Emergency Management, or is this slower than anticipated? 

Brent Taylor: You know, this storm, I think is defying some folks’ expectations. We have to keep in mind that this is the largest power outage that we have had in relation to any storm like this. This is bigger than Hurricane Ike in 2008.

And then when you when you add on that this storm kind of lingered and it had a very unique path that we were following and monitoring for, you know, pretty much a week or more. So I think the storm has been top of mind for a lot of people, but the water and the wind didn’t hit us until really early Monday morning.

And so, with that understanding, I think we’re moving right on track. I think the timing is about what we would expect. It’s a large, unprecedented power outage. And it’s something that we’re working with our NGOs, with our faith-based partners, of course, with all of our other stakeholders across the region. And we just need everyone to understand that we’re working on it. I know that CenterPoint’s working on it, and we’re getting there. 

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I hear you alluding to a sense of frustration that a lot of folks in Houston have expressed in local media. They feel frustrated that perhaps CenterPoint, sometimes you hear them make reference to local officials not expecting this or not prepared or set up to deal with this. What are you hearing from CenterPoint? And do you have any concerns about pre-planning and early response to this storm? 

For every disaster, CenterPoint has a seat in the City of Houston’s emergency operations center, so we are in close coordination with them. Even when it’s not something as region-wide as this is, there’s someone who is a regular, consistent partner because they’re a utility and their service is so important. It’s a critical lifeline for everyone in the city and in the region.

We are getting updates. I certainly understand and sympathize. And I feel that same frustration in regards to the power outage map that we have all become so familiar with in years past. We lost that during the derecho back in May, and it hadn’t come back, right. And so that’s certainly the story out there is that people feel like they’re left in the dark – no pun intended –when it comes to the information about wind power is going to be restored.

I do know that CenterPoint is is working with us, and they are sharing the information as it becomes available. They did just put out a new version of that map. It’s a little different than what we expected, and it’s more focused just on this one incident as opposed to something that’s going to be more long term, it looks like. But I am seeing earnest efforts from them to to communicate those critical pieces of information as they get it. 

And do you have a sense of of when everyone will be back online, reconnected to power? Or still waiting to get a kind of firm date/time kind of answer? 

It’s tough to say, to be frankly honest. The one recent point of reference, of course, is the the derecho that we had in May, and in that we had, at peak, 992,000 customers without power. And that took about a week before they were fully restored.

Now, if you’ve seen one disaster, you’ve seen one disaster. The circumstances may be very different because the impact for the derecho had a specific line that the storm followed, and you could see where the damage was. It was a very specific, localized incident, even though it affected the entire city. The infrastructure damage was really in one straight-line path.

With this storm, I’m anticipating that that damage is going to be citywide, region-wide. And so it may not even be comparable in terms of their restoration efforts. It may take significantly more resources because it is a much wider scope of damage than what we saw with the derecho.

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What are your concerns? I mean, as someone who lives in the area, you’ve got friends, neighbors there. You see what’s happening on the ground. What are your personal concerns about where you stand right now? 

You know, it’s the heat. It’s summer. It’s the middle of July, and we’ve already seen heat advisory days and excessive heat warning days in the recent weeks. And so my concern is the people who are most vulnerable, those who have durable medical equipment or who are otherwise medically fragile, those people need to have access to cooling facilities, and they need access to their medical equipment so that they can charge it to keep their life-sustaining functions available to them.

And so we’re very glad to announce that we’ve expanded our cooling center and charging center operations today. And we’re really hoping to make contact with those people who are most vulnerable and get them the resources they need to to stay healthy and comfortable. 

I want to know about the coordination efforts here, because, of course, you’re in Houston. Your office answers to the mayor. You’ve got Harris County officials working here. You’ve got state officials on top of that. And of course, federal officials as well. How is that coordination working out right now? 

You know, that’s the great thing about emergency management. It is a profession of, “oh, I know a guy.” So we’re all very familiar with these partners that we deal with. And unfortunately, in Houston, we have to do a lot of disaster management.

I know the folks at the Texas Division of Emergency Management; I know the folks at FEMA. We’ve seen them as recently as last month. That’s something that’s incredible to think about: There were still disaster recovery centers and business recovery centers set up that had to close because of the hurricane. So we were still in the process of filing applications and residents getting the information to submit for their recovery from the derecho when this storm hit.

So a lot of these people were already in town. You know, in terms of the county, we work with them every day. We have very strong coordination locally. And because of the recent disasters, those state and regional relationships are fresh and they are strong. 

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What do you need right now? And I’m asking this sort of on two levels. First of all, I know there are a lot of listeners out there thinking, what can I do to help? How can I assist? But at the same time, there may be state officials thinking, okay, what’s happening in Houston right now and wondering, are we doing all we can? How would you answer that? 

You know, we’re going to be opening food distribution. We’ve been in communication with the Houston Food Bank and coordinating with them. We’re opening the charging centers. So I want residents and people who are impacted to know that resources are available. We definitely want people to know about those resources and that they can get there.

If they don’t have a way – if their vehicle is not working or they don’t have a vehicle – they can contact 311, and we will give them free rides anywhere to any of these distribution centers. We have two ways: So if they have a medical need that would require, like a paratransit. We work with Metro Lift. If it’s just a traditional vehicle, we have a company called ZTrip that we work with. We don’t want transportation to be any impediment to reaching these resources. 

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