‘We Can’t Sleep’: Houstonians Still Without Power Struggle to Stay Cool


Three days after a devastating thunderstorm tore through Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city began lurching back onto its feet on Sunday.

Power returned to hundreds of thousands of homes but still remained out across hard-hit areas not far from downtown. Traffic crawled through blackened intersections or down neighborhood streets now lined with limbs and leaves piled up like green-brown snow banks.

Clear skies helped dry out the sopping city over the weekend but also presented a new danger as temperatures climbed to around 90 degrees and were expected to stay. More than 350,000 electrical customers across huge swathes of Houston and its northwest suburbs started the day without service, cutting off the air conditioning that helps make the Gulf Coast heat bearable.

“We can’t sleep,” said Dolores Valladares, 61, with sweat on her brow as she sat outside her home in the city’s East End, watching her grandchildren.

Inside was even more stifling. Her food had spoiled, and she has struggled to get a reimbursement for her food stamps. Instead, she has been relying on nearby fast food chains that have power for cheap food and cool air.

“The darn heat,” said Mayor John Whitmire during a news conference on Sunday evening. “It’s getting hotter as we talk.” He said the city had opened cooling centers and was providing free rides for residents to get to them.

The local electric company, CenterPoint Energy, has been racing to repair lines that had fallen from the force of the wind or under the weight of trees, saying it had done so for more than a half-million customers within 48 hours of the storm on Thursday evening. A quarter of a million were fixed from Saturday into Sunday.

The outages were so widespread that even the company’s own online outage tracker — frequently used by Houstonians to check their service — was overwhelmed and stopped working reliably.

A company spokesman said CenterPoint had around 7,000 workers out performing repairs, including thousands of additional power line workers and “vegetation management personnel” who were brought in from surrounding areas.

The company expected to restore service to 80 percent of its affected customers by Sunday evening. But that would most likely still leave around 200,000 without service into the start of the week. Some would not have power until the end of the day on Wednesday, the company said.

Elsewhere in the city, Sunday routines carried on unbroken in neighborhoods that never lost power or quickly regained it. Church bells rang. Golfers and joggers sweated it out in Houston’s central Hermann Park, confident that air-conditioning awaited them at home. Travel sports teams gathered for games.

Parents waited anxiously for updates on their children’s schools in the city and surrounding suburbs. Most of the 274 schools in the Houston Independent School District, which closed on Friday, had power and were set to reopen on Monday. But dozens were still without electricity.

“I have no idea what Monday will bring,” said Clinton Ogden, whose 8-year-old daughter goes to school across the street from his home at Sinclair Elementary in the Timbergrove neighborhood, northwest of downtown. The school campus was heavily damaged by falling trees, and much of the area still had no power.

Both he and his wife work, so if the school did not open, it would be a challenge. “She’ll have to come with me,” Mr. Ogden, who works in construction sales, said of his daughter.

Schools would remain closed on Monday for more than 150,000 students in two other local public school districts, Cypress-Fairbanks and Spring Branch, officials said.

Along Interstate 10, utility trucks could be seen massed in box store parking lots before deploying. In hard-hit neighborhoods, chain saws hummed, joining the rumbling of diesel generators powering the homes of those lucky enough to have them.

“There’s a lot of neighborhoods, maybe within a two-mile radius, who’s had their power restored as of yesterday,” said Dewayne Williams, 43, who lives with his family in Cypress, Texas, northwest of Houston. “But we’re still without.”

With the sun beating down, Mr. Williams said the temperature inside his home felt like 90 degrees or more. He had a generator to keep the refrigerator working and to occasionally run a fan.

The National Weather Service said that a tornado briefly touched down near the Cypress area on Thursday as the thunderstorm barreled across the metropolitan area.

Mr. Williams said large electrical towers went down in the area. At his house, fencing on both sides of his home were knocked over, as well as trees throughout the neighborhood.

Signs of the storm’s power were still everywhere. Cranes lifted billboards that had crashed down on commercial structures. And Houston’s downtown skyscrapers bore their fresh scars, with windows blown out or boarded up on some of the highest floors. A six-block area of downtown remained barricaded off, as well as some office towers, Mr. Whitmire said.

Thursday’s thunderstorm, which officials said killed seven people, struck with such sudden ferocity that it left people across the Houston area with little time to prepare. The heat posed a more predicable threat, though on Sunday there had been only 18 heat-related emergency calls, Samuel Peña, the city’s fire chief said.

In addition to opening city and county cooling centers, officials said Houston schools were planning to offer food distribution starting on Monday.

A century-old tree toppled in Maria Saldana’s yard in the Spring Branch area, ripped out at the roots. No one got hurt. But as of Sunday, no one nearby had power either, and neighbors feared — based on a map put out by the electric company — that they would not get power back for a few more days.

Ms. Saldana, 64, was exasperated at the sustained outage, the fourth such stretch she has had to endure, after Hurricane Ike in 2008, Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the winter freeze in 2021.

“I’ve lived in this house for 38 years,” she said. “I am old. I don’t want to do it anymore.”

She said she thought about moving but was not sure where she would go. For now, she said she was taking cold showers and driving her car around the block with the cold air blasting.

Thank God, she said, “I have water.”

Colbi Edmonds contributed reporting from New York.

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