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Texas power outage: Anger grows as crippling blackouts and heat turn deadly



CNN

Frustration is growing in southeast Texas as residents struggle through crippling power outages and heat for the fourth straight day. The combination is dangerous – and sometimes deadly – as some people struggle to get food, gas or medical care.

More than 1.3 million homes and businesses in the region are still without power after Beryl hit the Gulf Coast as a Category 1 hurricane on Monday, killing at least 11 people in Texas and Louisiana.

Many residents have been staying with friends or relatives who still have power, but many cannot afford to leave their homes, Houston City Councilman Julian Ramirez told CNN. And while countless families have lost food in their warming refrigerators, many businesses are still closed, leaving agencies, food banks and other public services scrambling to distribute food to underserved areas, he said.

“These people have no choice but to stay home and hold on,” he said.

As residents desperately try to cool their homes with generators, carbon monoxide poisoning has become a serious problem. At least two people have died from carbon monoxide poisoning in Harris County, and fire departments have received more than 200 calls about carbon monoxide poisoning in 24 hours, local authorities said.

A 71-year-old woman died near Crystal Beach after her oxygen machine's battery ran out and her generator failed. While authorities said the woman's official cause of death had not yet been determined, they again urged residents to check on their relatives and neighbors.

“If you're wondering if someone is OK who you think has medically necessary equipment that needs to be charged, don't take any chances,” said Texas State Senator Mayes Middleton. “And please call 911.”

Eric Gay/AP

Traffic is diverted around a downed power line in Houston, Texas, on Tuesday.

Heat-related medical emergencies are also increasing in Houston, while southeast Texas is experiencing temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, said the city's fire chief, Samuel Peña.

The heat index – a measure of how the body perceives heat and humidity – can reach 41 degrees in some areas, posing a life-threatening scenario for people without adequate cooling.

A family in Needville, Texas, about 40 miles southwest of Houston, caved in Wednesday and bought a window air conditioner after three days of sweltering heat. Jennifer Purswell said she hooked the unit up to a generator and uses plastic sheeting over doors to trap cool air in the living room.

Essential facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes have prioritized powering medically necessary equipment. Some hospitals in Houston are at risk of overcrowding because they cannot discharge patients to homes without power. The city administration has therefore organized additional beds in a sports stadium, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said on Tuesday.

Nine fire stations in Houston had to be closed and relocated because they did not have generators, Peña said, even as numerous emergency calls came in at the same time.

As conditions continue to be dire, Houston residents are growing frustrated with CenterPoint Energy, the city's primary utility, which is responsible for resolving most of the outages.

“Almost everyone has lost patience with CenterPoint,” Councilman Ramirez told CNN by phone.

Beryl's impact left more than 2.2 million customers without power on Monday. By Wednesday evening, the utility said it had restored power to 1.1 million customers and hoped to have power restored to another 400,000 by Friday and another 350,000 by Sunday.

Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle/Getty Images

Cars line up to distribute relief supplies at Woodforest Bank Stadium in Shenandoah, Texas, on Wednesday.

Maria Lysaker/AP

Volunteers distribute water at a distribution station in Houston, Texas, on Wednesday.

But anger is growing among residents. They believe that utility companies should have been better prepared for the storm.

“CenterPoint can't seem to tell us how long this will last. The first outage (in May) I was without power for four to five days, and I think that was pretty common,” Ramirez said. “Who knows? It could be longer. They're not telling us.”

Ramirez noted the widespread anger and also drew attention to new street art in Houston – a graffiti on I-10 that reads “Centerpointle$$.”

The Harris County Republican Party criticized CenterPoint in a social media post for its “obvious lack of preparation.”

“CenterPoint is the largest provider of electricity to the residents of Harris County and must do better. They owe us answers,” the post said.

On social media, residents criticized CenterPoint's power outage map, saying it contained inaccuracies, such as claiming that power had been restored when it had not.

The City Council questioned a CenterPoint manager on Wednesday and asked why the company had not done more to prepare for storms.

Brad Tutunjian, vice president of power distribution and power supply at CenterPoint, said an incident of this magnitude had never been seen before and called it the “largest outage in our history.”

“We have made solid progress and exceeded the number of customer recoveries after Hurricane Ike, but there is still much important work ahead, particularly in the hardest hit areas where the work will be more complex and time-consuming,” a utility spokesman said.

Mark Felix/Bloomberg/Getty Images

American Red Cross workers prepare cots in Houston, Texas, on Wednesday.

Nursing homes and residents who rely on electrical medical equipment are particularly at risk as power outages will continue at least until the end of the week.

Ian Wu, owner of the Ella Springs senior living community in the greater Houston area, said he has heard the concerns of many families as his 85 residents continue to sit in the dark – some without power for oxygen machines.

“Right now we're trying to keep our generators running to power essentials like cooking and oxygen tanks,” Wu told CNN affiliate KTRK.

Wu said the plant is registered as a critical load customer for which the supply is considered vital, but he did not know when power could be restored.

“I'm trying to be understanding because I know millions of other people feel the same way,” Wu told KTRK. “But a little recognition that we're a high priority place would be nice.”

Patricia Romano, who took her 92-year-old mother home, called the situation “ridiculous.”

“Don’t we owe it to our people who can’t take care of themselves to take care of them?” Romano told the partner company.

CNN's Amanda Jackson, Robert Shackelford, Joe Sutton and Sarah Dewberry contributed to this report.

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