CenterPoint ‘rapidly losing confidence’ in communications decisions after Hurricane Beryl – Houston Public Media

CenterPoint ‘rapidly losing confidence’ in communications decisions after Hurricane Beryl – Houston Public Media

Beryl Power Restoration Assistance

Celeste Schurman/Houston Public Media

Power workers drafted from outside Texas showed up in the Nottingham Country neighborhood of Katy on Wednesday, July 10, 2024, to assist with power restoration efforts following Hurricane Beryl.

Molly McPherson was deployed to Houston during Hurricane Ike in 2008 while working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), so she knows what it’s like to lose power during the summer in Southeast Texas.

The Massachusetts-based crisis communications strategist also works with utility companies, so she understands why CenterPoint Energy is facing criticism from Houston-area residents and elected officials in the wake of Hurricane Beryl. More than 1.2 million of its customers were without power Wednesday afternoon — more than 48 hours after the deadly storm tore through the region, toppling trees and causing widespread flooding — and the company has yet to provide details on when its service will be restored.

Meanwhile, the Houston area is under a heat advisory, with temperatures above 90 degrees and heat indices exceeding 100, according to the National Weather Service.

“There’s no better way to go from a beloved utility to a hated utility than when there’s no power,” McPherson said. “People who are living without power in extreme conditions, in extreme heat, are going to create an emotional state where nothing will make them happy until the power is restored. The only way to restore trust is to restore power.”

RELATED: Houston Area Residents Share Photos and Experiences of Hurricane Beryl

McPherson said CenterPoint is “rapidly losing the trust” of its customers, while adding that the new outage map the company unveiled Tuesday night “works against the company by letting people know how bad the service is.”

CenterPoint removed its online power outage map, which featured a color-coded timeline indicating when affected residents could expect their power to be restored, after a deadly windstorm in mid-May knocked out power to more than 900,000 homes, schools and businesses. It was another point of criticism in the aftermath of this week’s storm, with one social media user noting that the map feature on the Whataburger app could serve as a de facto outage map because it showed which 24-hour fast food restaurants were closed.

Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy consultant and author of the Texas Energy and Power Newsletter, said there is “no excuse” for CenterPoint not to have an outage map. He also said the company’s communications so far “have not been good.”

CenterPoint’s power outage map returned in a different format Tuesday night, showing which areas had power, which needed to be repaired and which were still being assessed, but not indicating when the outages were expected to be restored. And its accuracy was widely criticized by customers on social media.

Trucks of an energy company

Celeste Schurman/Houston Public Media

Utility trucks line a street in the Nottingham Country neighborhood of Katy on Wednesday, July 10, 2024.

Bill Kelly, a First Ward resident who worked for former Houston Mayors Bill White and Sylvester Turner, said the new outage map showed power had been restored to his neighbor who works as a lineman for CenterPoint. But that wasn’t actually the case, according to Kelly, who said the situation reminded him of an emergency response meeting led by White in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

A national nonprofit organization attending the meeting was ready to publicize a hotline it had created when White asked Kelly to dial the number himself to see if it worked. It didn’t, prompting the organization to go back and fix the problem before providing the phone number to the public, Kelly said.

“Accuracy is very important,” Kelly said. “The fact that CenterPoint, No. 1, doesn’t have a map and No. 2 publishes a map that is riddled with inaccuracies doesn’t give the public any confidence.”

McPherson said the company needs to provide clear expectations for power restoration to regain trust and also needs a unified message from its leaders.

First, McPherson said, CenterPoint needs to get residents’ lights and air conditioners back on. Depending on how long that takes, that may not be enough to satisfy exhausted, overheated and stressed Houstonians.

“They’re facing a wave of public protest that’s dominating the news,” McPherson said. “It’s harder for energy providers to restore their reputations in the event of a massive outage than it is to restore power to their customers.”

RELATED: Cooling centers and shelters open across Houston area after Hurricane Beryl

State and local officials said they would hold CenterPoint accountable after more than 2.2 million of its residential and business customers — representing about 80% of its customer base in the region — lost power at the height of Monday’s storm. Company officials said they did not anticipate the Category 1 hurricane would cause so much damage to infrastructure, while noting that CenterPoint mobilized more than 12,000 restoration workers from Texas as well as several other states.

As of Wednesday afternoon, power had been restored to nearly 950,000 of CenterPoint’s customers who lost it. The company said in a news release that it realizes that remaining customers “need information about the status of their service,” as much of the criticism of CenterPoint focuses on the lack of clarity about which parts of the region are most affected and when power will be restored.

“As the company continues to make progress in assessing the damage, it plans to provide more accurate estimates of restoration times beginning Thursday morning,” CenterPoint said.