Head of FEMA tours deadly storm damage in Houston area as more residents get power back

HOUSTON (AP) — As the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency toured the Houston area on Tuesday to assess the damage from last week’s deadly storms, local officials reassured residents still without power that their lights would be back on and they could soon begin rebuilding their lives.

Houston Mayor John Whitmire said crews with CenterPoint Energy had been working hard to restore power to residents dealing with temperatures of about 90 degrees (32 Celsius) and heat indexes approaching 100 degrees (38 Celsius).

At the height of the power outages, nearly 1 million people in the Houston area were without electricity. By Tuesday evening, that was down to less than 95,000.

“We’re on top of it. No one is being neglected,” Whitmire said.

The widespread destruction of last Thursday’s storms left at least eight dead and brought much of Houston to a standstill. Thunderstorms and hurricane-force winds tore through the city, reducing businesses and other structures to piles of debris, uprooting trees and shattering glass from downtown skyscrapers. A tornado also touched down near the northwest Houston suburb of Cypress.

Some downtown streets remained closed as crews continued cleaning up glass as the strong winds damaged 3,250 windows on high-rise buildings. Officials said it could take months to repair all the windows.

The deadly winds tore through a wide swath of Harris County, where Houston is located, causing damage and knocking out the power in both lower income and wealthier neighborhoods.

Last week’s storms took place as the Houston area and several Texas counties to the north were still recovering from flooding caused by heavy rainfall in late April and early May.

FEMA has approved small business loans and federal disaster assistance, which can help pay for temporary housing and repairs, for both weather events.

More than 48,000 people in the affected counties that were declared disaster areas have already applied for assistance, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said Tuesday. The agency has already issued more than $1 million in help to residents.

“We know that thousands in the region are still without power. So again, I encourage you to continue to check in on your loved ones, your neighbors, your vulnerable individuals in your communities and make sure that they’re OK,” Criswell said.

Lisa Reed, a teacher who lives in the Cloverleaf neighborhood in east Harris County, had been without power for four days before finally getting it back Monday evening.

“I felt exhilarated. It was real good to be just back in my own home,” Reed said.

But Reed said one of her daughters and her son, who both live nearby, were still without power on Tuesday. Even with the power back on, some of Reed’s neighbors were dealing with sparking wires and other electrical problems.

“It’s frustrating seeing people struggle. You wish you could do more,” she said. “Everyone doesn’t have the resources.”

Harris County Commissioner Lesley Briones, whose home still didn’t have power on Tuesday, said the deadly storms have had a severe impact on many lower-income residents.

In one area in the Spring Branch neighborhood in northwest Harris County, many damaged apartment complexes are “completely unlivable” with damaged roofs and debris that is not being cleaned up by landlords or owners. Briones said many of the families in these complexes are living paycheck to paycheck.

“The choice is to stay in these substandard, unlivable conditions or be homeless. And so, we are working actively on the long-term legal issues,” she said.

Michelle Hundley, a spokesperson for CenterPoint Energy, said the utility provider still expected to restore power to more than 90% of customers by Wednesday. If someone didn’t have power by Wednesday, it would most likely be due to damaged equipment at their home that the homeowner would need to fix.

“Certainly our linemen and all of our employees are very diligent in working to make sure that your electricity is up and running, and we will do the absolute best that we can,” Hundley said.

Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia said some underserved communities might feel left out “because they see lights in nicer-looking neighborhoods go up. I just want to say you’re not forgotten. You’re not left behind.”

Authorities had initially reported the deadly storms were being blamed for at least seven deaths. On Sunday, authorities raised the total to eight to include a man who died from carbon monoxide poisoning while running a generator after his power went out.


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Juan A. Lozano, The Associated Press