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06.15.05 Storms Blamed For Deadly Temporary Power Outage

Storms blamed for deadly temporary power outage

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

June 16, 2005, 5:29PM

Storms that knocked over power lines and triggered a power-plant shutdown were blamed today for a four-hour blackout that affected 150,000 homes from the northern suburbs of Houston to Beaumont, sparked a rash of fires and caused the death of a boy trying to cross a darkened street.  A 12-year-old mentally handicapped youth wandered away from his family's home in San Jacinto County and was hit by a motorist near a gas station, dark and without electricity for its pumps, where cars were lining up for gas. The boy, whose name has not been released, died in an ambulance enroute to a hospital after the Life Flight helicopter coming to his aid was grounded by the storms and forced to land in Livingston, authorities said. 

The massive outage, which began around 7 p.m. Wednesday, also forced the Conroe Regional Medical Center to divert emergency-room patients to other hospitals and prompted authorities to put several state prisons into lockdown. It snarled traffic where signal lights were out and forced many stores and restaurants to close early.

Mike Rodgers, a spokesman for Louisiana-based Entergy, said his company is asking customers to go easy on their electricity today to avoid overloading the system. 

The problems began when high winds from storms knocked down two large transmission lines near China, just west of Beaumont. Fourteen other power lines throughout the area tripped off when the excess power load was redirected through them. This caused a voltage imbalance that sent the company's Lewis Creek plant in Willis into emergency shutdown, damaging two generators. The shutdown caused lubrication oil to leak onto insulation around the turbine equipment, which caught fire.


Montgomery County fire crews responded to the blaze, which was small but extremely hot and difficult to reach, said Assistant Fire Marshal Scott Burlin.

By 9:23 p.m., it was a three-alarm blaze that required as many as seven agencies countywide to respond. The blaze was so hot - about 1,000 degrees -  that firefighters had to be rotated every two to three minutes to cool off and had to use fire extinguishers to put the fire out.

"It was too hot fight with water,'' Burlin said. "If you put water on hot metal, the metal will fracture and explode.''

The fire, contained in a small area at the plant, was under control by midnight, Burlin said.

By then 15 of the 16 lines were fixed, but the generators at the plant north of Houston remain out of commission today, so Entergy is watching for signs of overload. Entergy has agreements with some of its industrial customers that allow the company to cut back the amount of electricity they get, and residential customers can voluntarily help by putting off energy-consuming tasks like running dishwashers and washing machines until at least this evening and bumping up thermostats to 78.   

For a few residents, the blackout was far more than inconvenient.

Firefighters in Montgomery County responded to 16 fires that started after the blackout overnight, and although most caused little or no damage, two destroyed homes.

Brett Coomer/Chronicle
Woodlands restaurant managers David Cassity, right, and Shawna Heflin wait for power to return in a parking lot outside their businesses. The nearby store had an emergency generator to keep its lights on.
Jim Hewett and his family were not at their home in Montgomery County's Panorama Village when a blaze started around 9:30 p.m. The family had been grilling hamburgers on their electric stove when the power went out, so they headed out to a restaurant. When they heard power had been restored, they returned to find their house destroyed.  Fire Marshal Jimmy Williams said investigators believe the stove may have been left on.


Another fire was reported at 11:51 p.m. in Montgomery County's Cut and Shoot. Burlin said the blaze likely was caused by candles lit when the power went out. He said the homeowner, Brook Ruiz, told him she left some candles going when she and her baby went next door to her parents' home. When she returned to get something, she found her house burning, he said.

It was a hectic night for Montgomery County dispatchers, who logged 66 calls after the blackout.  In addition to handling the legitimate reports of fire, dispatchers had to wade through  false alarms automatically set off by the power outage at businesses and homes. Jittery residents also kept emergency crews busy with mistaken reports of smoke and fire.

Houston resident Sue Hudgins was one of those who found the blackout unsettling. She said when she learned of the blackout about 8 p.m. Wednesday, she began calling her 63-year-old mother, who lives outside Willis.


"When she didn't answer her cell phone, I got scared,'' Hudgins said. "I just jumped in my car and started that way.''

The drive, which usually takes about an hour, took more than two hours, through traffic tangled by darkened signal lights. When she finally arrived, she found her mother fine but also frantic, unable to find the ringing phone in the dark.

Daunted by a late-night drive back home, Hudgins opted for a sleepover, and the pair decided to eat ice cream that was melting in the powerless freezer.

"We were just getting it out, and the damned lights came back on,'' Hudgins said. "We ate it anyway.''

Hudgins left early for work at a downtown Houston insurance office this morning, without makeup and wearing clothes she'd left at her mother's house in the '80s.

"It's going to be a strange day," she said.

It was also a hectic night for workers at Conroe Regional Medical Center, which had to rely on backup generators to supply enough electricity for "all necessary functions," a hospital spokeswoman said. The 332-bed hospital diverted emergency-room patients to other hospitals during the blackout, and since most gas stations in Montgomery County had no power, ambulances had to drive to northwest Harris County to refuel. 

Allen Johnson, EMS director for the Montgomery County Hospital District, said nearby ambulance services, including those from Tomball and Humble, were called to help take patients to hospitals outside the county. Houston's EMS units were on standby in case the blackout dragged on and critically ill patients needed to be moved

State prisons in the blackout area also had their own backup generators but declared lockdowns as a precaution, said Michelle Lyons, a spokeswoman with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Among the prisons that restricted inmates to their housing blocks were all Huntsville prisons, including the death row unit, and prisons in Livingston, Dayton and Madison County. Lyons said she knew of no security incidents resulting from the blackout and the lockdowns were lifted as Entergy restored power.  

With street lights and traffic lights out across Southeast Texas Wednesday night, traffic backed up on the busiest roads, but most residents apparently decided to sit tight once they reached their destinations. A Liberty County dispatcher reported that deserted streets looked like they belonged in a ghost town.

Brett Coomer/Chronicle
Perry Andersson pours ice on a bin of fish after power flickered back on at the seafood restaurant where he works in The Woodlands.
  Some who lost power, however, took the blackout as reason to venture forth.


"We were in the swimming pool when the power went out," said Jeff Cullingford of Conroe. "So we decided to go for ice cream." Instead, he and his companions ended up at Lowe's Home Improvement store on Texas 242, where they bought some flood lamps to make it through the outage and some lawn furniture they found on sale.


As the only store open in the College Park shopping area Wednesday night, Lowe's employees continued to work the registers after the normal 9 p.m. closing time to serve a steady stream of customers seeking blackout supplies, such as batteries and flashlights. The store was half-lighted thanks to its on-site generator.

"Our lights went out for a split second, then the generator came on," sales manager Ted Harris said. "Our registers were working, so we had to do our normal business."

Most businesses along Interstate 45, including The Woodlands Malls, were dark and locked, while many south of Woodlands Parkway still had power and were doing business as usual.

Jim Strong, director of Emergency Management Services for heavily populated Montgomery County, said most of Conroe and The Woodlands was without power. The blackout affected the east, north, northwest and central parts of Montgomery County, but portions of the county served by Reliant/CenterPoint did not lose power. Those areas included Magnolia and parts of west Conroe, he said. Some businesses and homes in the south part of The Woodlands also were unaffected, he said.

Entergy serves an area stretching from the Texas-Louisiana border to north of Houston. The company has about 373,000 customers in 24 Texas counties.

Entergy, which owns and operates the power plant and power lines in the area, is regulated by the Public Utility Commission of Texas. The PUC, however, usually does not play an immediate role in an outage, a spokesman said.

The area is not part of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, however, the organization that manages the power grid for much of Texas. It is the Western-most point of the Southeastern Electric Reliability Council, which runs as far east as North Carolina.

Chronicle reporters Rosanna Ruiz, Cindy Horswell, Ruth Rendon and Zeke Minaya  contributed to this report.


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