Storms blamed for deadly temporary power
By RENEE C. LEE, S.K. BARDWELL and TOM FOWLER
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,
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
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
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
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.
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.
restaurant managers David Cassity, right, and
wait for power to return in a parking lot outside their
businesses. The nearby store had an emergency generator to
keep its lights 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
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
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
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
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
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
Some who lost power, however, took the blackout
as reason to venture forth.
pours ice on a bin of fish after power flickered back on at
the seafood restaurant where he works in The Woodlands.
"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
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
"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.