Texas House Panel Studies Response to Hurricane Ike

November 12, 2008

Hurricane Ike left thousands homeless, millions without power and destroyed houses and businesses along the Texas Gulf Coast. But it also gave state and local governments a chance to learn from their mistakes during a natural disaster.

A slate of elected officials, public utility executives, educators and community advocates testified to a Texas House committee Nov. 10 about lessons learned during the hurricane and its aftermath at the first of four public hearings examining the response to the Sept. 13 storm.

“We’re assessing what actions the state took that worked well, and what actions didn’t work as well, and what recommendations need to be made,” said state Rep. Sylvester Turner, who is chairing the committee. “We need to look at what additional steps need to be made so we are prepared as best as we can be when this happens again in the future.”

Turner pointed to the length of time it took power to be restored in Harris County, where some residents waited up to 18 days for electricity, as an area that could stand improvement. Turner said he plans to introduce a bill in the 2009 Legislature that would require certain businesses, such as pharmacies, gas stations and retail stores, to have emergency generators.

Several speakers and committee members at Monday’s hearing at the University of Houston also recommended looking at ways to upgrade the current power system.

“We need to look at whether we need to harden the electrical grid, by putting in cement poles instead of wooden poles or to bury power lines,” Turner said.

Downtown Houston and the nearby Texas Medical Center had buried power lines and didn’t lose electricity after the storm.

Houston Mayor Bill White, while applauding Centerpoint Energy for restoring electricity as quickly as it did, also recommended that officials look at installing more localized power stations. “We need to rethink the way we’re doing the electrical power grid in the city.”

Centerpoint president Tom Standish said the utility company is open to exploring new ways of operating, including burying power lines underground or using cement poles, but cautioned that those methods also have disadvantages and could be expensive. The damage from Hurricane Ike in Harris County will cost Centerpoint about $750 million, Standish said.

Another major concern raised at the hearing is the housing crisis affecting thousands of residents displaced by Hurricane Ike.

As many as 20,000 people in Harris County are still waiting to be placed in temporary housing, and thousands more are without homes in other affected counties, said U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee.

“In Harris County, you have people living in devastated apartments,” said Jackson Lee. “You have apartment owners letting people pay rent to live in devastated conditions.”

In many cases, FEMA is denying people aid despite extensive damage to their houses, or taking too long to determine if a resident is eligible for aid, said Jackson Lee, who will be holding separate hearings on the issue.

“It’s not acceptable,” Jackson Lee told the committee.

The committee’s next hearing will be held Dec. 3 in League City. The committee expects to submit its report by mid-January, Turner said.

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