A US city was forced to rely on a burger
A US city was forced to rely on a burger

A US city was forced to rely on a burger app to track post-Hurricane Beryl blackouts

Houston residents trying to monitor blackouts in the aftermath of Hurricane Beryl discovered that city’s largest electric utility had no working outage map. So they had to rely on an alternative: a burger app.

With temperatures soaring and more than two million people in the dark, CenterPoint Energy Inc customers found that the company’s website didn’t have a power-restoration tracker. Then a social media post suggested using the Whataburger app to see which of the fast-food chain’s restaurants were closed during business hours – presumably due to a lack of electricity.

The need for a workaround highlights broader concerns about CenterPoint as extreme weather tests the reliability of Texas’s power system. Two days after Beryl made landfall, almost 1.4 million of the company’s customers remain without electricity while Houston swelters under a heat advisory. Though Texas doesn’t have hurricane-hardening requirements for utilities, CenterPoint says its 10-year capital plan includes more than US$26bil (RM121.88bil) to grow, modernise and reinforce its infrastructure.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in an interview with Bloomberg News that the outages are a “horrible issue for our fellow Texans” and that he will direct the state’s Public Utility Commission to study why blackouts have happened repeatedly in Houston.

“I want the PUC to provide information to both me and to the Texas legislature so that we will be able to act on it next year to make sure that events like this never happen again,” Abbott said.

The outages from Beryl are higher than those caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008. In the wake of that disaster, the Houston mayor commissioned a report on electric reliability for the region. It found that most of the outages from Ike were due to falling trees and branches across power lines and it recommended CenterPoint improve its tree-trimming practices. The study also said that the city needed to identify critical facilities such as fire and police stations and make sure they had backup generation.

During a Houston city council meeting on Wednesday, Councilwoman Carolyn Evans-Shabazz expressed particular concern about the fate of residents of assisted-living facilities lacking backup generators.

“These storms are getting worse, and coming more frequently and we are defenseless,” Evans-Shabazz said.

Marvin Rodas, 41, said his house is now close to 100°F (38°C) after three days without power. The maintenance worker is critical of the storm response by CenterPoint and Abbott, who is in Asia on an economic development trip.

“I’m frustrated because we had a good update that a storm was coming and they should have had people ready to go to fix power outages, but they didn’t,” Rodas said in an interview. “The governor is out of the country. What good is that to us? CenterPoint gave us a message yesterday saying they were going to work in our area, but that hasn’t happened yet.”

CenterPoint said Wednesday that it expects to restore 1 million impacted customers by the end of the day, which would leave more than 1 million without electricity. The company’s outage tracker went offline in May after a severe storm battered Houston, resulting in heavy traffic to the site that caused technical issues.

The amount of people and bots trying to access the outage tracker caused it to crash in a way that is unsalvageable, Brad Tutunjia, a representative for CenterPoint, said Wednesday at the city council meeting.

The utility said late Tuesday that it now has a new map for customers to track post-Beryl power restoration.

“CenterPoint recognises the inconvenience to its customers and will continue to provide general outage information in the interim,” the company said in a statement. It said it also plans to “replace the outage map with a redesigned cloud-based platform” by month-end.

Bryan Norton, 56, who posted on X about using the Whataburger app to track outages, is relying on generators to power his home northwest of Houston and is cooking on a propane stove.

The app “helps you at least to know that you’re not isolated,” Norton said by phone. “It just gives you an idea of the scope of the problem.” – Bloomberg

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