HOUSTON (AP) — In the aftermath of a deadly storm system that claimed the lives of at least seven individuals, the Houston region is now focused on the daunting task of restoring power to thousands, all while facing a smog alert and escalating temperatures throughout southern Texas.

According to Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, three individuals lost their lives during the tempest, including an elderly 85-year-old lady whose residence was engulfed in flames by lightning, and a 60-year-old man who attempted to utilize his vehicle to fuel his oxygen machine.

Mayor John Whitmire of Houston had previously announced that a minimum of four fatalities occurred within the city limits as the storms ravaged through Harris County, encompassing Houston.

The National Weather Service has issued flood alerts and warnings for various regions in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

In the aftermath of a severe thunderstorm on Friday, May 17, 2024, extensive damage, including blown-out windows on a downtown high-rise building, was visible in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

POTENTIAL RISE IN HEAT-RELATED AILMENTS DUE TO ELECTRICITY LOSS

With temperatures poised to reach around 90 degrees (32.2°C) over the weekend, the National Weather Service in Houston has cautioned the public about the signs of heat exhaustion. It advised, ”Do not exert yourself excessively during the clean-up efforts,” in a statement posted on the social platform X.

The warm conditions pose a significant threat in an area where over half a million residences and commercial establishments still remain without power as of Saturday morning, down from the initial tally of nearly 1 million, according to PowerOutage.us.

Violent storms on Thursday, featuring winds of up to 100 mph (161 kph), shattered windows in downtown Houston, while a tornado touched down near the northwest suburban area of Cypress.

EXTENDED POWER OUTAGES ANTICIPATED IN CERTAIN LOCALITIES

Judge Lina Hidalgo of Harris County remarked on Friday that some regions might face an extended period before power is fully restored.

Given the collapse of several transmission towers, Hidalgo called for patience. Meanwhile, an additional 21,000 customers remained without electricity in Louisiana, where severe winds and a suspected tornado caused havoc, reducing from a peak of 215,000.

The Houston Health Department pledged to distribute 400 complimentary portable air conditioners to elderly residents, individuals with disabilities, and caretakers of disabled children throughout the city.

A man walks over fallen bricks from a damaged building in the aftermath of a severe thunderstorm Friday, May 17, 2024, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Amidst the aftermath of a severe thunderstorm on Friday, May 17, 2024, a man navigates through debris from a collapsed structure in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

DISTRESSING DAMAGE BRINGS HALT TO OPERATIONS IN HOUSTON

The widespread devastation has resulted in a significant standstill in Houston. Streets are strewn with trees, debris, and shattered glass. The wall of a building was torn off by the storm’s force.

School districts in Houston made the decision to cancel classes on Friday for over 400,000 students, with government facilities also shutting down. Local authorities advised against venturing into downtown areas and discouraged road travel, given the flooding, fallen power lines, and malfunctioning traffic signals.

Mayor Whitmire issued a warning regarding the heavy police presence, including troopers dispatched to prevent looting. The sudden and intense nature of the storm caught many off guard.

At a press conference, Whitmire expressed, “A large part of the population didn’t have sufficient time to seek safety.”

Upon arrival at Houston Pets Alive on Thursday night, Noelle Delgado, the organization’s executive director, found that over 30 cats and dogs were unharmed, albeit the premises had suffered structural damage with a ripped awning, mangled signage, and water infiltration. Her goal was to secure foster homes for the animals.

Recalling the events, she remarked, “The intensity of this storm felt different, almost terrifying.”

Amidst the power outage in the restaurant where she is employed in Katy, a suburb of Houston, Yesenia Guzmán voiced concerns about receiving payment.

“The uncertainty about the future is unsettling,” she shared.

EXECUTION OF DISASTER DECLARATION PAVES THE WAY FOR ASSISTANCE

In a significant move, Whitmire endorsed a disaster declaration, enabling the provision of aid and support for storm recovery from both state and federal bodies. Additionally, President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration encompassing seven counties in Texas, including Harris, over severe storms, high-speed winds, tornadoes, and floods dating back to April 26. This executive action renders federal assistance accessible to affected individuals.

The devastation to transmission lines was described as “catastrophic” by emergency authorities in the nearby Montgomery County.

High-voltage transmission towers that were torn apart and downed power lines present a dual challenge for the utility company because the destruction impacted transmission and distribution systems, as stated by Alexandria von Meier, an expert in power and energy who characterized it as an unusual occurrence. Von Meier said that damage to just the distribution system is more common.

The pace of repairs being completed will be influenced by various factors, such as the duration required for damage assessment, replacement of equipment, accessibility issues for roadwork, and the availability of workforce. On Friday, Centerpoint Energy mobilized 1,000 employees and had made a request for an additional 5,000 line workers and vegetation professionals.

The report has contributions from Ken Miller in Oklahoma City, Jamie Stengle in Dallas, Valerie Gonzalez in McAllen, Texas, and Lisa Baumann in Bellingham, Washington.