Tech

Opinion: What We Learned from Beryl: Houston is Not Ready

SOS is right after Hurricane Beryl.
SOS is right after Hurricane Beryl. Screenshot
You know it's bad when the only way to see if power has returned to your part of town is to use the Whataburger app. But, apparently after Hurricane Beryl, that is what you have to do because CenterPoint's outage tracker hasn't worked since the derecho back in May.

This is just one of the many examples of how poorly prepared the city is for even a modest Category 1 hurricane. Imagine if Beryl had another 24 hours over water and came on shore as a major hurricane. How long would be without power? Weeks?

It might be marginally tolerable if internet service worked, but for many, that is not the case as outages for Xfinity and others have occurred across the region. That same can be said for cellular service. Phone service has been spotty at best. Data streaming has been worse. When your power is out and your only life line is your phone, it's incredible that in the fourth largest city in America, you can't hear me now.

Setting aside the rather jarring press conferences at City Hall (why does the Mayor feel the need to yell and say things like "this storm will kill"?) and limited, radically non-specific "updates" from the main power provider in southeast Texas, the fact that we cannot recover even the most bare digital amenities after the sun comes back out is unfathomable.

In short: We are completely unprepared.

The warnings have been there for years, decades. This wasn't anywhere close to the catastrophic storm that has been feared by prognosticators since the early part of this century, yet we are still haggling over plans for a protective dyke to shield the Port of Houston and ship channel. Only some of the flood mitigation changes post Harvey have been completed with still loads to go and money still tied up in bureaucracy.

In the span of two months, we've had two storms causing days of power and cell service outages. One lasted about 20 minutes. The other was a low end hurricane with highest winds of roughly 80 mph in most areas. That is simply unacceptable. Had this been a major Cat 3 or 4 storm (God help us if it were a 5), it's difficult to imagine how long it would take our region to recover.

What will it take for leaders to finally acknowledge that this needs to be the first, second and third priority for Houston? Maybe if they have no power for a week, can't make a phone call and have to go to a coffee shop for internet, they would take notice, but we wouldn't suggest you hold your breath. 
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke