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Some in Houston facing no power for weeks after storms cause widespread damage, killing at least 4

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HOUSTON -

Power outages could last weeks in parts of Houston, an official warned Friday, after thunderstorms with hurricane-force winds tore through the city, knocking out electricity to nearly one million homes and businesses in the region, blowing out windows on downtown high rises and flipping vehicles.

The National Weather Service said it confirmed a tornado with peak winds of 110 m.p.h. (177 km/h) touched down near the northwest Houston suburb of Cypress in Harris County.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county's top elected official, said crews were still trying to determine the extent of the damage and the number of casualties from Thursday's storms. Houston Mayor John Whitmire said four people, and possibly five, had died.

"It was fierce. It was intense. It was quick, and most Houstonians didn't have time to place themselves out of harms way," Whitmire said at a news conference.

With multiple transmission towers down, Hidalgo urged patience. Thousands of utility workers were headed to the area, where power had already been restored to roughly 200,000 customers. Another 100,000 customers were without power in Louisiana, down from a peak of 215,000.

"We are going to have to talk about this disaster in weeks, not days," Hidalgo said.

She said she had heard "horror stories of just terror and powerlessness" as the storm came through. The weather service also reported straight-line winds of up to 100 m.p.h. (161 km/h) in downtown Houston and the suburbs of Baytown and Galena Park.

Noelle Delgado's heart sank as she pulled up Thursday night to Houston Pets Alive, the animal rescue organization where she is executive director. The dogs and cats -- more than 30 in all -- were uninjured, but the awning had been ripped off, the sign was mangled and water was leaking inside. With power expected to be out for some time and temperatures forecast to climb into the 90s Saturday, she hoped to find foster homes for the animals.

"I could definitely tell that this storm was a little different," she said. "It felt terrifying."

Cherly Herpich takes a photograph of a downtown building with blown out window in the aftermath of a severe thunderstorm Friday, May 17, 2024, in Houston. (David J. Phillip / The Associated Press)

Yesenia Guzman, 52, worried whether she would get paid with the power still out at the restaurant where she works in the Houston suburb of Katy.

"We don't really know what's going to happen," she said.

The widespread destruction brought much of Houston to a standstill. Trees, debris and shattered glass littered the streets. One building's wall was ripped off.

School districts in the Houston area canceled classes for more than 400,000 students and government offices were closed. City officials urged people avoid downtown and stay off roads, many of which were flooded or lined with downed power lines and malfunctioning traffic lights.

Whitmire said at least 2,500 traffic lights were out. He also warned would-be looters that "police are out in force, including 50 state troopers sent to the area to prevent looting."

At least two of the deaths were caused by falling trees and another happened when a crane blew over in strong winds, officials said.

Whitmire's office posted a photo Friday on the social platform X showing the mayor signing a disaster declaration, which paves the way for state and federal storm recovery assistance.

The problems extended to the city's suburbs, with emergency officials in neighbouring Montgomery County describing the damage to transmission lines as "catastrophic."

High-voltage transmission towers that were torn apart and downed power lines pose a twofold challenge for the utility company because the damage affected transmission and distribution systems, according to Alexandria von Meier, a power and energy expert who called that a rare thing.

"It's more typical that the damage is just at the distribution system, which is, you know, just not as strong," von Meier said, referring to power lines that tend to be more susceptible to wind damage.

How quickly repairs are made will depend on a variety of factors, including the time it takes to assess the damage, equipment replacement, roadwork access issues and workforce availability. Centerpoint Energy deployed 1,000 employees on Friday and had a pending request for 5,000 more line workers and vegetation professionals.

One silver lining, von Meier said, is that the damage was localized, unlike what happened in the 2021 statewide freeze, which could allow for other jurisdictions to send resources more readily. Although customers might want an aggressive repair timeline, she cautioned that it must proceed carefully and methodically.

"Because if you try to fix this kind of thing in a hurry and you try to restore power in a hurry, you might injure people. You would be putting the workers at risk. You could be putting other people at risk. You could be blowing up equipment that then is going to take longer to replace," von Meier said.

The storms also weren't over Friday. Gulf Coast states could experience scattered, severe thunderstorms with tornadoes, large hail and damaging winds. Heavy to excessive rainfall is possible for eastern Louisiana into central Alabama, the National Weather Service said. Flood watches and warnings remained Friday for Houston and areas to the east.

Transmission power lines are down near the Grand Parkway and West Road after a storm Thursday, May 16, 2024, in Cypress, Texas. (Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle)

The Storm Prediction Center's website showed a report of a tornado in Convent, Louisiana, about 55 miles (89 kilometres) from New Orleans, with multiple reports of trees and power poles down.

A suspected tornado hit the Romeville area of St. James Parish on Thursday night with some homes impacted and trees down, but no injuries or fatalities had been reported, parish officials said in a social media post on Friday morning.

There were wind gusts of 84 m.p.h. (135 km/h) at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and 82 m.p.h. (132 km/h) at New Orleans Lakefront Airport, according to Tim Erickson, a meteorologist at the weather service's office for New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

The office for New Orleans and Baton Rouge issued a flash flood warning through Saturday.

Heavy storms slammed the Houston area during the first week of May, leading to numerous high-water rescues, including some from the rooftops of flooded homes.

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Associated Press reporters Jamie Stengle in Dallas and Valerie Gonzalez in McAllen contributed.

Correction

The story has been updated to correct that school districts across the Houston area cancelled classes Friday, not just the Houston Independent School District, and also the spelling of Cypress.

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