In the wake of Hurricane Ike, officials fear it could take weeks to restore power in some places, like Galveston and the towns near the Louisiana border, because major transmission lines have been knocked out, substations have been swamped and trees have fallen on neighborhood lines.
Its a rare event when you will see physical damage to most of the grid, said Mayor Bill White of Houston. Hurricane Ike, with our power company, was that kind of event.
About two million customers remained without power across eastern Texas, three days after the hurricane hit.
Hundreds of thousands of students were still out of school, mail delivery was suspended, most businesses had yet to open, hundreds of intersections lacked traffic signals and government agencies were struggling to provide services. Some hospitals, including the main hospital in Galveston, operated on generators.
Entergy, the utility that serves the area east of Houston, has restored power to about 40,000 of its 395,000 customers. CenterPoint, which serves Houston and Galveston, had made more progress, but still had 1.5 million customers in the dark.
In Houston, the nations fourth-largest city and the center of its oil industry, signs of prolonged blackout are everywhere in long lines at the few gasoline stations with power to run pumps, in the huge demand for ice at government food-distribution centers, in the low number of grocery stores that are open, and in the grumbling of ordinary citizens. Refineries in Texas remain closed.
Most of Houston was coping without refrigerators, air-conditioners and pumps to provide water pressure both for drinking water and for sewage plants.
I got no ice, no water, no electricity, no nothing, said Maria Phillips, 25, of the Houston suburb of Baytown, echoing the comments of many others. Ms. Phillipss house, which had been flooded, was nearly uninhabitable, she said.
President Bush, who visited Houston and Galveston recently, discussed the blackout with local officials.
Obviously people are concerned about electricity, Mr. Bush said, and what I look for, is there enough help to get these energy companies to do what they instinctively want to do, which is get the grid up and running?
Throughout the day, tree-trimming crews and line workers were arriving from states as far away as California and Pennsylvania to help the local utilities, which had already deployed about 8,500 workers.
Beleaguered residents, many of whom have been without power for several days, treated the utility workers like heroes.
Near Ball High School in Galveston, two line workers in a cherry picker worked on a leaning, splintered power pole. A crane helped anchor the pole, while one of the men cut it in half with a chain saw. A crowd gathered to watch.
Herman Marino, a line worker from Denver, said the damage to Galvestons power lines was the worst he had ever seen, including the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
That wasnt as bad as this one, said Mr. Marino, 48. This is pretty good damage.
In eastern Texas, near the Louisiana border, the hurricane knocked down more than 100 towers holding high-voltage transmission lines, damaged 272 substations and flooded the Sabine Power Station in Bridge City, driving snakes and wild animals into the plant, officials at Entergy Texas said.
The infrastructure around Houston fared better. Most high-voltage lines remained intact and the main damage was to the distribution lines in neighborhoods, officials at CenterPoint said. About 24 high voltage transmission lines were still out of service, five of them running into Galveston.
In part because there is no electricity, Galveston officials declared their battered island city on the brink of a public health disaster. Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked residents to stay away.
A program that had allowed residents to return briefly to check on their properties was suspended after a crush of residents descended within a few hours, said the city manager, Steve LeBlanc. We were totally overwhelmed. Mr. LeBlanc said. We expected a lot of people to come back, but it was like all at once.
He said the policy would be re-evaluated, adding, Were really going to go backwards if everybodys here and were having to deal with that.
For some residents, the days and nights without electricity have become more and more intolerable.
Its very hard, said Phoebe Crump, 33, a homemaker. You dont know where you are going to step. You cant see where your foods at. You dont know where your water is at. You cant see nothing.
Life is hard enough, Ms. Crump added. Its harder without power.
As crews hacked away at downed trees and replaced blown-out transformers and cut lines, state and local officials contended with a plethora of other problems, among them a tiger on the loose.