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Severe Storm Ravages Houston, Leaving Extensive Commercial Damage


An extreme, fast-moving storm brought tornadoes and hurricane-force winds through Houston with little warning Thursday, causing widespread damage, particularly to Downtown commercial properties.

A derecho moved through Houston on Thursday, shattering hundreds of windows in Downtown buildings with 100 mph winds.

Seven people were killed in the storm as of SundayMayor John Whitmire urged nonessential workers to stay home as schools closed and almost 700,000 people were without power on Friday. 

Hundreds of windows in commercial skyscrapers Downtown shattered, causing water damage inside and littering the streets with glass, branches and other debris. The storm hit around 6:30 p.m., catching many office workers unprepared.

Some Downtown office workers on high levels felt their buildings swaying, while others gathered in the underground tunnels and watched windows get blown out, KHOU reported

“Oh, my God! There go the windows,” Dave Lewis told KHOU about his experience huddling in a tunnel-level restaurant of the Wells Fargo Plaza. “We had a guy come in off the street, said something landed on his car and cut him, about an 8-inch gash.”

Whitmire said winds were clocked at 80 to 100 mph. That is the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane. Since Friday morning, the storm was upgraded to a derecho, a severe straight-line windstorm.

Downtown suffered “significant property damage,” according to an alert from Downtown Houston+, though no official dollar figure has yet been estimated for the destruction. The organization urged Downtown employers to allow their employees to work from home, leaving room for crews to remove debris.

TotalEnergies Tower, a 35-story building at 1201 Louisiana St., was one of the Downtown buildings that sustained a “notable amount” of window damage, Brookfield Properties told Bisnow in a statement. Brookfield’s Heritage Plaza, Houston Center and Allen Center incurred minimal damage and were operating normally, Brookfield said.

“We will update our tenants with any pertinent information as it becomes available, but we do ask everyone to follow guidelines from local authorities today and through this weekend,” the statement says.

Other damaged buildings include Wells Fargo Plaza, Enterprise Plaza and the Kinder Morgan Building. ABC13 reported the damage Downtown was reminiscent of Hurricane Alicia in 1983. 

The Hyatt Regency Houston Downtown had parts of its roof blown off, sending guests and staff running for cover as debris and water entered from the building’s atrium, ABC13 reported. A building at the intersection of Congress Street and Travis Street that houses a bar had an exterior brick wall crumble, leaving a hole in the building.

“There’s a lot of glass scattered in office spaces, and the carpet is wet,” said Yarith Fernandez, president of Y&A Cleaning, which specializes in commercial buildings. “It looks like a hurricane passed by.”

The Houston Heights had numerous trees fall down, impacting houses and blocking roads.

Fernandez was on her way to pick up a trailer Friday morning so that her company could help clear debris from downed trees and collapsed buildings, she said.

“It’s pretty much across Houston,” Fernandez said, adding that numerous warehouses also sustained damage.

The cleanup will take days, and glass repair companies will be in extreme demand for weeks, she said. 

In other business damage, a Spring Branch tire shop at Bingle Road and Sowden Road “completely collapsed,” ABC13 reported. The owner told the outlet that stacks of tires protected him and other employees when the ceiling crashed down.

The death toll grew Friday afternoon, with causes including trees that fell on cars and a crane that collapsed onto a worker’s truck. The city of Houston opened cooling centers as hundreds of thousands remained without power and temperatures are expected to rise into the 90s this weekend. 

The impact from the damaging complex of storms that hit Houston on Thursday will likely take weeks or even months to recover from, experts said.

Window repair time frames can vary widely, Absolute Glassworks Vice President R.J. Hernandez said. 

“If you’re talking about something like what happened Downtown, that’s going to take a couple months,” Hernandez said. “It just depends on how many windows are broken.” 

Straight-line winds, some moving at more than 100 mph, swept through a wide portion of the city, which is rare, Early Alert Meteorologist Landon Schaeffer told Bisnow Friday afternoon.

“It takes that kind of wind power to blow the windows out in Downtown Houston,” he said, adding that high-rise buildings potentially created wind tunnels to further empower the gusts.

The Wells Fargo Plaza in Downtown Houston had numerous windows broken by a severe storm Thursday, leaving glass and debris littering Downtown streets.

The broken windows were mostly concentrated on the western side of Downtown, which was likely due to localized bursts of the strongest winds, Schaeffer said. It was a “very dangerous” situation shortly after the storm, with glass covering the streets and significant tree damage, he said.

Many trees were knocked down in the Memorial, Piney Point and Spring Branch areas as well, Schaeffer said. Memorial Park Conservancy asked Houston residents to stay away from the park for several days as crews remove dozens of downed trees. 

“I’m sure they’ve been chainsawing like crazy today,” Schaeffer said of the cleanup work.

Hernandez happened to be at the Texas Glass Conference when the storm hit, so he heard several glass shops fielding calls, he said. He expects a busy weekend that will likely last into next week. 

“Phones have been ringing off the walls,” Henandez said. 

The scale of this storm made it unique, Schaeffer said. There have been storms this severe in recent years, but they usually hit a much smaller area outside of the city, he said. 

The National Weather Service confirmed the storm met the criteria of a derecho, a type of widespread, long-lived windstorm. NWS also said an EF1 tornado with winds of 110 mph touched down near Cypress, while straight-line winds stayed above 90 mph down to Baytown. 

Power outages could last weeks, officials said, as the storm toppled transmission towers.

UPDATE, MAY 17, 4:35 P.M. CT: This story has been updated to include storm damage information about specific buildings as well as comments from building owners and those cleaning up from the destruction. It has also been updated with additional meteorological information about the storm and its impact.

UPDATE, MAY 19, 12:19 P.M. CT: This story has been updated with new information about the storm's death toll.