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Freak "Microburst" Knocks Out Power to Sierra Blanca, Van Horn for Days

El Paso Electric crews work to repair power poles downed by a sudden blast of 100-mph winds that hit West Texas near Sierra Blanca on Tuesday night. (El Paso Electric)

Power has been restored to residents of Culberson and Hudspeth Counties, after multiple days of outages in the area.

El Paso Electric - the service provider for the towns of Van Horn and Sierra Blanca - said a freak windstorm called a "microburst" hit the area Tuesday night around 8 p.m.

Microbursts are kind of like upside-down tornadoes - massive gusts of wind sweep down from the base of thunderstorms and spread out quickly after hitting the ground. El Paso Electric Spokesperson George de la Torre says this one carried winds of up to 100 mph and did severe damage to power infrastructure in the area.

"This is the first time that this has ever happened in the area, and we actually had 50 poles that were damaged," he said.

There were reports of multiple semi trucks flipped over from the rush of wind.

"When it hits the ground, it splashes like a splash of water," said Van Horn Mayor Glenn Humphries.

In an interview on Thursday, Humphries told KRTS the microburst hit somewhere near Sierra Blanca, and that power in the Van Horn area had been up and down since Tuesday night.

About 1700 people in the Van Horn and Sierra Blanca area were initially affected by the outage. Power was fully restored to Sierra Blanca Wednesday night, leaving about 540 people in Van Horn without power through Thursday night.

"We were 100% out until about 7 p.m. [Wednesday] afternoon, and then it was on a few minutes, and in less than 20 minutes it went out again," he said.

"We've had El Paso Electric crews working 24 hours, all day, around the clock, working to restore service," de la Torre said.

Mayor Humphries said crews did have to take shelter when a brief hail storm swept through Van Horn Thursday night.

There were safety concerns in the town during the multiple days of power outages, especially for patients at the Culberson County Hospital, which services a four-county area in this rural part of West Texas. Residents had to withstand the summer heat without access to air-conditioning for almost two days.

The reaction to the outages was mixed, Humphries said.

"Some people, it's like, 'let's take a trip down to the river,' some of them are angry," he said. "The motel owners are not happy."

Van Horn is a popular rest stop for travelers along I-10; much of the town's economy is dependent on revenue from tourists staying in hotels, eating at local restaurants and buying gas from the local stations.

"It did reduce our customer base, but adversity is something that man is good at trying to get around," said Ralph Gilmore, General Manager of the Hotel El Capitan.

"It was kind of like being closed for two days, it was just something we had to get through."

Gilmore says despite the inconvenience, he only received one complaint from a customer who didn't know about the outages until arriving to Van Horn. Otherwise, Gilmore says the hotel's guests were patient.

"Most of them understood that the next step would've been a drive in the storm for 120 miles, so it was probably best and safest to try and stay," he said, adding that some guests were moved to rooms with more windows and balconies so they could cool off at night.

While power is reported to be fully restored in Van Horn, it has fluctuated on and off in recent days, and that could continue as crews finish repairs.

"Some of my housekeepers do not have power here in town," Gilmore said Friday morning, though at El Capitan the power was holding.

"We've had little rolling blackouts, but so far, everything's still maintaining," he said. "It's been interesting though."

While El Paso Electric says the microburst was a first where it hit, Humphries said he's seen others in years past around the region. In the late 1980's, he said, an elderly woman suffered a broken collarbone when her mobile home was flipped on its side by a microburst that struck Van Horn directly.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.