Choices linger of landscape changes
A year ago this weekend, several hundred thousand homes and businesses in the greater New Orleans area languished in heat and darkness as utility crews worked to repair massive damage left by the slow-moving Hurricane Isaac, which had lingered for days, pounding the region with heavy rains and high winds and delaying work across south Louisiana.
For weeks after the storm, residents and local officials griped loudly and publicly about Entergy’s lack of readiness for Isaac and its subsequent response, with many wondering why nearly five days passed before power was restored in most areas.
In a contentious public meeting, New Orleans City Council members grilled Entergy New Orleans officials for four hours, pledging a thorough review of the local utility’s maintenance records and pushing for a more proactive plan for future storms after nearly 164,000 customers lost service.
The Louisiana Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities outside Orleans Parish, also opened an investigation, working from an eight-page list of questions to determine whether the state’s utilities were prepared for the storm.
Entergy’s executives argued that Isaac was unique. The storm tested the region’s electrical grid as it ambled along at 6 mph or less, drifting for 54 hours before finally getting far enough out of the way that restoration work could begin.
Since then, a third-party review, commissioned by the utility, has been completed, offering a generally positive take on Entergy’s effort. Utility officials also say they’ve reworked their response plan — mostly to manage the public’s expectations about how long the power is likely to be out in the event of another storm.
For a Category 1 hurricane, they now say, residents can expected to be without electricity for seven days. For a Category 2, 10 days. A Category 3 could mean two weeks. They’ve also tweaked Entergy’s website to more accurately display info about power outages, making it more responsive and accessible to mobile devices.
Still, not everyone is convinced enough has been done to avoid a repeat of last year.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that they’re better prepared to react more quickly, efficiently and effectively than they did during Isaac,” said Jefferson Parish President John Young, who emerged as a leading critic of the utility after Isaac.
“Logistically, they just dropped the ball in my opinion.” Young and others hope the public floggings that utility executives absorbed after the storm had their intended effect.
“Like anything else, we have got to wait to see how they perform during (an) actual storm, but we believe that the message was received from the commission loud and clear,” said Public Service Commission Chairman Eric Skrmetta of Metairie.
Amid anger, bold plans
Young was so angry at Entergy in the storm’s wake that he and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., urged the state’s legislative leaders to draft a constitutional amendment to allow the government to force a utility to sell its assets if it failed to perform. The idea has gained little traction since.
Other local and state leaders offered their own bold suggestions at the time, like burying power lines underground, along with more modest ones, like aggressively trimming the city’s tree canopy. The enthusiasm for most of those ideas has also waned as the memory of days without air conditioning and electricity recedes further into the distance.
“Some things, we have made a choice, as a community, to cherish, and so those things are things we have to live with,” said City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, chair of its utility committee, said last week, recalling a discussion last year about doubling to 8 feet the clearance between tree branches and power lines.
It’s a balancing act between preserving the city’s beloved landscape and protecting its infrastructure. Ultimately, the council stood pat.
“That’s one of the things we have to seriously continue to look at, and make sure that they’re doing everything to maintain the pruning of the trees and getting rid of dead branches,” Hedge-Morrell said.
The idea of burying the power lines — the talk of the town a year ago — seems to have died as well.
Last fall, council members briefly floated the idea of staggering the work over a decade or timing it with other repairs on sewer and water lines in order to spread out the costs.
But that was before they learned that moving all of the city’s lines underground would run about $6 billion, according to a report done by Quanta Technology, a North Carolina consulting firm. Assuming the cost was passed on to customers, that would work out to roughly $40,000 per household, a price that would be prohibitive even if it were paid off over time.
“I think there are certain parts of the city, like the French Quarter, where maybe that’s practical,” Hedge-Morrell said about the city’s oldest neighborhood, which has underground power lines and was relatively unscathed by the storm.
Dennis Dawsey, Entergy’s vice president of transmission and distribution operations in Louisiana, noted that even buried power lines aren’t “immune to storm damage. They also tend to take longer to repair.
“If it floods, that underground equipment is going to be damaged, and you still have vulnerability to storms,” he said.
Donna Dombourian knows first-hand that buried power lines aren’t a silver bullet. Her subdivision in north Kenner boasts underground lines, but when a utility pole carrying power to her neighborhood was damaged during the storm, she was out of luck.
“There were no power crews working in that area at all until Monday, Sept. 3, almost a full week after we lost power,” Dombourian wrote in a letter to Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni in September 2012 that was submitted to the PSC as part of its post-Isaac review. “It only took the crew an hour and a half to restore our power once they arrived on the scene. I do not understand why the crew could not have completed a temporary fix early on to restore our neighborhood, then return at a later date to complete a more permanent fix.”
Dawsey said Entergy has taken more modest steps to improve its hardware: Statewide, the company has replaced 53 faulty distribution circuits so far this year, including 21 in New Orleans. That’s up 25 percent from 2012. The circuits help deliver power from electric substations to homes and businesses, and replacing them will improve reliability, he said.
A major blow
Judging by the numbers, Isaac was the fourth-worst storm to hit Entergy’s service territory in the company’s history, after Katrina, Gustav and Rita. Across Louisiana, more than three-quarters of a million homes and businesses lost power. About 4,500 poles and nearly 2,000 pole-mounted electrical transformers were damaged statewide.
Isaac was the first real test for Louisiana’s electrical grid since 2008’s Hurricane Gustav knocked out power across the state.
The New Orleans-based utility giant initially estimated between $400 and $500 million in damages to its electrical facilities in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, the bulk of it to Entergy Louisiana, which serves customers in Algiers and suburban areas south of Lake Pontchartrain.
Earlier this year, Entergy Corp. said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that the loss of sales and damages brought on by Isaac cost it $370 million. In April, Entergy Louisiana and Entergy Gulf States, which serves areas between Baton Rouge and Texas, filed a joint application with the PSC to determine how much of that money the utilities could recover from customers. Entergy Gulf States sought $73.8 million, and Entergy Louisiana sought $247.7 million.
In New Orleans, the damage’s toll reached $48 million, according to a securities filing, costs that may be passed on to customers depending on negotiations between the utility company and the City Council.
Amid the rebuilding, Dawsey said Entergy has tried to refine its storm-response plan as well. One change will allow relief utility crews to be processed faster and get to work sooner. And in the event of another major storm, Entergy may request twice as many additional utility workers as last year, he said.
While state and local officials have publicly questioned whether Entergy had paid enough attention to hardening its infrastructure and replacing rotting poles, Dawsey said the real problem was that the lingering storm kept workers at bay for nearly two days. “I think it’s the nature of the way Isaac came ashore is what caused the frustration,” Dawsey said.
Entergy also had trouble providing accurate and up-to-date information to the public, a problem the utility says it has addressed.
Even people who generally defended Entergy’s response were critical of its communications. For instance, Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris — who criticized Young for his outspokenness — said in a letter to the PSC that communication between the utility and its customers was “both limited and often incorrect or simply non-existent.”
“Thousands of workers and massive amounts of equipment appeared at their prepositioned locations and waited... and waited... and waited,” he wrote. “For Entergy, it was a public relations disaster as residents who were now traveling the streets and calling into radio talk shows related their frustrations on Entergy’s inability to respond to their needs,” he wrote.
Even so, Harris said in his letter that Young’s “accusations and demands... were not appropriate at the time they were made. I neither agreed with those statements then nor do I now.”
Young’s tone has softened a good bit, though he insists his idea for a constitutional amendment that would force intransigent utilities to sell is still on the table. But his focus is elsewhere.
“Right now, we’re trying to work with Entergy to improve, based upon the current system we have and what we can do going forward to employ best practices and improve it even further,” he said. “We’re trying to impress upon Entergy the need, from our perspective, to do a better job of routine maintenance.”
Parish officials have pitched suggestions like replacing aging wooden utility poles with either steel or concrete fixtures, which would add costs.
“It’s still a work in progress, and we’re continuing to work together to try to reach a solution that would be a win-win for Entergy and for our constituents,” Young said.
Anger fades with time
As Isaac dissipated and the late August heat set in last year, residents flocked to social media sites like Twitter to air their grievances. Some shared outrageous stories of Entergy repair crews lolling at staging areas and in local neighborhoods — and even in Bourbon Street strip clubs and Harrah’s New Orleans Casino.
“I awaken early with high hopes of spying the elusive Entergy truck. Alas, my hopes are beaten like a baby seal on the tundra,” New Orleans lawyer Duris Holmes tweeted on Aug. 31, 2012.
A day later: “After 12.5 hours straight, neighbors’ generator goes off. I can listen for the Entergy truck to arrive,” he tweeted, with the hashtag “delusional.”
Reached by phone last week, Holmes was more measured, saying that “probably 95 percent of what I wrote was joking.”
But when it came to the utility’s map to track power outages, Holmes was still annoyed.
“It kept telling me there’s no outage at our house,” he said, “and of course there was for days.”
“It was frustrating when you would not see trucks, or when you would see them and they wouldn’t stop, but I understood all of that,” said Holmes, whose Lakeview home was without power for four or five days.
Besides adding some levity to a trying time, Holmes said interacting with other equally miserable souls on social media was an easy way to trade information on, say, whether a business was open, or a neighborhood had power.
“There was a lot of helping each other, too, that I saw, which was good for knowing that things were closed, open, or getting an idea of when power was coming on,” he said.
Almost 92 percent of the more than 787,000 customers who lost power statewide had it restored within five days after it was safe to begin restoration efforts, which was about a week after the storm made landfall, according to the utility. Some other industry observers gave the effort high marks.
William Bryan, a deputy assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Energy, said Entergy’s restoration time was “unbelievable,” describing it as “one of the best restorations we’ve seen in recent memory.”
The Quanta report, which the council’s utility committee discussed early last month, was generally positive both about Entergy’s response and its preparation. It said “no obvious deficiencies in design, type and quality of equipment were noted across a wide age range of materials and devices” such as utility poles. And even the existence of some older equipment in the grid wasn’t a bad thing, in the view of the auditors.
“The mere existence of the population of aged facilities that withstood extended punishment from Hurricane Isaac is a testament to the integrity of the original design as well as the proper maintenance of the facilities,” the report said.
Looking back — now comfortably enveloped in air conditioning — Holmes, whose father worked as a utility lineman, said he was willing to give Entergy the benefit of the doubt.
“I think they did the best they could,” he said.