By Julia Jacoby
Evacuating the city for a natural disaster has become second nature to long term residents, like Nora Young. She expected to come back to Metairie to find a mess on her lawn, damage to her windows, and spotty power. After a week spent cramped with her daughter, son-in-law, and two dogs, Young was ready to return to her home. Unbeknownst to her, she would spend another two months cramped in her daughter’s house.
“Honestly, my first thought was: Dios mio, where is my roof?” said Young. She stood, panicked, exhausted and sweating. The storm had caused her roof to collapse through most of her house, including the living room, bathroom, and bedroom. Her house was swarmed by flies and cockroaches, and water damage had ruined much of her furniture and flooring. Although the Entergy map showed a green line for her street, her power was still gone.
Young sat in her son-in-law’s car to cool off in AC and charge her phone, so she could begin making calls to her insurance, Entergy, local roofers and repair agencies. The line was busy everywhere she called.
Hurricane season has historically been a time that reveals the weakness of the Entergy power grids. Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans on August 29 with winds measuring up to 150 miles per hour, classifying it as a Category 4 and knocking out power in over a million households in Louisiana.
Immediately following the storm, state officials and utility executives warned that power in the city would likely not return for up to three weeks. 30,000 utility poles throughout the state were damaged in Ida, compared to the 17,000 damaged during Hurricane Katrina. Of the 14 deaths in New Orleans attributed so far to Hurricane Ida, nine were from “excessive heat during an extended power outage,” the Orleans Parish coroner found (Louisiana Department of Health 1). Another two people died from carbon monoxide poisoning as families used generators to power their homes (Louisiana Department of Health 1).
“The heat is always dangerous. Regardless of storms, there are always people who have heat strokes or faint in the summer Louisiana heat. And then when there’s nowhere to go with power or AC, it can really be life threatening. Coming back from evacuation, having to do manual labor to clean up your house without any AC or refrigerated water 一 its unbearable,” said Young.
Following Ida’s landfall, all eight transmission lines that power the city of New Orleans were out of service. Entergy texted residents on the night of Ida’s landfall to report that all of New Orleans was without power. “Due to catastrophic transmission damage, all of Orleans Parish is currently without power,” the text said. “More information will be shared when available.”
Rosalind Cook, a Tulane Professor who spent years working in communications for City Hall, understands the New Orleans’ community and City Council’s upset with ENO.
“I think we have to look at what organizations, whether they provide levee services or power for the city, how they keep up with maintenance. In the case of the power company, from what I’ve looked at, it does seem like the maintenance was certainly lacking. And to go back and say customers should pay for it? I can see why people are angry,” said Cook.
Regardless of damage and the estimated point of power return, Entergy had restored nearly all power in New Orleans just 9 days after the storm. To company executives, this was a success. However, weaknesses exposed in the grid has the New Orleans City Council, led by Helena Moreno, in opposition to Entergy’s handling of the storm. In September, the City Council approved an investigation into Entergy New Orleans, and has been considering alternatives to power regulation such as municipalization and cancelling ENO’s previously-approved rate hike.
Further complicating the already-rising tension between the Council and ENO is the upcoming election season. Local political analyst Clancy Dubos, who has been covering local politics and energy for 41 years, believes the election is partially driving the Council’s fight against ENO.
“The council takes its role as the utility regulator very very seriously, but the temperature has risen because of the election. When the voters get hot, the politicians reflect that, but as we get further and further away from Ida, most voters remember that the power’s been back on. Now they’re worried about trash,” said Dubos.
Immediately following the return of power, the rising temperature of the issue of power became clear. Following a mistake in which Entergy and ENO accidentally sent New Orleans City Councilmembers their press release and public relations strategy, Moreno tweeted: “Dear @EntergyNOLA and @Entergy. When you’re coming at your regulatory body with a media ploy to change up regulators, don’t accidentally send me your whole messaging and media plan with your news release.”
Raising the political profile of power in New Orleans runs the risk of pressuring City Councilmembers and ENO to bring about drastic changes to energy before there is sufficient time or data to completely understand why the system fails, and where it needs support.
“Sometimes politicians follow the voters, but if the council goes in a different direction, voters will follow that. Look, there’s plenty to beat up on Entergy about, and one of my big things was the timing. They didn’t need to do all of this now, this could all happen in January. In fact, we’d know a lot more. There are still places in Louisiana where they’re struggling to get back power. It’s almost like Entergy put all of their resources into New Orleans, and got New Orleans back first – and here are New Orleans politicians complaining about Entergy when people in South Lafourche who might have just gotten their power back. I think if it was not the election season, they would all be singing a different song,” said Dubos.
At the Federal level, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which was signed into law on Nov. 15th, offers funding for hardening the power grids in anticipation of future hurricanes. The amount of investment available to ENO is unclear, but federal investment may prevent trickle-down costs to ratepayers.
Young’s concerns with Entergy are a potential increase of monthly rates. To Young, losing power for a short period of time is expected following a hurricane, and her worries are that Ida’s damage will burden rate-payers.
“I don’t completely understand what potential changes to Entergy will mean for me, but I just worry that I am going to have to pay more. Losing power in September heat for any period of time sucks, but I’m not angry about the amount of time it took to regain power. I will be angry if it leads to me paying more monthly,” said Young.
Cook agrees that there should be no immediate rush to complete transformation of energy in New Orleans.
“I do think that we need advocates. After Katrina, Sandy Rosenthal with Levees.org, brought to light the problems with the Army Crops engineers. I do think we need people who will bring these issues to light, and then we look at solutions. We need time to really, really get the right people to assess what’s going on. I don’t think there’s any need for immediate action but I do think it has to be kept in the public eye,” said Cook.
The investigation into ENO has brought about four potential means of transforming energy in New Orleans. The first idea proposed was the complete municipalization of power in New Orleans. If this were to occur, the City Council would assume full management of gas and electric services, eliminating rate of return requirements, but likely resulting in higher financing costs.
The second proposal was a merger between ENO and Entergy Louisiana to establish one company to service all Louisiana residents. The third was to make a standalone energy company without the ownership of Entergy, with which the City Council retains regulatory control. The final proposal is a sale of ENO to another public utility or private entity.
None have these proposals have gained much traction with the community. Moreno herself has stated that of these options, she has no particular preference towards one. According to Dubos, none of these four options are viable yet.
“I think all of them are pretty much DOA (Dead On Arrival). It’s interesting that neither parties talked about the fifth option, which is keeping things as they are, at least structurally, and trying to make it work better, which is not a bad option. In fact the council, deep in their hearts, I think councilmembers would prefer that option, because it keeps them as the regulators. They like having that power, they feel like citizens want that. Citizens don’t necessarily want them to municipalize, especially now that the city can’t even pick up the trash. One thing I’ve learned in nearly half a century being a reporter on urban issues: no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse,” said Dubos.
On Nov. 14th, Moreno cruised to an easy reelection with a resounding 84 percent of the vote. City Council and ENO have yet to reach resolution or submit approval of any of the proposed changes to Entergy.