Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Entergy New Orleans explains itself to City Council

Posted By on Tue, Sep 4, 2012 at 3:52 PM

Charles Rice, CEO of Entergy New Orleans, said the work the company did to restore power service to the city was "outstanding," at a special New Orleans City Council meeting today. Facing a Council resolution that would initiate an inquiry into the utility's handling of the outage, Rice said "We welcome the evaluation."

Council members and public speakers attending the meeting, however, were highly critical of Entergy, questioning whether the company was prepared for the storm, why it took so long to restore service and why the company was unable to provide neighborhood-level estimates on when power would come back. Neighborhoods throughout the city were left hot and dark for more than five days. As of today, Entergy officials said, nearly 5,000 customers in Orleans Parish are without power.

"The council has been inundated with complaints about how long it's taken to restore service," said District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.

"The duration of the outages was long. And so we are simply being the voice of the people in asking these questions," said District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry.

(More after the jump)

Council members asked Entergy staff to provide a report as to how federal aid dollars, granted to the company to restore service and harden infrastructure damaged by wind and flooding as a result of Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failure. Gary Huntley, Entergy New Orleans' vice president of regulatory and governmental affairs, agreed to provide the report.

(3:30 p.m.: Gambit's power goes out here.)

"Some of that money was used to repair the system" rather than hardening it, Rice said, adding that replacement equipment Entergy purchased was "the best available."

Councilwoman at-large Stacy Head provided a number of examples where the system could seemingly use some "hardening," presenting a series of pictures, taken throughout the city, of wooden utility poles that broke during the storm. Head claimed the company does not routinely employ up-to-date technology — recommending a specific company, Buffalo, NY-based Osmose Utilities — to assess the health of the wood in the poles. Entergy officials said they did in fact do Osmose inspections.

From the office of Councilwoman Stacy Head:

Image provided by Councilwoman Stacy Head
  • Image provided by Councilwoman Stacy Head

Still, Head said, "We need our engineers to take a look at whether we did a good enough job" to assess the many poles downed because of subsurface rot.

The most pressing issue, however, was communication from Entergy during and after the storm. Council members and public speakers at the meeting said the power company lagged in getting people neighborhood-specific restoration estimates, relying mostly on its website's outage map to deliver information.

"The problem is, when we don't have power, we don't have access to a website," Hedge-Morrell said.

And even if customers were able to access the map through a smartphone or a computer outside their home, it was often inaccurate, Council members said. The result: many customers — in particular the elderly and families with small children — who may have been better off staying in a hotel or with relatives out-of-town, stayed here hoping their power would be restored quickly.

"We have a large elderly population in this city and this caused them extreme hardship," Hedge-Morrell said. "Why couldn't we get that information?"

Melonie Hall, the company's director of customer service, said it hopes to provide better, more specific information when the city experiences another major storm-related outage. She said Entergy New Orleans intends to partner with radio news outlets — often the primary source of information for many residents during a blackout — to get that information out more quickly and to the largest group of people possible in the future.

"Please know that is our goal," Hall said.

City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposed investigation and another resolution that would postpone upcoming hearings on the company's proposed sale of its transmission assets to ITC Holdings Corp., during its regular meeting on Thursday, Sept. 6.

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