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Let There Be Light 

In an ongoing effort to address New Orleans' crime crisis and help both residents and visitors feel safer, workers are nearing completion of repairs to broken streetlights throughout the city. While lingering lighting outages may seem like a small matter considering the systemic issues facing the criminal justice system, city officials say the repairs -- along with installation of surveillance cameras, more police officers and late-night check points -- are part of an effort to address ways public safety can be improved today.

"Getting lights turned back on makes a huge improvement," says District A Councilwoman Shelley Midura. "It's a short-term [solution], but people feel like they can go out to their car and see that it's safe to get into the door."

After months of negotiations between the city and Entergy New Orleans over an unsigned streetlight contract that expired last August, the city acquired an extension to the contract and allocated funds to pay Entergy, Midura says. Calls to the Department of Public Works to determine the details of the contract with Entergy and its cost were not returned by press time.

Entergy New Orleans spokesman Morgan Stewart says the company could not move forward with additional repairs until it had a contract, because the company has filed for bankruptcy.

During the months after the contract lapsed, Entergy responded to individual reports of outages, Midura says. Now that the contract has been reinstated, the utility has restarted its nightly patrols for outages in an effort to return light to darkened streets. Approximately 98 percent of the streetlights damaged or destroyed in Hurricane Katrina have been repaired, Stewart says. The remaining outages are located in pockets of one or two lights, he adds, but every neighborhood, even those with only a trace of rebuilding, has working street lights. In some of the city's worst-hit areas, such as Lakeview and eastern New Orleans, streetlights are working on both main thoroughfares and side streets, although many blocks have only one working light at each corner and one in the middle of the street, often giving the impression that the entire block is out, he says. In addition, a lack of lighting from still-vacant buildings adds to the darkened surroundings.

"Streetlights are intended to illuminate the streets with the help of lights from houses and businesses," Stewart says. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the desolate Lower Ninth Ward. On any given street, where one or two lights remain out, eerie shadows fall over entire blocks. Most porch lights never flick on, and neon lights from open businesses remain sparse, reinforcing residents' fears of venturing out past dark.

Even though the vast majority of public lights have been repaired since the storm, "street lights are something that constantly need to be repaired," Stewart says. "Entergy will continue working with the city to determine the most expeditious method of completing repairs."

In coordination with City Council President Oliver Thomas, Entergy began repairing damaged lighting at each of the city's university campuses on Jan. 17 "in response to concern over crime and public safety," Stewart says.

Repairs at Tulane and Loyola universities and the University of New Orleans have been completed. Entergy is "still evaluating the situation at Xavier (University)," he says. Lights in the parking lot and on the perimeter of Delgado Community College's City Park and West Bank campuses currently are undergoing repairs, says Carol Gniady, director of public relations at Delgado. "This is a preventative measure. We haven't had crime concerns," she adds.

Although Entergy doesn't have figures for how many campus lights still require repairs, Stewart says, the outages are sporadic.

In another effort to repair lights laid to waste by Katrina, the historic wrought-iron streetlights lining the Central Business District are being addressed, but Entergy's Stewart can't say when those repairs will be completed. Nearly 75 percent of the almost 800 lights damaged in the storm have been fixed, he says.

The original lights have been replaced with high-power 250-watt metal halide lamps and heavier reflective glass globes that won't yellow and screw into place to prevent wind damage. Previous lights yellowed over time and often broke in high winds. Each fixture and lamp costs the city approximately $800, not including the cost of installation, according to a news release from Lesley Eugene in the Mayor's Office. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will pay for fixtures damaged in the storm, and the city will cover the remaining costs.

Although the new high-powered lights have been installed on Camp Street, many who work there at night say they haven't seen a marked improvement in illumination.

"I haven't noticed a difference" in the quality of lighting, says Mark Garner, a security guard who works Thursday nights at Ogden Museum of Southern Art. "But a lot of this is psychological. You can go swimming in the same ocean year after year with no concern, but as soon as someone says 'shark,' you start paying attention."

A few blocks away at the Circle Bar on Lee Circle, Luke Allen, a late-night bartender who rarely gets out of work before 3 a.m., says the city's efforts to repair and install high-powered lights in the CBD is misdirected. He'd like to see lighting efforts revved up in areas of Bywater and Faubourg Marigny that he calls "sketchy."

"People don't exactly get jumped in the CBD," he says. "You don't see many thugs, (late at night). Mostly its people who need shelter."

Across town, on Bellaire Drive, off Metairie Road, several residents were out for a walk Tuesday evening just as the sun set and newly repaired streetlights flicked on. Like the security guard at the Ogden Museum and the bartender at the Circle Bar, they say they haven't noticed the repaired lights in their neighborhood. (Persistent outages along Metairie Road in Orleans Parish as well as at the Carrollton Avenue overpass were repaired in January after Councilwoman Midura worked to reinstate the city's contract with Entergy. Repairs to lights at the West End Boulevard exit off Interstate 610 are now under way.)

What concerns residents off Metairie Road are the number of still-empty homes on their streets and the frustrations of navigating the Road Home Program, especially for senior citizens. But as the group of neighbors tallies a list of issues that bring Kim Kantrow to the conclusion that living in New Orleans "isn't for the faint of heart," they acknowledge that maybe they didn't notice the lights because they're not a problem.

"It's like a lot of things," says Denise Sebastian, "sometimes you forget things are getting back to normal." Correction In the recommended music pick ("The Other Planets," Jan. 30), Dr. Jimbo Walsh was mistakenly identified as having played in Sun Ra's band. He performed with Michael Ray's Cosmic Krewe. Gambit Weekly regrets the error.

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