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City Council Lights Up Entergy on Post-Isaac Outages
In the wake of Hurricane Isaac, much of the community simmered in their houses for days without electricity. Today, frustrations with Entergy boiled over at a City Council meeting called for the purpose of putting energy on the spot about the outages.
Most concerns raised at the meeting dealt with communication between the company and its customers during Hurricane Isaac, miscommunications regarding the location of power outages, and of course, “Why did it take so long?”
During the meeting, Entergy New Orleans President Charles Rice, Regional Manager Gary Huntley, and Director of Customer Service Melanie Hall had a lot of explaining to do to the council, but the truly heated moments occurred during the brief time the public was allotted to voice their own opinions on the prolonged power outage.
The meeting began with the Councilmembers taking turns at the microphone, each one echoing similar sentiments as their colleagues: gratitude towards Entergy and their employees, confusion about how the grids operate. Each member also called on Rice and his team to prepare better for the next major outage event.
Entergy Defends Themselves
Rice, who was a fixture at the mayor's press conferences and on New Orleans TV stations throughout the week, first responded to the Council’s initial concerns by reminding them and the people of New Orleans that the vast majority of Entergy’s employees were dealing with the same issues as all New Orleans residents.
“It’s been a tough week for our employees as well, I don’t say that to illicit your sympathy or the sympathy of our customers—it’s our job—we take pride in doing the job to the best our abilities and pushing ourselves safely to the limit to do so,” said Rice.
Rice also reminded listeners and viewers that Entergy is continuously recognized on a national level for their exceptional response efforts. Rice also reminded the Council and the public to take into consideration the dangers that Entergy’s employees face on the job, noting that he was a former officer with the 101st Airborne Division who has lost loved ones in the line of duty.
“The community may thinks it’s safe, but it’s our business to know,” Rice said. “I bear personal responsibility for the men and women who are restoring power in this community.”
Currently, New Orleans' power is 95 percent restored from the peak outage of about 160,000 customers. Rice and his team foresee that figure rising to 98 percent by the end of today.
Entergy’s Demographer Greg Rigamer reminded the Council and the public that the storm lingered for longer than Katrina and Gustav, providing ample time for winds to ravage the city.
“Katrina sustained equivalent winds for 21 hours, Gustav sustained equivalent winds for 27 hours. Gor Isaac we had it for 54 hours, and this complicated the amount of damage,” Rigamer explained.
Hall explained that the restoration felt longer to people since so few residents evacuated.
“We looked at our numbers and we looked at what we were doing. Just four days into restoration we were over 80 percent, and at day five we’re at 95 percent restored. In Gustav, a lot of the customers evacuated. While the storm was passing and the outages were occurring, our community was in a safe area. When the community returned after being out of the city for a while, that was day one for them,” Hall explained.
There were other questions about staging sites, especially from Councilmember Charbonnet of District E. Hall responded to grievances over the public’s perceptions that many trucks were sitting idly, informing the Council on the protocol for trucks, and by explaining the tough decisions that had to be made with little time for reflection.
Hall presented a diagram imposed on a U.S. map of the various locations from which response crews departed to travel into the city.
“We had fears that if we held the crews at bay, we could cut them off from Slidell or I-10 West. They would have had to come through Baton Rouge and then around Highway 90. We felt it was better to be looking them in the eye than to have them where we can’t get them in,” Hall explained.
When it was Hedge-Morrell’s turn to speak again, she asked Hall if she’d like to finish her presentation before the dais opened up the question and answer portion of the meeting. Hall sheepishly responded that she had just concluded her presentation.
“Actually, that’s all I have,” Hall said.
Hall also explained that truckers in New Orleans were required to rest every fifteen hours by law, saying that her team had to “bed them down” for eight hours at a time before the commercially licensed drivers returned to their vehicles.
Outage Map Morass
The next big issue on the tip of everyone’s tongues was Entergy’s online power outage map. Hedge-Morrell noted that such a map was useless to people without electricity.
“If I don’t have electricity, I don’t have access to a website. How can we come up with a real time situation?” she asked.
Palmer also asked the Entergy team whether or not the online outage map was in “real time.” The map received harsh criticism from frustrated citizens who noted its prevalent inaccuracies.
Hall acknowledged that, although the map is meant to be in real time, it is not automated and its functionality is dependent on manpower.
Councilmember at-large and Utility Committee Member Jackie Clarkson weighed in on the issue of the map’s inaccuracies.
“I get angry, and I don’t want to get angry in public," Clarkson said of the map. "It would be better not to publish something than to publish something wrong."
Clarkson also said that people’s frustrations were compounded by the fact that the map was indicating their houses were still empowered when they were actually in the dark. Guidry chimed in to criticize Entergy for their employees’ attitude towards customer calls.
“It added insult to injury—there were so many reports who said they got in touch with Entergy and Entergy told them their power was on it and wasn’t. They had to argue with Entergy about it,” said Guidry.
Hall responded, “I hear you. I was on a call with our experts today, and I want to publicly apologize to the customers who experienced that.”
When Council President Stacy Head got her turn to speak, she expressed her disappointment at the city’s agencies lack of unification.
“I’m sort of Marcia’s [Marcia St. Martin, Director of the Sewage and Water Board] boss, so being told I couldn’t go to her meeting was kind of weird,” said Head.
'You Took My Wrath'
The Council President also brought the issue of underground lines to a Head. The French Quarter and CBD, which did not lose power in Isaac, are some of the only areas of New Orleans with underground lines. Rice had something to say about what he considers to be a “misconception” about buried lines producing less power outages.
“There is a misconception that if you bury the lines then the power outages will go away. The underground system is more difficult to repair and will not improve reliability with regard to storms,” Rice said, including that his neighborhood lost power despite its buried power grid.
Palmer later said that she would be “very interested to see the cost-benefit analysis for underground power lines.”
Clarkson praised Rice for withstanding her abuse throughout the storm.
“You took my wrath, thank you for doing that. I want everyone to know you took it like a man,” said Clarkson.
Entergy Gets an 'F'
While much of the city now has the lights and air conditioning on, one citizens reminded the Council that not everyone is lit up. Approximately two and a half hours into the meeting, the floor opened up to the public. The most vocal of the speakers was Joseph Recasner, a citizen who was passionately displeased about the fact that his home at 2511 St. Nick Dr. still does not have power. Rickazna developed a grading system for Entergy, and he exclaimed their low marks throughout the chambers.
“The command system has the top levels calling the shots, and they didn’t call the shots that kept our city safe and our lights on. Staging, you get an F, manpower, you get an F, you haven’t invested any money in new equipment. The transformers fail during a hard rain,” Recasner screamed.
“I do not accept the excuse, I do not accept the apology. I did not come here for a Kumbaya session!” Recasner screamed. “I live at 2511 St. Nick Drive, 70131! When is my power coming back on?!” Recasner then turned to the audience, circling the podium. “I’ll wait for an answer, anybody?”
When the public speaker began asking Regional Manager Gary Huntley for his personal phone number, Rice stepped up again to ask the Council for “a little decorum.”
“He’s basically harassing my people,” Rice said, pleading the Council to ask Recasner to remain seated.
The Council voted to forwar a resolution on initiating formal inquiries into Isaac outages to Thursday’s meeting.
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