NEW ORLEANS -- As power is fully restored in most areas and tempers cool, the big question is whether Entergy was as prepared as they could have been for Hurricane Isaac.
Entergy is already getting congratulations from people in high places. Bill Bryan, the U.S. Energy Department’s deputy assistant secretary of infrastructure security and energy restoration, told WWL Eyewitness Morning News this morning that he’d give Entergy’s response to Isaac “an A-plus.”
That assessment stands in stark contrast to Jefferson Parish President John Young’s take. He angrily called for an investigation by the Public Service Commission. Entergy’s New Orleans subsidiary is regulated differently, by the New Orleans City Council, and the council’s utility committee has launched its own inquiry.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu is taking more of a wait-and-see approach, but has joined the council in asking for an independent review of Entergy’s response -- paid for by Entergy itself.
“I don’t know what it is that we’re gonna find,” Landrieu said. “I’ve been through many of these things before. My instincts tell me to be cautious about drawing judgments without having all of the information.”
Dennis Dawsey, Entergy Louisiana’s vice president for transmission and distribution operations and the company’s incident commander for the full Isaac response, didn’t fully commit to the independent review, but said the company is leaning that way.
“We’re looking at that. We probably will to look at our performance,” Dawsey said.
In a telephone interview from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, the chair of the City Council’s Utility Committee, was skeptical that Entergy would be willing to pay for such a review. She thinks that responsibility may fall to the council’s limited auditing staff and outside consultants.
Council President Stacy Head said the council could have done more to monitor the company in the past, but said Isaac has inspired her to take a hard look at Entergy.
“We’re the regulator. That’s our job,” she said.
Head said she’s collected anecdotal evidence of rotted out power poles and untrimmed trees around power lines. Entergy needs a more robust method for maintaining their wood poles, she said, even suggesting a vendor who inspects and scores the poles.
But Dawsey said Entergy already has contracts with vendors to inspect all of its poles once every 10 years. In the last three years, Entergy’s contractors have inspected nearly 20,000 poles and recommended less than 400 for replacement, he said.
“Not only in transmission, but on the distribution side we’re doing that same pole inspection program where we’re inspecting and looking at replacing poles that they feel are in need of replacement,” Dawsey said. “In some cases we can actually reinforce that pole with a steel member that we drive down adjacent to the pole into the ground and band it to the pole.”
Head remained skeptical.
“I don’t have the personal knowledge to know that they did in fact do that which is why we need to do this audit, not just a money audit but an audit of some of the work that’s been done,” she said.
For his part, Landrieu said he’s eager to see what an independent inquiry turns up about Entergy’s infrastructure work in recent years, “whether or not they invested the resources post-Katrina in hardening the assets.”
The council’s engineering consultant, Joe Vumbaco of Denver-based Energy & Resource Consulting Group, has been reviewing the Entergy system for decades. He said he knows of several infrastructure improvements in the city.
In New Orleans East, where Entergy’s lines run underground, the company improved the ductwork and insulation in the 1990s. He said that after Katrina, Entergy reconstructed substations to make them more flood-proof. Dawsey said that involved building mini-levees around the stations and raising the equipment housed inside. And after Hurricane Gustav, the company raised its standard for transmission lines, meaning that any new lines installed since then have had to meet higher strength standards.
But Vumbaco said he didn’t know of any program to harden wood poles. Dawsey said pole hardening projects have been in the areas surrounding New Orleans, but the city benefits from them because they strengthen the lines that carry electricity to southeast Louisiana from power plants farther north.
“The new construction, south of I-10 for the most part, is we’re using steel and concrete poles rather than wood poles on our transmission lines,” he said.
Finally, Dawsey said the company uses “SmartGrid” technology to reroute power when a feeder line goes down.
New Orleans has underground lines in the east and the CBD. They can be three times more expensive and are only as strong as the above ground transmission lines that feed into them. And if they are damaged by flood waters or tree roots, they can take a lot longer to fix than above-ground lines.
Dawsey and New Orleans Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin said city and Entergy officials team up in “tabletop exercises” and other emergency training each spring, running various hurricane models and preparing for a worst-case scenario like Katrina. But the City Council did not participate this year and Hedge-Morrell said she hasn’t taken part in one during the two years she’s chaired the utility committee.
Then there's the question of whether the community's expectations for restoring power after a storm are reasonable. Many have said residents lost perspective because most of them evacuated during Hurricane Gustav in 2008, so a four-day outage felt like less than a day, while few left the area for Isaac and felt the effects of every minute of this most recent outage.
In the last year, several East Coast storms have knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of customers for more than a week. The wait in Isaac was under six days for nearly everyone in the city of New Orleans.
Two East Coast utilities that lost power for 10 days or more in 2011 storms hired disaster management firm Witt Associates to gauge their response. One of the reports blasted Connecticut Light & Power after a Halloween snowstorm knocked out power to 800,000 customers, because, among other things, the utility had planned for nothing worse than 100,000 customers without power.
“Their emergency management plan was not as imaginative as it could have been,” said Charlie Fisher, Witt Associates’ vice president for preparedness operations.
Entergy has an Emergency Operations Plan, updated annually, that calls for activating a command center and bringing in certain numbers of additional workers at a certain point depending on the size of the storm.
A tropical storm or weak Category 1 hurricane like Isaac was triggers a partially staffed command center 72 hours prior to impact and between 2,500 and 5,000 tool workers. Isaac proved to be a more destructive storm than its wind speeds would have suggested because of powerful storm surge and because it lingered over the area for more than 50 hours, more than twice as long as Katrina or Gustav did.
Entergy ended up activating more than 10,000 workers statewide. Many came from out of state and ran into problems getting into the area because of flooded out highways to the west of New Orleans.