Evacuees Return, But Power Is an Issue

Ashley Williams, 6, and Samuel Coleman exit a train in New Orleans. They had left in a city-assisted evacuation.
Ashley Williams, 6, and Samuel Coleman exit a train in New Orleans. They had left in a city-assisted evacuation. (By Brian Lawdermilk -- Associated Press)
By Mike Perlstein
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 6, 2008

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 5 -- Utility companies continued to work feverishly on Friday to restore electricity to thousands of homes two days after many residents who had fled Hurricane Gustav returned to their homes.

By afternoon, about 35 percent of residences and businesses in New Orleans were still without power. In the neighboring suburbs of Jefferson Parish, about 40 percent of customers remained in the dark.

Entergy Corp., which provides electricity in both parishes, said power for most customers in the metro area would restored by Monday. Even with that timetable, city officials and utility executives were confident that the city would be far enough along to comfortably accommodate visitors and fill the Superdome for Sunday's National Football League game between the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

By contrast, in St. Tammany Parish across Lake Pontchartrain, about 85 percent of customers had power, according to Cleco Corp., which provides most of the energy to the north shore suburbs.

In hard-hit coastal parishes such as Terrebonne and Lafourche, which bore the brunt of Gustav's fury, officials estimated it could take two weeks or more to restore. Although parish officials gave the green light Friday for residents to return, officials urged people to "look and leave," rather than stay behind without basic services.

"This is not a safe place," Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Vernon Bourgeois said. "There are no hospitals open."

Most of the 105 hospitals tracked by the state remain evacuated or are on generators, with about a quarter having power restored, said Alan Levine, secretary of the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

In Baton Rouge, 70 patients were evacuated to a nearby temporary field hospital from the state-run Earl K. Long Medical Center when a switch blew and knocked out power, Levine said. "The big concern for us right now is we're seeing heat-related illnesses because of people getting out in the heat without air conditioning.

Louisiana reported 23 confirmed deaths from Gustav, Levine said. Fatalities included three patients who died in the evacuation of New Orleans, but far more who have died from injuries related to home fires and accidents while clearing debris.

In southwestern Louisiana, a man named deputy sheriff of the year last year in Calcasieu Parish died of carbon monoxide poisoning from an indoor generator, Levine said.

In New Orleans, where grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies and restaurants were rapidly reopening, many people found that returning to hot, dark homes was better than the expense and uncertainty of an extended evacuation. For those who never left, waiting for electricity was a test of patience akin to waiting for the winning number in a bingo game.

Mark Penton, 50, rode out Gustav in his Uptown apartment. He suffered virtually no damage from the storm, but was still waiting Friday for electricity, even with power lines humming two blocks away.

"The first two nights, I slept in my car with the A.C. running. Quarter tank [of gas] a night," said Penton, a guitar player at a Bourbon Street nightclub. "Then I started sleeping on a couch in an apartment above my friend's club."

Many elected officials in the region expressed frustration at the pace of power restoration. Gov. Bobby Jindal on Wednesday called the pace "unacceptable."

But utility officials said they were doing everything possible to restore wholesale electricity without overtaxing the frayed grid. In some blackout areas, caravans of utility trucks brought in from outside the state stretched 20 deep.

"We'll be doing everything we can to get the lights on as quickly as possible," said Rod West, CEO of Entergy New Orleans Inc.

Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company