Columns of utility crews from two dozen states continued to deploy yesterday along the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast to confront the greatest disaster ever to hit the U.S power industry and its customers.
Power company officials are warning that it will take one to two months to restore power in the most heavily damaged areas mauled by Hurricane Katrina. No estimates have been released about the extent of the catastrophic damage to the electric power network in New Orleans, where power lines and poles were ripped away by the hurricane and critical parts of the network were inundated by flood waters.
"It is too early to assess how long the power outages will be," Louisiana Public Utility Commissioner James "Jimmy" Field said yesterday about the city's electrical matrix. "It's all under water. It probably will require a complete rebuild. I'm afraid we are just starting on a long, arduous recovery." All that officials could do yesterday was dispatch fuel trucks under armed guard to try to restart a generator at a pumping station that is needed to lower water levels in the stricken city.
Nearly 2 million customers lost electric power Tuesday in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, and the recovery has centered so far on energy plants and pipelines, hospitals, and other critical public facilities.
Repair crews have been sent to cities in the center of the Gulf states, where damage was least severe. "We've told them to put your resources where you have a reasonable chance to get people restored," Field said.
Utility crews "are not making any inroads on the coast right now. There is nothing to hook up to," said Michael Caffrey, manager of emergency preparedness for Pepco Holdings Inc., the parent of the Washington area's largest electricity distributor.
Caffrey and Kelly Sullivan, a Pepco emergency preparedness coordinator, led a convoy of 30 utility repair trucks and 10 other support vehicles west down Interstate 20 from Atlanta toward Meridian, Miss., where some 4,000 repair crew members from East Coast states are marshaling to tackle power restoration in that state.
Along the way, Sullivan has been cheered by thumbs-up signs of encouragement from passing motorists, but the reports she and Caffrey received en route from utility officials held little reason for optimism. "These people are telling us it will be anywhere from six weeks to two months" to complete the recovery, Caffrey said.
The reconstruction of transmission lines and connections to homes and businesses has yet to begin in the worst-hit areas, and many of the estimated 15,000 repair crew members called to the Gulf region are just now arriving. Jeffrey Collins, chief operating officer of Pike Electric Corp., a Mount Airy, N.C., utility contractor, said it would be another two or three days before it can put all of its 2,800 repair contractors to work throughout the Gulf region. "Right now, we're just trying to get people in place."
One million Louisiana customers lost power when Katrina struck. Only one-quarter of them now have electricity.
Andrew J. Dearman III, head of transmission for the Southern Co. in Atlanta, said power had been restored to nearly all Florida Panhandle customers whose homes and businesses were not damaged. Gulf Power Co., the Southern affiliate in Florida, had 100,000 customers without power at the worst of the hurricane's aftermath.
Alabama Power Co., another Southern unit, had as many as 634,000 customers without power at the crisis's peak. All but 100,000 customers, mostly in the Mobile, Ala., area, now have service, he said.
About 28,000 customers of Mississippi Power Co. were back on line yesterday, but nearly 200,000 customers still had no electricity, according to the company, which is a third Southern affiliate. New damage assessments indicate more than 750 miles of lines are down, the company said. Nearly 5,000 poles will have to be replaced and thousands more repaired. All told, 70 percent of the utility's facilities were significantly damaged.
"We were able to restore service to small pockets along the Coast and around Hattiesburg, which were among the hardest-hit areas," said Southern spokesman Kurt Brautigam, in a statement yesterday. "It was a real lift for everyone to see some visible signs of success."
Cleco Corp., an energy company in Pineville, La., serving the center of the state, reported "catastrophic" damage to a primary power transmission line running 25 miles between Madisonville and Bogalusa, with at least 18 miles requiring repairs.
Despite the sudden destruction of power lines across the entire Florida-to-Louisiana Gulf Coast, the transmission grid in the Southeast was not endangered, said William F. Reinke, executive director of the Southeastern Electric Reliability Council, which oversees grid reliability in 13 states, including those struck by Katrina.
The Waterford nuclear power plant, 20 miles west of New Orleans, was shut down Saturday as Katrina approached. Two other nuclear plants, near Port Gibson, Miss., and Baton Rouge, La., operated throughout the hurricane but trimmed output when the storm's impact caused voltages to gyrate. Mississippi Power had to shut down its Gulfport, Miss., coal and gas-fired generators when the hurricane hit, but the grid operators were able to balance output as demand for power disappeared.
"The grid was stable," Reinke said. The warning of the hurricane's approach helped grid operators prevent the impact from spreading beyond the storm's reach, he said, but sections of the network in Katrina's path could not be spared.
A worker tries to repair power lines in Mobile, Ala., on Thursday. As many as 634,000 Alabama customers were without electricity at the crisis's peak.