Louisiana’s principal utility, Entergy, is still trying to assess the damage from Hurricane Ida, which knocked out all eight transmission lines bringing electricity from power plants into Orleans and Jefferson parishes. The company said Monday it could be weeks before service is fully restored to the nearly 900,000 Louisiana customers who have lost it in the storm. Several hundred thousand who rely on other utility companies are also in the dark.
“We have no electricity, no communication. Our water systems are down. We’re losing pressure,” Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng said in a video call with the White House. She said sewers were backing up and urged residents who had left the parish not to come back for now.
“It’s going to be a difficult life for quite some time,” she said.
As powerful as Hurricane Ida was, the damage it wreaked on Louisiana’s power grid was yet one more example of the weaknesses of the country’s electricity systems. Coming on the heels of extensive blackouts in Texas this past winter and in California last summer, Sunday’s failures demonstrated a lack of resilience and backup capacity in the nation’s stressed and overburdened electricity infrastructure.
And it raised questions about building the system back to the way it was, until the next storm, or trying to “harden it” against future hurricanes. Skeptical residents, remembering previous storms, wondered how long their current agony will last.
“The city could be out of power for a month, and when I hear people in power say a month, I hear as much as three months because I know New Orleans,” said Laura Paul, executive director of Lowernine.org, a nonprofit group formed after Hurricane Katrina that has rebuilt 90 homes in the city’s hardest-hit neighborhood.
People stuck inside their dark, hot houses are desperate for solar generators and small, solar-powered phone-charger/lantern combinations, she said. Supplies are dwindling fast and prices are soaring as many in the city search for such devices.
“How are people going to get fuel for generators?” Paul asked. “People are scared and don’t know where to turn.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has deployed more than 200 generators to Louisiana and was expecting to send more, President Biden said Monday. “We’re doing all we can to minimize the amount of time it’s going to take to get power back up for everyone in the region,” he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration will issue quick permits for surveillance drones to assess damage to electrical equipment, Biden said, and the Federal Communications Commission is making it possible for cellphone owners who have a charge to use any carrier’s signal, because a number of cell towers were knocked out.
But those are small steps for a region that has taken so much damage.
Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said Louisiana was trying to ensure that power is first restored to hospitals, since generators they are relying on can be expected to fail eventually.
Electrical crews probably will not know where to begin their work putting much of the city back on line until midweek, said Rodney Wallis, an organizer with the New Orleans-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 130.
Linemen out of Baton Rouge are largely responsible for restoring downed power lines and repairing transmission towers. New Orleans crews are charged with fixing damaged buildings and restoring power to critical infrastructure, such as the city’s hospitals and sewer and water systems.
But Local 130 will probably have to organize that work elsewhere since its office does not have electricity. Workers are just starting to venture out to assess their own homes and energy needs, he said.
“I was telling my wife earlier, ‘We’ll probably have to drive to Mississippi to get gas,’ ” Wallis said as he surveyed damage in his sister-in-law’s neighborhood.
The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans said it had lost power and was relying on its own generators to try to keep pumps working to drain storm water out of the city and bring in drinking water.
But it said 80 of its 84 sewage pumping stations, part of a separate system, were also without power. Entergy has lent the board 10 generators to use at key pumping stations. With the threat of sewage backing up, Ghassan Korban, head of the board, appealed to New Orleans residents to be careful to limit the amount of tap water they use, since nearly all of it ends up in the sewers eventually.
“As soon as we get power, they will be a priority customer,” Deanna Rodriguez, Entergy’s CEO, said Monday.
Valerie Vides of the Carrollton-Riverbend neighborhood in New Orleans said she lives near one of the few working pumping stations.
“We heard the generators stop and the backup ones kick on, which is the sweetest sound in the world when it’s raining in New Orleans,” she said. “Losing power to the sewage pumps with no backup is the biggest concern, since what goes down the drain is at risk of not staying there.”
What annoys Vides is that Entergy customers are paying a surcharge for storm preparedness, to little avail when Ida hit.
“Paying almost $400 a month with storm surcharges added, we shouldn’t have to hold our breath every time a thunderstorm let alone a hurricane comes in that Entergy has done what’s needed to prepare properly to keep basic services operational,” she said.
Entergy said that 216 substations, 207 transmission lines and more than 2,000 miles of its transmission lines were out of order in Louisiana and Mississippi.
A transmission-line tower on the border of Avondale and Bridge City, across the Mississippi River from Harahan, La., and just upstream from New Orleans, collapsed Sunday in the ferocious winds.
“Do we keep putting it back up?” asked Mike Beehler, national spokesman for an organization called the Power Delivery Intelligence Initiative, which advocates putting as many transmission lines as is feasible underground.
He said California’s Pacific Gas and Electric utility is spending $15 billion to $30 billion burying cables, because after a series of devastating forest fires and a bankruptcy, it can’t afford not to.
“People in Louisiana and Mississippi and these gulf states are going to have to start thinking like this,” he said. “Yes, it’s expensive. But when Louisiana is out of service for three weeks, what’s the cost to the economy?”
Akshaya Jha, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said that once power is restored, the utilities will certainly feel political pressure to upgrade their lines. The problem, he said, has been that upgrades are considered an operating expense, and under utility regulation that is less attractive to the company than a capital investment. So upgrades have tended to languish.
All told, more than a million customers were without power in Louisiana on Monday, including more than 175,000 in Orleans Parish.
In Mississippi, more than 104,000 customers were without power late Monday afternoon, a figure Gov. Tate Reeves (R) said he expected to grow as the storm churned northward across the state. Nearly 40,000 of those customers get service from Entergy. An additional 18,000 customers of the Coast Electric Power Association in Hancock, Harrison and Pearl River counties also did not have service.
Daneen Storc in the Uptown neighborhood in New Orleans said that she planned to leave the city with her family ahead of the storm but that when Ida’s projected path veered over Laurel, Miss., her intended destination, she scrapped the trip. She had enough time to tidy up her yard with her two sons, ages 17 and 12, and sit in a line to put gas in her car. Most grocery stores had already closed. The family rode out the storm with peanut butter sandwiches and some snacks intended for their road trip.
Storc emerged from her home Monday morning to find the historic structure, built in 1844, had survived relatively unscathed. The house lost a shutter and sprung some leaks, and winds took down a tree in her backyard, she said. Now the family was mostly contending with the loss of power — and sweating out a broiling day at the end of a Louisiana summer.
An old college friend offered to let the family stay at a lake house in Texas, Storc said, but with the interstates closed she couldn’t get out of the city. She spent Monday afternoon poring over maps with neighbors trying to chart a route out of New Orleans on back roads.
In the meantime, a neighbor across the street was sharing access to a generator so others could keep their phones charged or put ice in their refrigerators.
In the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans, a few blocks north of the Mississippi River, people were evenly divided between those trying to get out and those hunkering down for a long haul without power.
Erica Chomsky-Adelson, director of Culture Aid NOLA, a nonprofit formed at the beginning of the pandemic to feed people who lost work amid the shutdown, is staying. She and dozens of volunteers were out early Monday collecting food from restaurant and hotel kitchens’ powerless refrigerators, aiming to cook it quickly and get it out to people stuck in their homes and in shelters.
Another nonprofit, El Pueblo NOLA, had gathered more than 60 families of undocumented immigrants who had no safe place to stay on their own.
“There’s a real split, stay or leave,” Chomsky-Adelson said. “A lot of people are concerned about, ‘If I leave, how do I know if I can ever get back?’ ”
On Louisiana State University’s campus in Baton Rouge, backup generators kept up electricity in most of the college’s dormitories, said Lara Nicholson, a senior and editor of Reveille, the student newspaper. But off campus, power was out almost everywhere, she said, including in the homes of most of her family members — her mother, grandparents and aunts and uncles all live in town. They piled into a single home to share limited resources from a generator.
Some of her classmates from coastal areas of Louisiana evacuated out of state for the storm but are wary of returning to homes on campus or their hometowns, she said. Several had their childhood homes severely damaged and are more concerned with helping family members recover and rebuild than returning to class.
“The whole discourse in the last two days around the country is, ‘You’re dumb if you don’t evacuate,’ ” Nicholson said. “And people from Louisiana are having to explain that not everyone can pick up their stuff and go somewhere else for a month. For the people that I know, they say we have a sense of community here and we’re all willing to help everyone out. I have friends who live downtown, and they’re saying: ‘We have a generator. Everyone is welcome to come hang out here, even if it’s just to get air conditioning for five minutes.’ Since we’re all here together, we’re going to make it through this together.”
The failure of the transmission lines comes after the grid in Texas was pushed over the edge by frigid weather and the grid in California by sweltering temperatures. Now, on Sunday, high winds did the damage.
“Obviously, this was an incredible storm,” said John Fluharty, the vice chair of the Power Delivery Intelligence Initiative. “It’s over the top.”
Hardening the lines against another such storm could prove more economical than repeated fixes, he said.
The Biden administration’s infrastructure bill, as passed by the Senate and awaiting a House vote, includes about $10 billion to $12 billion for transmission lines, out of about $73 billion for a “clean energy” grid.
But the focus has been on improving the delivery of power over long distances; a local catastrophe like the one in New Orleans is a different issue.
As market forces have driven utilities and power providers to seek efficiencies, resilience and redundancy have suffered. That has meant lower costs for consumers but greater risk of serious disruption when things go wrong. Last May, the Colonial Pipeline system, stretching from the Gulf Coast to New Jersey, shut down for six days because of a cyberattack. With no backup, it meant that cities in the interior South such as Atlanta and Charlotte were hit with widespread gasoline shortages and panic buying.
In 2008, when Hurricane Gustav hit Louisiana, 13 of 14 transmission lines feeding New Orleans were knocked out of service. Since then, the number of lines has been reduced almost in half, and none were able to stay in operation.