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New Orleans power failures could pose more dangers than the hurricane itself, aid workers warn

Though power has been restored in a few pockets, officials have told residents in Hurricane Ida’s hardest hit areas to prepare to go without electricity for up to three weeks

Officials in New Orleans have warned that parts of the city could be without power for up to three weeks after Ida. Community groups have stepped up to help. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, Alice Li, Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Steps to restore power to more than 1 million households in Louisiana and Mississippi are at least three days away for most customers, federal energy officials said Tuesday, as regional electric providers struggle to tally the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ida.

Even after authorities assess the damage to the Gulf Coast’s power grid, restoring service to the hardest hit areas could take as much as three weeks, utility company executives warned.

Pockets of the region have shown signs of a quicker recovery. Entergy, the utility hit hardest by the storm in both states, said Tuesday that it restored power to 85,000 customers. Most of that appears to have been accomplished in Louisiana parishes and Mississippi counties that were on the fringes of the hurricane’s track.

And New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said Tuesday afternoon that as of late Wednesday, “We should have some level of transmission to the city of New Orleans.”

She emphasized that the recovery will be partial. Following that, she said, Entergy can focus on repairing block-by-block distribution lines.

“The first step is transmission, and there’s been significant progress on that,” she said. “The next step is distribution.”

The company did not respond to calls for comment, but in a statement posted to its website, Entergy said it is still trying to assess damage throughout much of its service area. It expects that work could be completed in Mississippi by late Tuesday.

Debris blocking roadways and difficult access in swampy lowlands could slow its recovery efforts, the company said, and it warned that “customers in the hardest-hit areas should expect extended power outages lasting for weeks.”

The potential for prolonged outages caused new fears among residents, aid workers and government officials about the storm system’s potential aftershocks.

It’s becoming clear, they say, that Ida’s danger extends well beyond the inundation and scattered debris caused by the Category 4 hurricane — since downgraded to a tropical storm washing over parts of Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. The near-total failure of the region’s energy grid coincides with a sweltering southeastern summer and little respite for residents. Cars and generators will eventually run out of fuel; service stations can’t pump gasoline without electricity. Cellphone batteries will expire. Water treatment systems will buckle without a reliable power system.

“Really what we’re looking at is how you sustain a large population in New Orleans when it’s very hot, very humid and there’s no power or food,” said Nate Mook, chief executive of relief agency World Central Kitchen, which is preparing to serve 50,000 meals a day in New Orleans for weeks on end. “We’re looking at a really difficult situation that is more dangerous than the actual storm impacts. If the energy company isn’t able to get the power back on in a week, imagine.”

Electric utilities reported more than 1 million Louisiana customers without power Tuesday afternoon, of which 785,000 are Entergy accounts. In Mississippi, 44,000 customers are without service, including nearly 20,000 from Entergy.

The company said it would work to first restore power to “essential services,” such as hospitals, nursing homes, police and fire departments and water systems.

Entergy, the power company in New Orleans, has faced scrutiny for not properly maintaining their systems to withstand natural disasters. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

Entergy said Monday that 216 substations, 207 transmission lines, and more than 2,000 miles of its transmission lines were out of order in the two states. In all of New Orleans, there are just 22 substations.

The most significant damage was to the company’s transmission lines, which carry the electricity from the power plants to local substations. Repairs to those lines could take as little as several hours in some cases and potentially months in others, said Andrew Phillips, vice president of transmission and distribution at the Electric Power Research Institute.

If a tree is on a line, or has blown right through a line, that can be fixed in a matter of hours as long as there is good access, he said. If a tower has fallen — as one did on the banks of the Mississippi River just upstream from New Orleans — a temporary “recovery structure” can be put in place in a matter of days.

But if a tower falls and takes a line of other towers with it in a cascade, “that can take weeks and months,” he said. “It depends on what spares you got.”

Wires, especially older ones, can give way if the wind sets up what’s called harmonic vibration, where the line starts swaying at just the right frequency to cause major stress, said Branko Terzic, a former commissioner with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The concrete base of a tower can uproot if the ground is soggy enough.

The damage to substations could also be significant, with flooding being the most likely cause, he said.

Transmission towers are built to hold the weight of power lines as they hang down, said Cliff Zylks, an organizer with the Baton Rouge-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 995. When the lines begin to swing during a storm, the towers grow top-heavy and more vulnerable to toppling over.

In most storms, the greatest damage is wreaked on local distribution lines, the ones that go down a block, typically on wooden poles. The reports coming from the states affected by Ida have surprised Larry Gasteiger, executive director of an industry trade group called WIRES.

“My sense is, that was an unusually impactful event for transmission,” he said. “That’s a pretty extensive amount of damage.”

Some of Entergy’s power plants in the New Orleans area were also damaged in the storm, the company statement said, though the details are unclear. The company has 11 fossil-fueled units at six locations that were close to the center of the storm’s track, out of a total of 23 power units in Louisiana. A small power plant is in the city limits, but other larger ones are on the outskirts.

The company said that the two nuclear power plants in Louisiana were undamaged.

The company has dispatched 20,000 workers to southeast Louisiana to assess the damage, though a local union official told The Washington Post that it could take days to fully realize the extent of the work necessary to restore operations.

The U.S. Department of Energy said Tuesday that the assessments are expected to take three days.

Zylks said his union branch, which is responsible for line work throughout the state, is just beginning to assemble crews to tackle the restoration work. Officials have not been able to make it to the union hall since the storm hit because they’ve been occupied with damage to their own homes and neighborhoods. Cellphone service is spotty, making it difficult to communicate. Workers are scrambling to put fuel in their cars so they can make it to worksites when called upon.

“We’re just taking it day by day right now,” Zylks said. “I know we’re all hurting for gas and water.”

911 calls after Ida went unanswered in New Orleans due to ‘antiquated’ technology

In the meantime, much of the state has turned to generators for power, officials and residents said. Neighbors are letting one another into their homes to charge cellphones, pick up ice to keep food from spoiling or just get some deep breaths of cool air.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has deployed more than 200 generators to Louisiana and expects 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.

Ida live updates: 2 dead in Mississippi highway collapse; 2 dead in Louisiana

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan issued emergency waivers for Louisiana and Mississippi for provisions of the Clean Air Act to shore up fuel supply lines.

“We are facing a period of high temperatures and humidity in the region and people will need shelter and air conditioning,” Rep. Troy A. Carter (D-La.), who represents Orleans and Jefferson parishes, as well as several others along the Mississippi River, said in a statement. “Generators can help fill the gap, especially for the most vulnerable sites like hospitals and nursing homes, but our top priority after search and rescue must be reconnecting Louisiana back to the grid as well as addressing damage to property and businesses.”