Louisiana: After Ida

New Orleans power outages during Hurricane Ida proved lethal. Is enough being done to fix them?

At least nine people died from excessive heat after extensive outages. Investigations reveal Entergy resisted preparing for major storms, and the company’s future could be in the city’s hands, Alex Woodward reports

Tuesday 28 September 2021 19:26 BST
<p>A mangled transmission line collapsed near the Mississippi River  during Hurricane Ida, which left thousands of people in New Orleans without power for 10 days in dangerous heat. </p>

A mangled transmission line collapsed near the Mississippi River during Hurricane Ida, which left thousands of people in New Orleans without power for 10 days in dangerous heat.

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Neighbours sprawled out inside the lobby of the Bywater Art Lofts in front of a series of fans, trying to beat the heat as sweltering, late-summer temperatures approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in the days after Hurricane Ida left thousands of people in New Orleans without power.

On 30 August, the day after Ida made landfall, more than a dozen residents inside the low-income housing complex who stayed through the storm shared battery-powered fans and sparingly used a gas-fuelled generator to charge their phones. Neighbours scrambled to fill coolers with ice where they could find it, cleaned out refrigerators and cooked meals to feed the building.

Laura Bergerol, a 65-year-old photographer and Bywater Art Lofts resident, tried to leave the city before officials told residents to “shelter in place” as a likely Category 5 storm was imminent. As the week went on, she told her neighbours that her migraines were getting worse.

On Twitter, she called on President Joe Biden for help, criticised FEMA and Mayor LaToya Cantrell, and urged the city’s gas and electric utility company Entergy New Orleans to restore power.

“Entergy says they’ll have power back on tonight,” she said on 1 September. “I doubt it!”

One week after the storm, her neighbour Caitlyn Ridenour knocked on her door and texted her to let her know she brought her an extra battery for her fan.

“I was like, ‘There’s no way that fan is still charged. She must be really hot,’” she told The Independent.

Worried that Ms Bergerol wasn’t returning texts from neighbours and didn’t answer knocks on her door, Ms Ridenour asked a neighbour to check on her.

After more than six days in the heat, Ms Bergerol was found dead in her apartment.

That night, her neighbours danced in her honour with music from a mobile DJ cart.

‘Deaths caused by negligence’

At least nine people in New Orleans died from “excessive heat during an extended power outage,” while two others died from carbon monoxide poisoning from generators used to power their homes, according to the Orleans Parish coroner’s office.

Three days after Ms Bergerol’s death, power was restored to the building.

Entergy New Orleans is facing renewed scrutiny in Ida’s wake, which exposed lingering issues that residents and regulators have criticised in the aftermath of other storms, including lack of upgrades to strengthen its grid, and its reluctance to move to renewable sources in the midst of the growing climate crisis that threatens to displace thousands of people in south Louisiana.

The Independent spoke with current and former city officials, environmental advocates, residents living in the footprint of its facilities and New Orleanians who have complained for years about the company’s lack of critical investments to harden its infrastructure against severe weather, and criticised the company as being more interested in delivering for shareholders than maintaining a system marred by neglect.

The company continues to build and rely on projects that emit greenhouse gasses that have exacerbated the crisis, including the creation of the New Orleans Power Station, a controversial gas plant in New Orleans East that the company argued would generate power for the city in the event of a total blackout. That didn’t happen until two days after the storm, for a fraction of households.

Faster-moving storms also force millions of people in the state – one of the nation’s poorest, with a poverty rate in New Orleans roughly double the national average – to quickly determine whether to spend hundreds of dollars they don’t have on transportation and hotel stays for their evacuation for an undetermined amount of time.

Without safety nets that can safely move people and families from their homes into shelters or hotels on short notice, and with an unreliable patchwork of federal relief available only after they bear the brunt of those costs, residents face a difficult choice to stay behind, with an unreliable electrical grid that – in the case of Ida – left thousands of people in the dark.

Nearly one month after Ida made landfall, roughly 16,000 people in the state remain without power.

Two days after the storm, Ms Bergerol said on Twitter that her rental insurance wouldn’t cover a hotel stay.

In a statement to The Independent, USAA spokesperson Rebekah Nelson said: “While we cannot speak to the specifics of this member, some policies may provide coverage for expenses incurred due to having to evacuate in advance of Hurricane Ida. Receipts can be provided for consideration of reimbursement.”

More than three weeks after Ida’s landfall, the New Orleans City Council has launched an investigation into Entergy outages, as well as the management of the company itself, and whether there are alternatives to powering the city other than a monopoly under the umbrella of a Fortune 500 company that made a record profit of $1.4bn in 2020.

Investigations from The Lens and ProPublica in Ida’s wake have also revealed both the depth of the company’s alleged mismanagement and the lethal consequences of an inadequate electrical grid.

The storm has also exposed how extended outages can have deadly impacts for elderly people, people with disabilities, and residents living in senior care centres and nursing homes.

At least five people in New Orleans died in senior living apartments without electricity in Ida’s aftermath, according to the coroner’s office.

“There are many, many deaths from Ida that were not caused by trees falling on somebody, were not caused by shrapnel from glass being blown out,” David Nowak, whose mother is a cancer survivor, told members of the city council on 22 September. “This was not deaths caused by the storm. It was deaths caused by negligence and the inability to harden the transmission.”

One city council official told The Independent that previous administrations were unfocused in their relationships with Entergy, and failed to address both the scale of systemic issues that ballooned into a crisis as well as the needs of thousands of people depending on them for their basic needs.

“People can die, and did die,” the official said. “We endeavoured in this case to take on that fundamental question: How should that [relationship] be arranged? At the end of the day, this is a Fortune 500 company. They flex that power … What is the best way to move forward so ratepayers get what they want: affordable, resilient power in the face of climate change?”

Entergy New Orleans, Energy Louisiana and their parent company Entergy Corp also face a class-action lawsuit filed by a group of customers in Orleans Parish Civil District Court alleging that the companies “chose the bubble gum and super glue approach to protect their billions of dollars instead of their customers.”

“Or, instead of asking its customers for billions of dollars for restoration and hurricane response, it could have invested that money in hardening the systems,” according to the lawsuit.

‘They push until you’re out of time’

The grid includes a transmission system, which brings electricity into the region from elsewhere, and a distribution system, which connects that power to residents. Both systems endured widespread damage during Ida.

All eight transmission lines connected to a multi-state system that services the region collapsed, cutting New Orleans off to power, while the local distribution system saw roughly twice as much damage as during any previous storm, according to Entergy officials.

The New Orleans City Council serves as the regulator for the investor-owned utility company. Only Washington DC is similarly positioned.

City councilmembers have also asked state and federal regulators to investigate the power failures impacting the regional transmission grid on which New Orleans relies for its electricity.

In hearings before the City Council and in company statements, Entergy officials have defended the response and performance of its facilities, which they argued could not endure the kinds of storm damage Ida brought.

The companies have “invested $9.5bn in transmission and distribution assets that met or exceeded then-current resiliency standards,” according to Entergy. “Ida demonstrated the resiliency benefits of these investments.”

Entergy “recognizes the need for accelerated system hardening, as well as continuing to advance its preventive maintenance programs including vegetation management and pole inspections,” the company said in a statement.

It anticipates repairs to cost “in the range of $2.1bn to $2.6bn.”

Entergy spokesman Jerry Nappi told The New York Times that the utility made “substantial progress in terms of resiliency” since the early 2000s. He said the company is seeking federal support “for the additional hardening needed without compromising the affordability of electricity on which our customers and communities depend.”

Pressed by New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno on 22 September for how much money the company spent on upgrades, not just repairs, Entergy New Orleans CEO Deanna Rodriguez said she doesn’t know.

An investigation from WWL-TV discovered Entergy Louisiana and Entergy New Orleans spent a combined $11.5bn on power plants between 2016 and 2020 – roughly four times as much as the $3bn the companies spent maintaining and expanding transmission lines used to deliver power.

Entergy New Orleans previously said its $210m gas-fired power plant – built in the face of opposition from members of the community, environmental concerns and the objection of some members of city government in 2018 – would be vital for circumstances exactly like the destruction seen during Ida, when the transmission system that feeds the region with power generated from outside the city is offline.

More than two days passed after Ida knocked out power before the utility was able to generate power for roughly 11,500 households.

To drum up support for that project in 2018, an Entergy subcontractor hired actors to pose as plant supporters during City Council hearings, an investigation from The Lens revealed. The company later fired the workers involved.

That year, the city council voted 6-1 to move forward with the plant, bordering mostly Black and Vietnamese communities.

“I’m not excited, but I have to vote for this plant,” then-councilmember Jason Williams said at the time.

Then-District A councilmember Susan Guidry was the only person to vote against it.

“I have watched Entergy drag their feet over and over again,” she said at the 2018 hearing. “We have been given one option by Entergy: a fossil fuel plant.”

Now retired, Ms Guidry told The Independent that the company’s “fear-mongering” over the plant’s construction misled officials into believing it was the only option.

“It’s a total red flag if they refuse to analyze alternatives,” she said. “You say, ‘No, you can’t have the toy you want. We told you to prove it’s the best one, and you didn’t.’ … They say, ‘We could have a bad storm any time and it will be on your heads that we don’t have a power plant.’ They push until you’re out of time.”

‘A critical juncture’

On 21 September, the day before the utility’s president appeared before the city council, Entergy New Orleans issued a press release presenting “four preliminary options” for the future of its ownership structure, suggesting it could merge with Entergy Louisiana and transfer regulation from the city council to the state’s Public Service Commission.

“It is obvious that we have reached a critical juncture in our relationship with the city council,” Entergy utility group president Rod West said in a statement. “The council’s expected resolution will require it to make an important choice: will the city continue with Entergy as its energy partner or pursue another alternative?”

City Council President Helena Moreno accused Entergy officials of looking to change regulators rather than address the crisis.

“Please stop acting like you’re the victim,” she told Entergy officials at City Hall on 22 September. “You are the Goliath.”

Ms Moreno appeared to receive, accidentally, a copy of Entergy’s talking points and PR strategy ahead of the meeting on 22 September. She lambasted the company for responding to the current crisis with “threats and PR spins.”

“Your PR campaign strategy around today’s meeting never centred around the very serious matters on the agenda, like what happened during Ida,” she told Entergy officials. “Entergy’s PR planning around this meeting was talking about an ownership study.”

But city officials say they just do not know – legally, fundamentally – how to untangle Energy New Orleans in its current ownership state until a study is complete.

“The honest answer is it is not that easy,” Ms Moreno said. “What are the other types of ownership out there? … This study is to give ratepayers answers to these questions. … We haven’t done the study. We don’t know what will or will not work. But the people of this city that have been asking these questions about the feasibility of these options should have an answer.”

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