As we began to write this commentary (a week after Hurricane Isaac made landfall) the lights went out all over the city — again — for tens of thousands right at rush hour, from the CBD to parts of Uptown, Mid-City and City Park. It took more than six hours for Entergy New Orleans (ENO) to restore power. A substation near the Superdome blew, according to a hasty ENO message. The company said the outage was not Isaac-related.
The City Park outage, ENO insisted, was part of a preplanned shutoff, a post-Isaac "fix" to the grid. If that's true, ENO should have warned customers in advance. Actually, it would have been nice had ENO told customers anything last week. In the wake of a storm that, for once, saw government do its job well, ENO stands out as the one entity that totally fell down on the job. CEO Charles Rice made the rounds of radio and TV stations but had little to say other than the company was working long days with extra crews and forecasting percentages of customers who could expect to get service restored.
When it came to specifics — namely, neighborhoods — Rice fell short, except to say he thought ENO was doing as good a job as possible given the circumstances. "I'm not saying that we're perfect," Rice told a meeting of the New Orleans City Council's Utility Committee, which met Sept. 4 after council members heard howls from constituents all weekend.
Not perfect? That's for sure.
The same day Rice appeared before the council, ENO sent an email saying power in Lakeview would have to be shut down, followed quickly by another email saying the first one was in error. New Orleanians weren't looking for perfection. They were waiting for communication.
Compared to other agencies — governmental and otherwise — ENO's performance was the one big blot on disaster response following Isaac. Both Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Gov. Bobby Jindal held frequent news conferences, answered specific questions and promoted a sense that things were under control. New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas likewise held NOPD together, marking a high point in his tenure as chief. Most of the relatively few looters were quickly caught, and the city saw a nine-day stretch without a single murder.
NOLAReady, the city's official emergency preparedness Twitter account, was a vital clearinghouse of information of all sorts, from outages to downed trees and broken traffic signals. And citizens themselves provided vital information about outages and impassable streets on Facebook and Twitter; social media have become one of the dominant ways of getting information during a disaster or emergency.
Unfortunately, some who had signed up for ENO text message alerts were told they were "temporarily unavailable." Others said they signed up, but got no notices and no texts. After the storm, as much as a week later, Entergy's online outage maps were consistently incorrect, showing power on in dark neighborhoods and no power in neighborhoods that were fine. That's beyond "not perfect" — it's unacceptable for a public utility. No one likes to be told that electricity will be out for any length of time, but during an emergency even bad news is better than no news.
With accurate, timely information, residents can decide whether it's better to "hunker down" (in a phrase we heard all week) or evacuate. We recognize that restoring a regional electrical grid isn't easy. In 2008, when Hurricane Gustav knocked out power to the Baton Rouge area, it took weeks to restore power. Some in hard-hit areas like Plaquemines Parish, especially around Boothville-Venice, have been told not to expect electricity for up to three weeks. That's tough news to bear, but it's vital for decision-making.
At a post-Isaac wrap-up news conference, Landrieu stressed, "Communication is key, especially when it comes to things like electricity." We agree. The New Orleans City Council last week unanimously resolved to investigate ENO and Entergy Louisiana's preparation, response and storm recovery efforts. The Louisiana Public Service Commission should do likewise.
It's ironic — and unacceptable — that the monopoly entrusted with maintaining New Orleans' power grid was the one agency after Hurricane Isaac that was utterly powerless to connect with the public it serves.