Power Woes Add to New Orleans Anguish
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco's decision late last week to postpone municipal elections in New Orleans highlighted the depth of the city's plight since Hurricane Katrina hit three months ago. Entergy New Orleans, the local power company, has become another prominent symbol of persistent troubles. When night falls, more than half of New Orleans is shrouded in complete darkness. Entergy New Orleans is working to restore full power. This past week, the company boosted its repair crews by more than 125 people. But as NPR's Audie Cornish reports, that's just part of the problem.
AUDIE CORNISH reporting:
Nicole Chandler's(ph) services are in very high demand.
Ms. NICOLE CHANDLER (Electrician): I'm an electrician, and I live in New Orleans' Ninth Ward.
CORNISH: New Orleans city safety officials are demanding every house hit with four to six feet of floodwater during the storm be rewired.
Ms. CHANDLER: And this is what the inspectors are checking for. They want to make sure that you've got wire that was not saturated. And the wire that's been saturated is discolored, so they can recognize it. You know, people are asking, `Well, do I have to? How will they know if I don't?' They'll know.
CORNISH: Chandler's been working several houses a day, including her own, every day for the last two months. But her days are cut short by sunset when she has to use generators or head home before nightfall. For people working on rebuilding their homes, Chandler says it's frustrating.
Ms. CHANDLER: They feel like the city is saying, `Come home.' But when they get here, there aren't even streetlights, you know. OK, my house doesn't have lights, but at least if it wasn't such a no man's land at 5:00 in the afternoon, then I could come home, be there even with the generator 'cause there's streetlights. But when the sun goes down, it is dark.
CORNISH: Chandler's working on a house that has been gutted to the studs in New Orleans East. She says while it may take her three days to finish the house, it could take nearly two weeks to get one of the city's six safety inspectors out here to approve her work, and weeks more to get the entire neighborhood back on line.
Ms. CHANDLER: That's the most overwhelming thing, because it just doesn't matter how fast you go, the power still isn't on.
Ms. KAREN WILLIAMS(ph) (New Orleans Resident): My name is Karen Williams. I live at 1407 Desire Street.
CORNISH: Williams is wearing a light blue mask over her face as her family drags her furniture out onto the sidewalk. She's hoping to return to the neighborhood. But by the time she cleans out the house, hires an electrician and gets the city to inspect the work, she says the power still may not be available.
Ms. WILLIAMS: I don't know. I just don't understand why they take longer in certain areas. The French Quarter's up and running. They're talking about opening up the Riverwalk and stuff. But you're looking at the tourists; you're not looking at the people that live here to make New Orleans run anyway.
CORNISH: And even though she hasn't gotten regular mail, Williams says she's got a steep electricity bill waiting for her.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Entergy did send me a bill. The bill was, like, almost $600. Why the bill is so high I don't understand.
CORNISH: Well, for one thing, Entergy New Orleans needs the money. Although they say power is available to more than half of its 190,000 customers, just 55,000 people are actually able to use it. And the company had flooding in half of its 42 substations. After the company filed for bankruptcy in September, repair work slowed down significantly. Its parent firm came up with a $200 million loan, and New Orleans city officials came up with another $11 million to help Entergy get back to work. Right now the company is trying to tackle both the repair of the electrical grid and natural gas infrastructure as well as the reconnection of individual homes.
Mr. ROD WEST (Regional Manager, Entergy New Orleans): Folks, when we're talking about delays, I think it's incumbent upon all of us to temper our expectations with a little dose of reality.
CORNISH: Rod West is a regional manager for Entergy New Orleans.
Ms. WEST: Under no circumstance should there be any expectation that Entergy just flips a switch and unilaterally makes decisions as to who will and who won't get power. It is in our best interest that we have as many people safely taking service from us as possible because that allows us to get on the road to financial recovery sooner rather than later.
CORNISH: West says the money from the City Council is going to pay for the new contractors Entergy is hiring. The company wants to get electricity to at least 80 percent of its customers in the next six weeks.
(Soundbite of repair work)
CORNISH: Repair trucks are heading into neighborhoods and driving new poles in the ground, replacing transformers and stringing new lines. Entergy New Orleans says after the repairs, they want to restore the entire infrastructure including backup systems. The company is lobbying Washington for more than 400 million in federal assistance, similar to the package utilities in New York City received after the 9/11 attacks. Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.
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