New Orleans Power Crisis: Fix 2,500 Broken Poles in a Swamp
(Bloomberg) -- When the crew of electrical workers pulled up to Camp Villere Road in Slidell, Louisiana, its members marveled at the three-dimensional puzzle Hurricane Ida had posed: a power pole knocked to the ground, a dozen shattered cross-arms and 90-foot trees uprooted and lying across the lines.
Then there were the ticks. And maybe the alligators.
The linemen from Louisville Gas & Electric in Kentucky are part of an army of almost 20,000 electrical workers gathered in Louisiana and Mississippi to resore power for over a million customers. While residents suffer without electricity for air conditioning or medical devices, the linemen face a hard job made still harder by flooded roads, Covid-19 and the challenges of working in a swamp.
“It’s very hot, very dirty and I know that I pulled three ticks off myself,” said George King, 39, a foreman with the Louisville crew.
Ida’s floodwaters and 150 mile-per-hour winds wrought widespread damage to the electrical grid, with almost 2,500 poles damaged and over 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) of transmission lines taken out, according to Entergy Corp., the biggest power company in the area. Each of the eight high-voltage lines that carry power into New Orleans and the surrounding area were knocked out, with part of a transmission tower that withstood Hurricane Katrina thrown into the Mississippi River.
Electrical workers from across the U.S. have flowed into Louisiana and Mississippi, a system of mutual aid that’s common after destructive storms. By Wednesday morning, workers had managed to repair one of those key transmission lines, which brings power into the east side of New Orleans from nearby Slidell. Now, crews plan to work their way across the New Orleans area from substation to substation, east to west, to gradually bring back power.
“In the coming days and into the weekend, we’ll start to see a lot of progress,” Deanna Rodriguez, president of Entergy New Orleans, said during a briefing. She offered no estimate, however, on when all power would be restored, saying the utility needed to finish damage assessments.
The job is complicated by ravaged roads that make it difficult for lineworkers to travel, and soaked ground that can’t support trucks that would normally lift linemen or dig holes for poles.
“When we first got here there were trees down everywhere. You couldn’t go nowhere,” said Shane Copeland, a crew leader for Georgia Power who was turning on power for a hospital and hotels in Gulfport, Mississippi, which is about 80 miles east of New Orleans. “You have to climb everything with hooks the old-fashioned way.”
While King’s crew would normally spend all day up in a bucket truck working the lines, they are limited to one hour stints in the suffocating heat.
“Everybody’s soaking wet all day long,” said King, and reports of a Slidell man killed by an alligator swimming in floodwaters spooked the landlocked Kentuckians. “The guys are looking for gators,” he said.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also added complications. To enforce social distancing most utilities have a “one worker, one truck” rule. That meant the appoximately 60 workers from Louisville Gas & Electric drove south in about 40 bucket trucks and 20 pickup trucks.
“You don’t want to send crews from one utility to assist another utility, just because of Covid,” said Donnie Colston, director of the utility department at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “Ideally, you want them to be vaccinated.”
As the linemen dig holes and restring wires, they’re fighting a cyclical problem. Destructive hurricanes return every year, increasingly intensified by warmer seas, and the region’s electrical infrastructure is almost entirely above ground. That creates a near-annual demand for extensive repairs.
Other places threatened by climate change, from the winter storm that struck Texas this winter to the wildfires tearing across California, Greece and Turkey, must also decide whether to pay ever-steeper costs to protect themselves or to retreat from danger.
Since the storm, Entergy has faced criticism for failing to prepare its infrastructure for intense storms and not investing more in green power.
“Clean-energy advocates on the ground have been pushing Entergy to do more with resiliency, but Entergy fought those plans,” said Daniel Tait, a researcher at watchdog organization Energy and Policy Institute. “If Entergy had spent its time and money on actually building out distributed and resilient infrastructure, we would see less people without power.”
But the simplest solution, burying power lines, is expensive and difficult in New Orleans.
“We learned in grade school that electricity and water don’t mix,” said Rod West, Entergy’s group president for utility operations. “New Orleans is below sea level. We bury our deceased above ground for that reason.”
Entergy is pursuing two tactics to restore power: Restoring transmission lines to draw power from the regional grid and also using a pair of local plants to serve neighborhoods solely from lower-voltage distribution lines. Entergy was able to turn on the first lights in the city with the start-up of the New Orleans Power Station late Tuesday, but has said some areas could be without power for weeks.
That’s probably a short-term fix, because that plant is designed to run only to satisfy peak demand and not for long periods, according to Simon Mahan, executive director of the Southern Renewable Energy Association. Nor is it big enough to power the entire city.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to get these transmission lines back up,” Mahan said.
Residents are desperate for relief.
At a gas station in New Orleans East, Raneil Love, 46, was filling his pickup’s tank Wednesday. Since the storm, Love has powered his elderly father’s portable oxygen machine from its cigarette lighter.
Corey Lawrence, 40, said he just didn’t want his children to be hot in their home just south of Lake Pontchartrain, where lines and poles littered streets and lawns. A nearby neighborhood had power restored because its lines are underground, he said.
“Be sure to tell them we want power back on Curran Boulevard,” he said. “We want to be next.”
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