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Power outage an omen, official says
Entergy's system in disarray and struggling, post-Katrina

Thursday, June 29, 2006
By Pam Radtke Russell

Late Tuesday afternoon, as temperatures climbed to 95 degrees, power surged and then ebbed at homes in Gentilly and around Esplanade Avenue. And then finally, about 4 p.m., it went out.

For more than four hours, 7,000 to 10,000 customers sweated it out on their stoops as Entergy worked to restore power after shutting it off for safety reasons.

The outage, and others in recent weeks, underscore the system's fragility after Hurricane Katrina, officials said. Repairs made after the storm to get power restored are considered temporary. The system no longer has back-up redundancy, and won't until millions of dollars are spent to repair the system, officials said.

Before Katrina, that redundancy didn't prevent outages from happening, but it did allow Entergy to restore power more quickly. Then, Entergy had the capability to switch to an alternative power source. Instead, on Tuesday afternoon, the Pauger substation had to be shut down because it had transmission line problems.

Without that ability to switch power sources, customers must wait hours while Entergy repairs the damage.

"The real impact of the lack of a robust or redundant distribution system is that we don't have the ability to switch to a secondary or tertiary source," said Rod West, Entergy's regional manager for electric distribution.

The duration of power outages is unlikely to change anytime soon for New Orleans customers. Entergy is waiting for millions of dollars from Community Development Block Grants or another source to help restore the system's distribution infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Power outages are expected throughout the region, including in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, where hurricane damage was the greatest, West said.

"We expect things to break," West said. "It's to our benefit that customers have lights on continuously. Our frustration is that we don't have all the tools in the tool box that we once had to make the repairs."

The tools primarily consist of Entergy's distribution system. Only one of three units at Entergy's Michoud power plant is up and running. Once that plant is producing at a greater capacity, the city will have a reliable loop system, rather than its current radial system in which multiple lines are bringing power from outside the city.

Additionally, only 15 of Entergy's 18 substations are operating. That means power must go farther to get to some homes, and if a line goes down or there is an equipment failure in that circuit, more customers are caught in the outage.

"There's going to be outages because of a bad storm," said Clint Vince, an adviser to the New Orleans City Council on Entergy issues. "They essentially have to rebuild the system" when there's damage to one section.

Though Entergy has recently invested more than $14 million in improving the reliability of the system, it needs much more, Vince said.

"I have four letters for you: C-D-B-G," Vince said, referring to Community Development Block Grants. "This ought to be the wake-up call for the LRA (Louisiana Recovery Authority) and the state and the feds that we have to have money to rebuild the electric and gas system," he said. "You can't rebuild the city unless you have reliable electricity."

Entergy has applied for $718 million in federal financing through Community Development Block Grants. The state soon will receive $4.2 billion in grant money, but Entergy is competing for the money with other infrastructure and housing needs.

But even if hundreds of millions are invested, there's no way to prevent some power outages, West said.

"Reliability is a function of degrees," West said. "You still can't anticipate that a device may fail; it may simply not work." In the case of the Pauger substation, Entergy could have switched customers to another power source while repairs were made on equipment that helped regulate the flow of energy to the substation.

But without that device, there was no way to provide a consistent voltage to homes, which would have been a safety issue for homeowners or workers, West said.

So, that section of the system was powered down about 4 p.m. Entergy was able to provide power again to those customers between 8 and 8:45 p.m., West said.

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Pam Radtke Russell can be reached at (504) 826-3351 or