Entergy insists Isaac response was "outstanding," communication was lacking
Dave Cohen Reporting
A week after Hurricane Isaac began knocking out power to most of the city, the head of Entergy New Orleans was on the hot seat today in front of the New Orleans City Council.
Members of the Council stressed that Entergy failed to tell people what they needed to know in terms of how long to expect their power to be out, saying it made it impossible for residents to plan how they would deal with the outages.
They pointed out "what appear to be failures by Entergy," in the words of Council President Stacy Head.
Other top concerns included questions about pre-storm maintenance. Council members wondered out loud if Entergy has "hardened" the electrical system since Katrina and used money intended for repairs to make the needed upgrades.
Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson focused on "investment in infrastructure." She was most worried about how profits compared with efforts to maintain the electrical grid.
In response, Entergy New Orleans President and CEO Charles Rice said, "We are committed to restoring service quickly and safely." He insisted that he and Entergy employees "push ourselves safely to our limits."
Rice thanked his employees and the workers who he said have left their homes and their families to get the power back on for the customers.
"There is no such thing as an instantaneous restoration," Rice asserted. "We are the very best... the best in the business."
The company leader responded to those who say Entergy has not done everything within its power to restore power as quickly as possible.
"I know in my heart of hearts... that is simply not true."
He acknowledged that they are not perfect, but detailed the awards Entergy has won year after year as an industry leader. Rice contended that after Entergy's actions are fully reviewed it will be clear that "our response to this storm was... outstanding."
An expert hired by Entergy testified at the hearing that Hurricane Isaac actually hit the system for a much longer time than even Hurricane Katrina.
"We had 54 hours of sustained winds over 39 miles per hour," Demographer Greg Rigamer told the council. "In Katrina we had equivalent winds for 21 hours."
An Entergy customer service leader also said that the restoration felt longer this time because there was no evacuation... and people were home for the entire process, unlike Gustav and Katrina when most residents were away in a safe place as the work was beginning.
When asked in the question and answer session, Entergy leaders said that the system was operable before the storm, and they went through a checklist of preparation.
Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge Morrel asked if Entegy has reduced budget recently for tree trimming to prevent limbs from hitting wires. The Entergy panel indicated no one was aware of any budget cuts.
Rice said part of the problem is that New Orleans has strict rules on tree trimming. "We can only prune back four feet... in other parts of the state we can prune back six to ten feet."
When asked directly about the lack of information and approximate time for restoration provided to customers, Entergy responded by saying that their website was hard to interpret. Hedge-Morrell noted that people without power can't check the website anyway.
"You really need to work now on getting a method for real time information to customers," she insisted.
"We recognize that customers want information," Rice said. "That is something that we are definitely going to improve and that is definitely a lesson learned from this experience."
He committed to getting more specific information on the radio in the future.
Entergy also said that the website was not an accurate picture of if a specific home was powered or not at an exact time.
"Get it right or get it off!" Clarkson demanded.
Entergy issued a public apology and promised to "correct it moving forward."
In response to repeated questions about how post-Katrina federal money was spent, Rice said the $200 million was used on a variety of costs. "Everyone here will recall Katrina was a catastrophic event.. some of that money was used to repair the system," he explained.
Rice added that where they did replace equipment, "we did buy the highest rated equipment possible."
Entergy committed to submitting a written report showing where and how the money was spent. The company also pledged to a report on when out of town crews were activated, instructed to drive in, and managed once they arrived.
Entergy previously noted some bottlenecks and other issues with timing of arriving crews.