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Entergy blames slow-moving Isaac for its contractor glitches

10th September 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

As August ended, Isaac-weary residents—many of whom had been without power for three or four days—saw Entergy contractors sitting in trucks on streets and in parking lots in New Orleans East, downtown and Metairie. Talk on stoops was that contractors weren’t working because of pay disputes with Entergy. Some residents said they’d spotted the company’s contractors playing ball or relaxing in bars and casinos.

In an August 31 press conference, Jefferson Parish President John Young said that repair trucks were idle and boots weren’t on the ground. The storm’s eye had meandered up the West Bank on August 29. Jefferson is served by Entergy Louisiana, while Orleans has Entergy New Orleans or ENO as its utility. Both are subsidiaries of Entergy Corp., operating in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Arkansas. The New Orleans City Council regulates ENO.

By Labor Day, many Orleans and Jefferson Parish customers had their lights on again. But waits of four days to a week for power, several heat-related deaths and rumors about idle, Entergy contractors prompted the New Orleans City Council’s utility committee, headed by Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, to hold a hearing last Tuesday about the company’s performance.

In front of the Council, Entergy defended the ways it employed lineman and contractors during the storm. Gary Huntley, ENO vice president for regulatory and government affairs, said “we had 162,000 customers out in New Orleans, but we were physically unable to make repairs until Thursday. Buckets couldn’t be put in the air.” The company doesn’t deploy its bucket trucks in winds greater than 30 miles per hour.

GARY HUNTLEY

“We do a pretty good job with our staging,” Huntley said. “The perception is if a crew’s sitting in a truck they’re not working,” but wait times are necessary in the repair process, he said. For instance, Entergy had to coordinate tree cutting after Isaac with the city’s Dept. of Parks and Parkways.

Greg Rigamer, CEO of GCR & Associates and an Entergy consultant, told the City Council that sustained, local winds from Isaac were over 39 mph for 54 hours, versus a similar rate that lasted 27 hours during Hurricane Gustav and 21 hours in Katrina. The day after Isaac’s eye passed through gusts remained strong in town.

Early on August 30, a Thursday, Entergy was able to make a few repairs without buckets, and work accelerated Friday. Melonie Hall, ENO director of customer service, explained “why power restoration felt so long.” She noted that “during Gustav, most citizens evacuated and didn’t come back for awhile,” and when they returned, power was on for the most part. Gustav was a Category 1 hurricane when it entered south Louisiana in late August 2008.

Hall said service was restored steadily early this month, and 95 percent of Orleans Parish customers had their lights by Labor Day. And by last Wednesday, all city customers who could receive power, without the need for an electrician’s visit, had it, according to ENO.

But after Isaac-related criticism from many quarters, Entergy announced last Wednesday that Bill Mohl, president and CEO of Entergy Louisiana and Entergy Gulf States, had been reassigned to the position of Wholesale Commodities president, located in the U.S Northeast. And Entergy Corp. said its chairman and CEO Wayne Leonard would retire in January.

Entergy reps told the City Council last Tuesday what had happened with its contractors. Hall said “we had multi, mutual-assistance contracts in place with other utilities and with contractors. Out-of-state workers came in three waves in late August. We had over 12,000 additional workers enter the state, and many of them passed through New Orleans on the way to other locations.” Entergy brought workers into Louisiana from 25 states but bottlenecks ensued in the process. “It was something like rush hour traffic,” Hall said of the contractor flow. “The first person puts on the brakes, and all of a sudden cars are stacked up and you have a traffic jam.”

Hall said under U.S. Dept. of Transportation safety rules, drivers with commercial licenses can be on the road for 15 hours at most and then have to rest for eight hours. “Many out-of-state workers had to be bedded down for eight hours when they got here,” she said.

“Right before the storm, we decided not to hold out-of-state workers at storm checkpoints outside New Orleans, fearing they would be cut off from the city and south Louisiana,” Hall said. “We de­cided to bring them into the city, knowing it would get congested. We had multiple staging areas across the En­tergy New Orleans territory, including New Orleans East, and we sought additional staging areas. Some of our out-of-state workers checked in here before they moved south of the city.”

Huntley said out-of-state workers who reached New Orleans, and were assigned here, were given maps of Entergy’s infrastructure. Local “runners” traveled with crews to guide them around town. They reported to local foremen.

When asked by City Council members if contract disputes delayed the company’s work strategy, Huntley said “out-of-state workers wouldn’t have come from that far away without a contract. It was all done well before they arrived.”

After the hearing, Hall said “contracts for out-of-state, restoration workers are agreed upon weeks or months before a storm actually hits.” The company doesn’t release contract details about overtime and holiday pay, she said. As for shifts, “generally speaking, out-of-state restoration crews worked 16 hours in a 24-hour period after Isaac,” she said. “The 16 hours included time spent in the field, and also time to load materials, drive to and from work locations, and time on work and safety briefings.”

As for contractors visiting barrooms while customers had no power, Hall said after the hearing “we have terms in the contract that cover fitness for duty. But I don’t believe the contract stipulates what workers can do in their off time.”

What did Mayor Mitch Landrieu think about ENO’s performance during Isaac? He said in a press conference last Wednesday that Entergy hadn’t provided timely information to residents but also said it was too soon to assess the pace of restoration. The day before that, City Council members had told ENO that more information to residents about the likely length of outages in their neighborhoods would have allowed them to decide whether to stay or head out to places with power.

How did Isaac stack up against past hurricanes? The slow-moving storm, with its rain and strong winds, damaged power grids across Louisiana, according to Entergy. Hall said “for New Orleans, Isaac was the second biggest storm in terms of customer outages after Katrina.” Statewide, 769,000 outages were caused by Isaac, versus 1.1 million by Hurricane Katrina, 964,000 by Gustav and 800,000 by Rita.

Many customers of Pineville, La.-based Cleco Corp. had their power back faster than New Orleans residents did. Isaac affected more than 95,000 Cleco customers statewide, with Lake Pont­chartrain’s North­shore the hardest hit in the company’s region. Cleco spokeswoman Robbyn Cooper said “at the height of the storm, all our customers in Washington Parish and 73 percent of our St. Tammany Parish customers were without power.” Cleco has 279,000 customers in 23 parishes across the state.

Cleco employed 2,100 contractors, along with local caterers and vendors, to help out during Isaac. The company’s contractors came from 12 states—Oklahoma, Flo­rida, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, Texas, Ten­nessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Vir­ginia and Maryland.

Cooper said, under company policy, “Cleco representatives direct contractors’ work and ensure that they arrive at the correct locations to make repairs.” She said the company tries to balance the needs of customers with crews’ requirements for rest. When asked, she said “Cleco didn’t contract for a specific number of hours per day” with its out-of-state contractors. She also said that no overtime or holiday issues arose during Isaac.

Cleco’s repair policies allowed it to restore power to “100 percent of customers who could receive it by around 7:30 Sunday night,” Coop­er said. “Flood waters prohibited us from restoring power to 64 customers” but as waters recede, they will be restored, she said.

If any unsuitable behavior arises with Cleco contractors, the company addresses it with the contractor’s management and takes corrective actions, Cooper said.

Meanwhile, if you’re an Entergy customer, you might want to monitor the company’s plans to spin off its electric transmission lines to a subsidiary of Michigan-based ITC Holdings, the nation’s biggest, independent transmission company. Last Wednesday, Entergy Louisiana and Entergy Gulf States Louisiana filed an application for a spinoff with the Louisiana Public Service Commission. Under the plan, Entergy would retain its distribution and generation activities and would continue to bill customers and repair outages at homes and businesses.

Entergy Corp., which trades on the New York Stock Exchange and pays dividends to shareholders, said in late July that its second-quarter earnings rose 16 percent. New Orleans-based political activist Elizabeth Cook said last week that a publicly-owned utility would be less focused on profits than Entergy is and more accountable to customers, while providing them with better information.

This article was originally published in the September 10, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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