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Some Southeast Louisianans Could Be Without Power For Up To 10 Days After Hurricane Zeta

A downed tree blocks the street and a power line pole leans over Franklin Avenue in the Marigny after Hurricane Zeta. Oct. 29, 2020.
A downed tree blocks the street and a power line pole leans over Franklin Avenue in the Marigny after Hurricane Zeta. Oct. 29, 2020.

Hundreds of thousands are without power Thursday after Hurricane Zeta tore through Southeast Louisiana, and some may have to wait 10 days to get it back.

New Orleans Public Radio's Karl Lengel spoke to Entergy spokesperson Lee Sabatini about how the process of getting power restored after a hurricane and why it can take so long.

If you do encounter damage like downed power lines or transformers, report it to Entergy at 1-800-9-OUTAGE.

Karl Lengel: At this moment (11:30 a.m.) how many Entergy customers are without power?

Lee Sabatini: As of right now we have about 399,000 customers without power.

Compared to past hurricanes, is that consistent?

It is a large number. The good thing is we were prepared, based on the forecast of Zeta, for a significant amount of outages — and that’s certainly what we got. The largest concentration of customers are in Jefferson Parish. We still have about 170,000 customers out. In the New Orleans area, we have 125,000 customers. And then we have pockets of other customers, like in Terrebonne Parish, St. Charles and St. Bernard that are still in the 17,000 range.

What’s the best guess at how long the power will be out?

So when we look at our historical data when it comes to hurricanes of this size and this forecast, which is how we compare our estimates for power restoration, while every storm is different we can say that the duration of these outages for a Category 2 hurricane can be up to 10 days.

But let me put that in perspective. Those would be the customers that are the worst-hit customers. The customers that were directly in the line of the impact of Hurricane Zeta. Our goal is to restore as many customers as we can much quicker than that, but if we encounter accessibility issues or extensive damage being able to deliver power back to a customer’s home, that could take us significantly more time.

Ninety percent of customers will be restored quicker than that.

That last 10 percent is what you were just detailing — how complicated it is getting to that specific location?

There could be some isolated areas, there could be some homes where the home itself received extensive damage and we cannot turn power back on for those customers until it’s safe for them to receive the electricity. So there’s a couple variables there about why we have that small percentage of customers that could stay out for that duration of time.

Of course, we’re also talking about businesses and institutions. It depends on the damage that that particular unit received as far as how fast you can get things back up.

We do follow a process when it comes to power restoration. The goal is to restore power to our critical services first. Hospitals and fire and police stations. Anything that helps the community get a semblance of normalcy back, and for safety purposes as well.

And those are the items that support the search and recovery and getting back up on our feet.

Exactly. Those are the critical services that are restored first, and then we work to restore the largest concentration of customers in one time. Let’s say we fix a transformer in an area and that transformer could restore power to 10,000 people in a number of locations. So our work will focus on how we can get the most customers on at one time. That's the work that we do next.

On why power might come back for some, only to go away again:

While that situation is unique, it does occur, and it might be for safety reasons. We could have restored a line or repaired a pole to be able to get the customers back on as quickly as we can, but down the line maybe a mile away, in order to add that next group of customers, we had to take that first group of customers offline for a short period of time so we don’t overload the circuits and cause a larger outage. That does happen from time to time.

On preparation ahead of a storm:

We plan for these storms days in advance. That means going through historical records to be able to plan for resources and be able to have equipment staged and be able to plan for ensuring there are enough poles and transformers and such available. It gives us time to make sure we have everything mobilized. And then we work on our people resources.

How many people are working to get power restored, and when did they start working?

We have a storm crew of 5,000 people. Those crew members were mobilized where the path of the storm was predicted to hit — out of harm’s way, of course — so they could get right on the ground and begin to restore power.

Our power restoration actually began last night. There was some power that we could restore through something called field switching, which is basically just moving people to another power source in order to restore power quickly. So we were able to actually restore power to some customers last night.

Today is when we have our crews out in force, doing damage assessments and restoring power simultaneously. Once we have a better idea of what damages we see we actually have the ability to call utility companies from around the nation to come and help us if we need them.

What are you hearing from the ground so far — the early assessments? What kinds of repairs need to be made?

We are seeing a tremendous amount of trees down. With trees down they bring down power lines, they bring down power poles, they bring down transformers. But when we have a high wind event like this, the expectation and planning is for trees and branches to bring down power lines and power poles. And that’s what we’re encountering.

We’re also seeing entire uprooted trees. So there’s cleanup work to be done, too. If a tree falls down and brings down a power line, that tree has to be removed from that power line in order for us to complete the restoration.

I’m sure a lot of people want to get out and help you now. Is that the best thing? That everybody hop in their car and run to the nearest site that they can pitch in and help or are there some safety issues involved?

This is the most dangerous part of a storm. Because the weather is nice and curiosity says, Llet’s get outside and see the damage.’ But just because a line is down on the ground, or hanging, you cannot assume that it is de-energized. You should always assume that the power line is live. That’s an incredibly dangerous piece of equipment.

A transformer in the middle of the street should be considered a live piece of electrical equipment and you should please not touch it and stay away. 

Copyright 2020 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio