Soon it will be one year since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, causing devastating flooding. While recovery continues at a frustratingly slow pace, a new hurricane season approaches. With repairs to damaged levees incomplete, many areas are left vulnerable to new flooding from future storms.
As cities and towns struggle to rebuild, those responsible find that they are hopelessly entangled in multiple Catch-22 dilemmas. Solutions to pressing issues depend on first solving other equally serious problems, and available options are often incompatible. Action taken to address one crisis complicates or prevents resolution of another, or it reveals new, unanticipated issues.
Emergency procedures adopted
From the outset, a priority for recovery has been restoration of electrical power—without electricity, a return to normal life is impossible.
Yet months after the storms, thousands of homes and businesses remain without power, even though rebuilding and repairs of infrastructure makes electrical service available in most areas. Emergency steps—allowing electricians, rather than city or parish inspectors, to certify that electrical systems are safe to accommodate power—were taken to expedite the process. This measure may have resulted in service being restored to buildings that contain flood-damaged wiring and equipment, posing serious safety risks.
While the practice of allowing electrical workers to make inspections apparently has been discontinued along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the city of New Orleans is operating under an emergency ordinance that allows residential property owners to waive city inspections and have electrical inspections conducted by licensed electricians. Once the homeowner and electrician complete necessary paperwork, the electrical service provider, Entergy New Orleans, is authorized to restore service. There are several concerns:
Unaware of dangers?
The mainstream media and business press have not covered these issues, and it is likely most owners of property containing damaged electrical components are unaware of the potential dangers if power is activated.
Floodwater can compromise the integrity of electrical components: insulation can be destroyed, metals can rust, trip units in molded-case circuit breakers can be impaired, and filler material in fuses can degrade their interruption capabilities. In addition, motors, power equipment, transformers, wire, cable, ground-fault circuit interrupters, surge protectors, lighting fixtures and electronic devices can be affected. These components must be replaced.
Are there hundreds or thousands of structures in storm-affected- areas that will suddenly go up in flames when water-damaged -wiring shorts out and faulty breakers fail to shut off power?
“When electrical wiring and equipment have been submerged under water, they need to be replaced,” said Brooke Stauffer, executive director for standards and safety at the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). “It is not safe to try and put these items back into service, because it is impossible to know what kind of long-term hidden problems may occur.”
A number of sections of NECA National Electrical Installation Standards say that electrical equipment and inside wiring that have been submerged in water—especially dirty water—should be replaced, Stauffer said.
The National Electrical Code (NEC) states that equipment cannot be exposed to agents, including fumes, vapors and liquids that can have a deteriorating effect on the equipment. Apparently, however, many property owners think that if wiring and electrical components were dried out and cleaned up, service could be safely reconnected.
And, it appears that many property owners and workers they hired did, in fact, clean debris from components and flush them with water—a step that can cause further damage and create a false sense of security.
Once clean and dry, this electrical equipment showed no evidence of being exposed to flood water, and a cursory inspection by inexperienced or disinterested personnel would not identify the equipment as needing replacement.
Soon after recovery began, David, a volunteer, was working along the Gulf Coast with a group from his Atlanta church.
“We were doing what they called ‘mud out’—clean up work so repairs could begin,” he said. “I was tearing out Sheetrock and insulation and removing electrical outlets and switches for replacement. When I cut the cable, water began dripping out of it. That didn’t seem to concern anyone, but I cut the cable as high up as possible in hopes I was removing cable high enough that new cable would replace what had [been] wet. I know I wouldn’t want that cable in my house, but I’m afraid a lot of those homes probably left wet cable in place.”
Put yourself in the position of a homeowner, suggested an industry representative who has been working in affected areas since immediately after the storms struck.
“You’ve finally got everything cleaned up and repaired and are preparing to move home,” he said. “The last thing you want to hear is that you have to have the place rewired. Thousands of dollars, and you’re still having trouble collecting insurance claims for other work. The breaker boxes look okay. If you can find someone who says it’s probably all right to hook up, great. You just want to come home.”
The issue is safety
Safety is the reason for electrical inspections. The long-established and accepted practice is for inspections to be conducted by qualified professionals representing the jurisdiction in which properties are located.
However, confronted with the aftereffects of an overwhelming disaster with no precedent providing guidance for what to do, some cities found amending standard inspection procedures to be a practical option that would help expedite recovery.
Is such action justified? While recognizing that Katrina and Rita caused many problems on a massive scale, no industry organization endorses compromising the inspection process.
In fact, Jefferson Parish, adjacent to New Orleans, never waived inspections by parish personnel and, along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, electrical inspectors in Gulfport, Biloxi and Bay St. Louis said that all electrical inspections are currently being made by city inspectors (see sidebar, page 44).
New Orleans, however, is a different story.
Earlier this year, the Associated Press filed a report that frustrated property owners, tired of waiting for power to be reconnected, were playing electrician by connecting their property to live power. The article quoted the residents about how they accomplished the do-it-yourself hookups. While the article did recognize the danger of taking such action, it did not mention the risks of reconnecting a home that contained damaged electrical components.
New Orleans emergency ordinance
In late January, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin signed the emergency ordinance approved by the city council. The ordinance -allows owners of residential properties with no more than four family units to waive electrical inspections by the city and -authorize a licensed electrician to certify that work performed is complete and the property is ready for power to be restored. The affidavit completed and signed by the homeowner agrees to release the city and Entergy New Orleans from any liability for defects or damages from the electrical work or the property owner’s decision to use the emergency procedure.
The electrician is required to complete a short Electrical Inspection Certification form, which states that he is a licensed electrical contractor or electrician who meets all required qualifications of the Electrical Inspection Division of the city’s Department of Safety and Permits. It also states that the electrical work completed meets or exceeds all specifications of Chapter 27 of the 2000 International Building Code (IBC). Upon completion of work and submission of the certification form, the city authorizes Entergy to connect the service.
The emergency ordinance does not cover commercial or industrial structures or the thousands of trailers brought into the area to house homeless residents who want to return to the city. Unless extended or rescinded, the ordinance remains in effect until July 31, 2006.
Industry concern voiced
The electrical industry’s reaction to the ordinance is not positive.
“It is ironic that a basic safeguard designed to protect people from deadly electrical hazards would be waived in a city so recently devastated by disaster,” said Brett Brenner, president of the Electrical Safety Foundation International. “Trained electrical inspectors perform an invaluable public service on behalf of public safety. Public safety should not be compromised.”
Alvin B. Scolnik, vice president of technical services for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), said his organization recognizes the unfortunate and unique situation last year’s storms have caused for residents of New Orleans.
“NEMA also believes that proper electrical inspections should be conducted by technically competent,- recognized authorities having jurisdiction,” Scolnik- said. “While an expedient approach, allowing ‘self- inspections’ by installers removes a critical element of the electrical safety system that electrical manufacturers and NEMA would not like to see happen. Relying on harried homeowners to make an uninformed decision to eliminate experienced and technically competent inspectors from the process of inspection and verification, while well intentioned, could lead to an unanticipated fire/shock hazard later on.”
According to Scolnik, NEMA recognizes the difficulties being faced by New Orleans officials in getting the city up and running again.
“NEMA and its electrical manufacturer members certainly are willing to work with local officials in the disaster areas to provide information and assistance that would help to speed up the inspection process without risking personal safety and property damage down the road,” he said.
Larry Chan, New Orleans chief electrical inspector, is aware of the criticisms of the emergency inspection procedure. Chan is in an extremely difficult spot: he is not responsible for the emergency ordinance because the city council adopted it.
But Chan, with a diminished staff, is charged with implementation of what many believe is a badly flawed emergency residential inspection procedure and is responsible for implementing it, in addition to the inspections for apartments and commercial and industrial buildings. As of May 1, the number of city inspectors had dropped to three—Chan being one of them. Lack of funds prevents hiring additional inspectors. Chan’s job may not be the most frustrating one in a town, but surely it is near the top of the list.
“About half the residential inspections now are being made by contractors through the affidavit and certification program,” Chan said. “Many appear not to be making proper inspections—just signing off—and we are beginning to monitor that now, trying to do quality control.”
Many electricians and contractors working in New Orleans are from other parts of the country, and Chan said a performance bond could be helpful if problems with work inspected develop later. However, the ordinance does not require such a bond.
Chan said that some relief in the inspection workload is coming from a city contract providing third-party inspectors.
“Most of them are former city inspectors. They are working under my control and beginning to have some impact,” Chan said.
Volunteer inspectors from other cities have helped to an extent, but finding living quarters continues to limit the number of volunteers who can work, practically, in the city.
Even if money was available to hire additional inspectors, the city’s low pay scale for the job makes it difficult to hire qualified people. The temporary inspectors are able to make much more money in that capacity than working as a city inspector. The city is searching for solutions for these problems, he added.
Chan is very aware of the damage floodwater does to electrical components, and said water that flooded portions of New Orleans was especially damaging.
The dark, brackish floodwater that poured into many New Orleans buildings was highly corrosive, and tests of cable and equipment removed after water levels subsided showed even after they were cleaned for examination, corrosion continued to occur. Chan said the city requires replacement of all electrical components that were submerged.
Jim Pauley, P.E., vice president, industry and government relations at Schneider Electric, manufacturer of Square D electrical distribution and control products, recalled seeing equipment removed from damaged buildings for examination.
“From the outside, they didn’t show the effects of exposure to water,” he said. “But some of the breakers that were taken apart had significant corrosion inside, along with debris and residue from the floodwaters.”
The manufacturing industry has worked hard to provide to help get storm areas reconnected and intensive efforts have been made to educate city officials, electrical workers and the public about the dangers inherent in not replacing damaged electrical components.
Electrical inspectors, power utility company personnel, electrical contractors and electricians throughout affected areas understand the importance of replacing water-damaged components, but most government officials and property owners do not fully understand the ramifications of reconnecting power to structures with damaged electrical systems
Progress along the Mississippi Gulf is slow, but steady. In Jefferson Parish, for example, most residents are back.
In New Orleans, the Central Business District (CBD) and French Quarter outwardly are looking like they did before the storms. But the city is a shadow of itself, and not far away, the damage stands in stark contrast.
A study conducted by the city cited a citywide 2000 census populate of 484,674 with current (end of January 2006) residents estimated at 181,400 living in residential structures. In mid-April, Entergy New Orleans served about 70,000 electricity customers, compared to 190,000 before the storm.
Will three electrical inspectors and a collection of contract workers be able to get to businesses and residences still without power in a timely manner?
Some close to the situation believe that to expedite the recovery, the city must take over the electrical inspection process—hiring enough trained personnel to do the job—and revoke the emergency ordinance even before it expires in July, both recommendations obviously easier to suggest than to do.
Should structures certified under the city’s emergency ordinance be reinspected? And should properties that were allowed to be reconnected by electricians in other areas also be reinspected? Clearly these suggestions are easier to offer than they are to implement.
GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or firstname.lastname@example.org.