Katrina: Five Years Later

Five years after Hurricane Katrina hit, many places along the U.S. Gulf Coast and in the New Orleans metropolitan area continue frustratingly slow efforts to recover from America’s most costly national disaster, while facing the threat of widespread destruction of the environment and economy from the worst oil spill disaster in the country’s history.

Clearly, the April 20 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill has diverted attention from continuing Katrina recovery efforts, but it is important to assess progress in recovery from Katrina.

In the May 2006 issue, ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR took an in-depth look at damage caused by Katrina and the subsequent flooding to power infrastructure, home wiring and other structures as recovery got underway.

Power service providers reacted quickly to the task of repairing damaged infrastructure so repaired structures could be reconnected to power. However, the May 2006 article reported serious safety issues, including widespread misunderstanding about the need to replace electrical apparatuses that had been underwater or exposed to floodwaters, in addition, some government-approved practices allowed homeowners to waive electrical inspections in order to hasten the recovery process.

From the outset of the recovery period, homeowners were victimized by unethical contractors, electrical and others, many of them from other states who flocked to the region. FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, other federal agencies and local and state officials—especially the administration of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin—were widely criticized for everything from ineptitude to corruption, resulting in delayed recovery efforts.

Five years later, what is the status of post-Katrina recovery as related to the power infrastructure and timely connection of renovated and new buildings?

Power providers, assisted by contractors and utility crews from all parts of the country, moved quickly to repair damaged infrastructure and restore power.

Entergy Corp. companies, providing power in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, suffered damage from Katrina and Rita to 28,900 distribution poles, 522 transmission lines and 706 substations. The storm made landfall in the area on Aug. 29, 2005, and all customers had access to power by Oct. 15, said Philip Allison, Entergy spokesperson.

In 2008, Entergy Gulf States Louisiana received $278.4 million in bond proceeds for storm restoration costs, including $87 million to fund a reserve to help pay for future storm damage. Entergy Louisiana received $687.7 million to cover storm restoration costs, including $152 million for its storm reserve. The bonds were issued by the Louisiana Utilities Restoration Corp. and the Louisiana Public Financing Authority.

Entergy’s Allison said general overhead lines were replaced with new overhead lines. The utility hardened the system during restoration by using newer, more rugged equipment and, when feasible, replacing older wooden transmission structures with concrete or steel structures.
The entire Entergy New Orleans grid was damaged.

“Entergy was working to restore service before floodwaters receded,” said Morgan Stewart, a spokesperson for Entergy. “Entergy crews were joined by personnel from more than 200 companies from around the country making repairs to our system and surrounding areas. By the end of the year, power was fully restored to any customer that could safely take it, even in areas that were uninhabited by year’s end. However, keep in mind that the most heavily damaged areas were not habitable because of the damages to homes and other infrastructure.”

During restoration, Stewart said substation equipment was raised in flood zones.

In some cases, when replacing poles, stronger Class 3 poles were installed. Steel poles were installed along excavation routes.

“Hardening often means underground equipment in more areas,” Stewart said, “but this was deemed prohibitively expensive for ratepayers to bear.”

Stewart added that a $200 million community development block grant enabled Entergy New Orleans to restore service without raising customer rates to pay for storm damage.

At present, New Orleans’ population is below its pre-Katrina number. The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center released a study earlier this year that estimated the city’s population had reached about 80 percent of its pre-Katrina number, based on the number of households receiving mail early in August 2005 compared to the number of households receiving mail at the time of the study.

With a system designed to serve more customers than the current population, meeting power demands is not an issue for Entergy New Orleans, Stewart said.

“Our system was designed for a customer base of 192,000 electric customers,” he said. “However, the rate of the customer-base regrowth was not predicted by any of the models studying that issue, and so it’s placed Entergy New Orleans in a position where we are lowering electric rates for the second year in a row. Two years ago, we initiated a credit giving our customers a rebate of 6 percent on their bills. Last year, we made that rebate permanent, ultimately lowering electric rates by $35 million. We are also preparing to file another rate decrease.”

While access to power is not an issue delaying recovery efforts, progress remains amazingly slow. Progress varies widely from area to area. One electrical industry representative who has worked the Gulf area since long before Katrina, rates Biloxi, Miss., as making the most progress, with trouble-plagued New Orleans the worst.

Repair and renovation of homes in New Orleans damaged by the flooding that followed Katrina continue today, said Larry Chan, a building official in the Office of Safety and Codes, the city agency that issues permits for electrical construction and inspects completed work. Many renovated structures require extensive electrical work.

Chan describes the current pace of construction in the city as “slow.”

“In part,” he said, “it is due to the nationwide recession, and local conditions also are factors. There have been issues with Chinese drywall. Some people simply never returned to the city. Now, the whole area is being affected by the oil spill.”

Chan was New Orleans’ chief electrical inspector when Katrina struck and remained in that position as recovery got underway and during the period when residents were allowed to waive city electrical inspections.

Under the provisions of the controversial emergency ordinance, a property owner could file an affidavit with the city to have electrical work inspected by a licensed electrician, rather than a city inspector. The inspecting electrician then filed an affidavit with the city certifying the property was safe to be reconnected to power, and the electrical company was authorized to restore service.

The stated purpose of the ordinance was to expedite recovery efforts, but it was roundly criticized for safety reasons. In spite of widespread opposition, the city council extended the ordinance for a second six-month period.

“The ordinance expired at the end of 2006,” Chan said. “Today, city inspectors make inspections of electrical work. The city has enough trained electrical inspectors to meet current demands.”

Most electrical work now is being done by local contracting companies; out-of-town electricians, often blamed for many of the problems in the months that followed the storms, are gone.

Are there any aftereffects from the emergency ordinance when electricians were permitted to inspect their own work?

“We do get complaints from tenants and homeowners resulting from those affidavits,” Chan said. “We have made a lot of reinspections and find electrical apparatus corroded and other problems. Many times rewiring and replacing components is necessary.”
In his new position, Chan continues to be actively involved in the supervision of electrical inspections.

Nothing But Trouble

Olga Richard was one of thousands of New Orleans residents displaced by flooding following Hurricane Katrina. Richard relocated to Houston for five months after 5 feet of water flooded her home. After the floodwaters subsided, the renovation, including rewiring, proceeded smoothly, and Richard and her family were able to return in 2006.

In 2009, Richard purchased a flood-damaged house to use as a rental and proceeded to complete the renovation, including rewiring, begun by the previous owner.

“The house was not as badly damaged as ours,” Richard said. “It only had about 3 feet of water, and some of the reconstruction had already been completed. I decided to convert the house to total electric, which required additional wiring.”
Richard proceeded carefully. She got three bids from local electricians, and selected one. Soon after, a nightmare began that has not ended.

“We purchased the house in October 2009, and electrical work wasn’t ‘finished’ until April 2010,” Richard said.

The first sign of trouble was the electrical contracting company’s failure to maintain promised work schedules.

“Someone would come, do a little work and then wouldn’t come back for days,” she said. “We complained, but it did no good. Every time they were scheduled to work on the house, there was a problem. If they were supposed to be there at 9, they wouldn’t show up until noon. Besides the delays, it was very inconvenient and costly for me; I would take off work to be there, and no one would show up.”

This continued over several months. In addition, Richard discovered a helper sent to the job was not a licensed electrician.

“I asked him, and he admitted it,” she said.

Richard was told that in order to connect the house to electrical service, a 24-inch-deep trench would have to be dug to the house, and it was the owner’s responsibility to do that.

“It was a short distance from the sidewalk to the house, and my husband decided to dig it,” Richard said. “He found a gas line in the path, but fortunately did not damage it.

The digging was very hard, and he couldn’t make the trench 24 inches deep in some places. So he stopped, and we covered it with boards to keep anyone from stepping into it,” Richard said.

As delays and excuses continued, Richard had several heated arguments with the owner of the electrical contracting company.

“I considered firing him and taking legal action,” she said. “But after talking with a lawyer, he said there were many cases like this in courts already and finding another electrician to correct his mistakes and complete the job would be difficult and expensive, and the lawyer advised that I try to work things out and get the job done.”

The work continued with more delays and excuses.

Finally, the electrician said the house was ready to be connected to the electrical system. A city inspector approved the work, Richard said, but did not look at the service line excavation to confirm that it was the required 24 inches deep.

Then, when Entergy arrived to connect the house, it refused to do so because, Richard said, the box on the outside of the house was improperly installed and did not meet the National Electrical Code.

After that was corrected and power restored, Richard said numerous problems remained.

“When some lights were [turned] on,” she explained, “they would flash continually. Two switches operated one light; the bathroom light and vent fixtures were improperly wired. A light fixture was installed in a bedroom closet, which had no wall switch to cut it on or off. They said the light fixture in the closet was a freebie, and the wall switch would

cost extra! Does that make sense? We attached a pull chain, and that’s how it is now.”

Richard said that even though some of the controls for fixtures don’t work properly, she believes the wiring itself is safe. The property has been rented, and she says she and the tenants will have to live with the problems until she has the time, energy and money to correct them. 

“As a result of the experience,” Richard said, “my husband has no interest in acquiring more property to renovate.”—J.G.

Doing things right
Jefferson Parish, which begins at Lake Pontchartrain and extends 60 miles to beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, was not hit as hard as neighboring Orleans Parish and New Orleans. However, both East and West Bank communities in the parish suffered heavy wind damage and some flooding; the flooding was most severe on the West Bank.

Recovery has progressed at a faster pace than other affected areas; more than 90 percent of its pre-Katrina population of 440,400 is reported back in the parish.

From the beginning of recovery efforts, Jefferson Parish maintained strict code enforcement and inspections of electrical work were made by parish inspectors.

“We never deviated from the rules,” said Warren Probst, chief electrical inspector. “Inspections were 100 percent by the rules, 100 percent for safety. Once power was restored by the utility, we were ready to get our customers connected.”

Probst said the 2005 emergency provided a wake-up call.

As Katrina recovery efforts continued, Hurricane Gustav knocked out a power transmission line serving the parish.

“All transmission lines came in the same way,” Probst said, “and we recognize the importance of alternate routes. New codes require houses in areas prone to flooding to be elevated. New fields of construction have developed to raise the heights of structures and install field generators. Losing electrical power makes people aware we can’t live without electricity, and there has been a massive move to install natural gas backup generators.”

And now the southern end of the parish is threatened by massive amounts of oil polluting Gulf waters. The oil is threatening parish wetlands and shorelines.

“The area continues rebuilding while facing new threats,” Probst said. “We have to be prepared for whatever happens. We don’t know the full extent of damage the oil spill will bring, but it will take years to get back to normal.”

On the day marking five years since Katrina, thousands of displaced residents of Mississippi and Louisiana are still living in trailers. Because of the oil spill, many planned commemorative events were cancelled; those held were subdued. Tourism along the coast had come back to life, but the oil spill left hotel vacancies over the July 4 holiday and rest of the summer, affecting restaurants and literally all business along the coast.

Even so, the always-optimistic New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau proclaimed tourism in the city remained “vibrant” despite the oil spill. On the day that claim was posted on the bureau’s website, oil reached Lake Pontchartrain.

One positive sign for New Orleans’ recovery came in early June when new Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed an executive order for sweeping reforms of city contracting procedures to address corruption, patronage and overspending issues.

As oil has polluted Gulf waters at an alarming rate and reached land on the coast from Texas to Florida, it seems clear the new crisis will impede Katrina recovery.

Have the safety concerns raised in 2006 by ELECTRICAL ­CONTRACTOR and others impacted recovery?

No doubt they have, but to what extent is impossible to document. Water-damaged components were left in place during building renovations; many affidavits that electrical repairs were safe to reconnect power provided in lieu of city inspections were false. It is difficult to find anyone willing to document specific instances of such problems. Contractors invited to comment on these and other aspects of recovery declined to do so.

However, it is clear that the attention the magazine’s article and the efforts of the National Electrical Contractors Association; the National Electrical Manufacturers Association; industry suppliers, such as Schneider Electric; and local media increased awareness of the risks of not replacing water-­damaged components and of comprising electrical inspections.

The constants of Katrina and its aftermath and the current oil spill crisis are the strength, endurance and determination of people living along the Gulf Coast, New Orleans and the adjacent parishes, who vow to rebuild safely.

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at up-front@cox.net.

About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer
Jeff Griffin, Oklahoma City, is a construction journalist specializing in the electrical, telecommunications and underground utility construction industries. Contact him at up-front@cox.net .

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