This article was published in "The Louisana Weekly" in the Oct. 11, 2010 edition.
Patches of New Orleans are dark as a country lane at nightfall because of corroded wiring from Katrina, missing power lines or voltage that's turned off during road construction. After sundown, residents -- especially the elderly -- hole up in parts of the Lower Ninth Ward, Lakeview and other communities, while drivers wish their night vision was better.
The go-to company for street-light complaints is Robinson Industries, Inc., an electrical construction firm that's repaired local lights since mid-2007, when it was the lowest bidder on a city maintenance contract. Entergy New Orleans, the former contractor, decided to give up that work in 2007.
"The city has nearly 55,000 street lights and 97.5% of them are working," said Dwight Robinson, controller of Robinson Industries. About 1,500 lights are out now. Street lamps that need a new bulb or a photo cell to flick lights on at dusk are usually fixed within a week, he said. But other fixtures can require costly repairs that take time and often need approval from the city.
"Lakeview's underground wiring is still affected by salt waters from Katrina," Robinson said. The storm left wires in that community a corroded mess. What's more, "Lakeview, New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward are greatly affected by ground subsidence, causing wiring to break," he said. Subsidence is a sinking of the land's surface. City workers and contractors use an expensive, "jack-and-bore," tunneling process to fix broken, underground wiring.
Robinson said "in the Lower Ninth Ward, the main problem is that electrical wiring hasn't been replaced where there aren't houses, so we don't have power lines to connect street lights. Numerous light fixtures and arms are still missing in that area" from Katrina's wrath. Repairs for storm-related damage to lights are not covered by the company's maintenance contract, however.
Of the 1,500 light outages, Robinson said "about 1,200 are due to budgetary and other constraints placed on us by the city." He said non-routine expenses involving voltage and wiring must be authorized by City Hall, where the Dept. of Public Works oversees street lights.
The city's recovery effort can interrupt voltage, Robinson said. Voltage is turned off to prevent injuries in areas where streets are under repair. "Road construction is underway on Paris, Mirabeau, St. Bernard, and St Charles Avenues and many other thoroughfares," he noted. "In some cases, lines were cut by mistake during road repairs, and contractors planting trees on neutral grounds cut power lines. Funding to fix those lines has been a problem." But, he said, the city's insurance should cover some of it.
Robinson said "300 lights are out for other reasons. Sometimes, wiring is okay, but we can't physically get to the lights because the streets are just dirt and sand and are inaccessible during construction." The main reason for outages, however, is that lights simply go on the blink. "Our crews patrol at night and report bad fixtures, which a day crew then replaces."
He said lights are also out when his company needs to find matching fixtures and poles, a process that can take time because old lamps are ornate.
Residents phone street-light complaints into a hotline at Robinson Industries. "While the vast majority of street lights are working, the ones that aren't can impact a number of people," Robinson said. "One street light that's out may generate calls from five persons, so if 1,500 are out, that's 7,500 phone calls." He hears a fair amount of ranting and raving from the public, he said. Robinson Industries is based in Miami but its owners are from New Orleans.
Devona Dolliole, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's communications director, said "the city's streetlight problems from corroded wiring doubled after Katrina, and after that, Hurricane Gustav set the streetlight-repair schedule back by an entire year. The city has made progress in repairs, however, and about 97% of the lights are on now, versus 90% to 95% in recent years."
Dolliole has a higher figure for disabled lights than Robinson, and said "across the city, 1,600 open orders exist for streetlights that are out. Corroded wiring and third-party damage are the major and most expensive issues. Vandalism, while it exists, is a relatively minor problem."
Mayor Landrieu will deliver a budget to the City Council on Oct. 15, with a public-works allocation for streetlights. Dolliole said "$2 million was budgeted for street lights in 2010, but the program costs $4.3 million." She didn't explain how the gap will be covered. Robinson said his company will rebid its maintenance contract with the city soon, and declined to comment on its current value.
Dolliole said "in addition to Robinson Industries and other contractors who are repairing streetlights, City Hall has one Dept. of Public Works employee devoted full time to lights."
She said "we heard a lot from the public about street lights being out in the Mayor's community meetings, held around town in August. This administration takes public safety and quality of life very seriously and they are top priorities." She pointed to a new development, saying the city plans to use grant money from the U.S. Dept of Energy and state Dept. of Natural Resources to install 1,300 LED, or light-emitting diode, street lights soon. Energy-saving, LED lights are composed of tiny, high-intensity bulbs that should help brighten the way for some local residents.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, you need a flashlight or lantern to navigate certain streets after sundown. Mack McClendon, executive director of the Lower 9th Ward Village, a non-profit group, said "we have entire blocks of street lights that remain out since Katrina. You can walk for several blocks and not see a light, especially on the north side of the Lower Ninth above North Galvez St."
McClendon continued "when places are lit up, it deters crime. Since Katrina, light outages are part of the blight problem that's been associated with crime." He said street lights are a particular worry for the neighborhood's senior population. "Before Katrina, 65% of residents were elderly here, and many of them came back and rebuilt. But they're afraid to go out in dark streets."
The Lower 9th Ward Village hears frequent complaints about streetlights at town hall meetings and when its volunteers go door to door, surveying neighborhood issues, McClendon said.
Al Petrie, spokesman for the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association, said a lot of lights have been replaced in his area recently, but added "in the more than five years since Katrina, some streets here still have no lights. Certain light fixtures in Lakeview haven't worked at all since then, despite continued complaints by residents." Petrie said digging to replace corroded wiring sometimes causes working lights to go out.
As the days get shorter, dark streets are worrisome, Petrie said. "We're concerned about safety. We still have lights out on Harrison Avenue between West End Boulevard. and Orleans. People walk over to Harrison Ave. for dinner."
The Lakeview Civic Improvement Association is waiting to see what Robinson Industries accomplishes from a to-do list of broken lights that the group submitted, before sending the company another list, Petrie said. end