09/11/2012 03:45 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

Entergy Blames Slow-Moving Isaac for Its Contractor Glitches

As August ended, New Orleans residents -- many of whom had been without power for three or four days because of Hurricane Isaac -- saw Entergy contractors sitting in trucks in parking lots and on streets across town. 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 Aug. 31 press conference, John Young, president of neighboring Jefferson Parish, said that repair trucks were idle and boots weren't on the ground. The storm's eye had meandered up Jefferson's West Bank on Aug. 29. Jefferson is served by Entergy Louisiana, while Orleans Parish 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 on 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.

"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 New Orleans-based GCR & Associates -- an Entergy consultant, told 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. A day after Isaac's eye passed by west of the city, gusts remained strong in town.

By Aug. 30, 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 on by Labor Day. 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 after 13 years in that position.

Entergy reps told 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 government 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.

"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 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 New Orleans 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. In the City Council's meeting the day before, council members told ENO that more information to residents about the likely length of outages would have helped them decide whether to stay or go.

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 residents in New Orleans did. Isaac affected over 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 twelve states -- Oklahoma, Florida, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland.

Cooper said Cleco 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" on Sept. 2, Cooper said. "Flood waters prohibited us from restoring power to 64 customers" but as waters recede, they will be serviced, she said.

If unsuitable behavior occurs with any Cleco contractors, the company addresses it with the contractor's management and takes corrective actions, Cooper also 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 to that effect 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 published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Sept. 10, 2012 edition.