Up Front and Honest: A Conversation with Charles Rice About Isaac

Up Front and Honest: A Conversation with Charles Rice About Isaac

Hurricane season officially ended last week, but the country did not go unscathed with the devastating damage done by Isaac and Sandy, affecting millions of people and causing billions of dollars worth of damage. It’s pretty clear that climate change is impacting our coastal cities on a monumental level and all we can do is learn from the situation. We need to be proactive and address the environment as the powerful element it is and turn it into an ally instead of a nemesis.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, people look to point the finger at someone or some agency for their woes as a result of catastrophic weather when, in all honesty, the majority of those waving their fingers have no idea about the massive maneuvers that need to be executed in order to recover from it; all they see is what they think could have been done better and faster. Well, we can all play Monday-morning quarterback and say “it’s their job” but I’d like to see those individuals perform their job outdoors at 100% in high winds and torrential rains and in an aftermath of fallen trees and live electrical wires. Not so easy, is it?

Charles Rice in the field during Isaac
Charles Rice in the field during Isaac

Nevertheless, there has got to be a fall guy and with Isaac, it was Charles Rice and Entergy. Not only did he and his company come under fire from the local media and residents, but also city council. I spoke with him recently to get his personal view on his company’s response to Isaac…there was no finger-pointing but just an honest dialogue.

I first asked about Entergy’s preparations for Isaac and if they differed from previous storms. “I guess I have to start out by saying that every storm is different and we can’t get lulled into a false sense of security because it was a Category 1 storm. But that doesn’t change our preparations,” said Rice. “We estimated what assistance we would need from our mutual assistance partners; we were actually requesting additional assets before the storm ever hit Louisiana.”

Rice went on to describe the difference between Isaac and previous storms. Not only did the storm hover over the city, but residents stayed put. “What really made this storm different from Katrina and Gustav is that during those storms, people evacuated. During this storm, the majority of the people decided to, as the mayor says, shelter in place. So, in a typical situation where people have evacuated, they would come back the day after, a good number would already have service restored, and a good number would get service restored the next day,” explained Rice.

As far as the time frame, he outlined it for us down to the day. “Well, in this particular case, customers lost power Tuesday…so in their minds, the clock probably started ticking Tuesday. But in reality, we couldn’t start working until Thursday when the winds died down below 30 mph. So we began work doing our damage assessments Thursday. It takes about two days to do damage assessments, and we were still working, and we had power restored to 90% of customers within three to four days."

Coordinating outside assistance from 24 states is no easy task, according to Rice. “In total, it was about 12,000 people that came into Louisiana from other parts of the country to assist us in these efforts,” said Rice. When the extra help arrives, there’s a whole process that has to happen prior to these crews getting out into the field. “We actually check them in, verify they are who they say they are, verify their equipment and then we dispatch them to different areas of the state.”

Acclimation to the local area also takes time and preparation. “These are individuals who are not from here and not everyone’s system is the same. So we have to orient them to our system, give them a safety briefing, and then our guys take them out to the different work sites,” explained Rice. As a former army officer, he likens organizing these outside sources to a military operation. “You mass the troops, develop a battle plan, and go out and attack.”

Repairing electrical lines after a hurricane is not for the faint of heart
Repairing electrical lines after a hurricane is not for the faint of heart

We also discussed the possibility of power lines being run underground instead of above and if that would have made a difference in the outages experienced during Isaac. The cost to do so is huge and in the long run, may not even make a difference in power remaining on during a storm or the time to restore it if it goes off. There would also have to be some extensive protection around the lines due to the water table levels in the city. “It’s very, very expensive. There was a certain study done one time that showed that the cost to place all the lines in this area underground would probably cost about 1.5 billion dollars and the customers would have to pay that cost,” said Rice. “Right now, in this area, our rates are 20% below the national average. If we were to underground the service, I can assure you, it’d be a significant impact on the average customer’s bill, possibly doubling or tripling the cost of electricity.”

When asked if power could have been restored any faster, Rice cited that Entergy received the Edison Electric Institute’s Emergency Response Award for 14 years. “We’re the only utility that can claim that distinction. Our linemen, when it comes to restoration, are probably the best in the business,” said Rice. “Are there things we could have done better? Oh, definitely.”

Rice went on to discuss the consequences of storms across the country and the national averages for restoration of power. “I believe the average restoration is 70% of outages restored in seven days, and we are 90% in four days. So I would say that execution—although people may disagree with us—was very good. I don’t know that we could have gotten it restored any faster than we did. And there are always these pockets of outages that take longer than others.” This is not hard to believe since during the aftermath of Sandy, some residents in the New York and New Jersey area went over two weeks without electricity. With that said, the time frame for power restoration after Isaac in New Orleans suddenly looks like a walk in the park.

Underground wiring is expensive and does not guarantee power won't be loss during a storm
Underground wiring is expensive and does not guarantee power won't be loss during a storm

But still, the negative media coverage didn’t go unnoticed at Entergy. “I wouldn’t say we were treated unfairly. I think there was a lot of frustration in the community and we bore the brunt of that. Nobody wants to be without power for an extended period of time,” said Rice. Even being under the microscope did not deter his staff from doing their jobs. “For our linemen, I would be lying if I said those guys didn’t read a lot of the comments and they were not affected by it. But they love what they do; they enjoy turning the lights on. Not a single comment from anybody on television, the radio, or in the newspaper affected how they performed their job,” confirmed Rice. “To me, that is a testament for the men and women who work for Entergy who are out there on the front lines and who are actually putting their lives in danger to restore service to our customers as quickly as possible.”

As far as being put on the spot by city council, Rice is very open to their review. “Let me say this: they are our regulator. They are allowed to review our response to the storm and it’s appropriate for them to do that. We’re very transparent and we will produce any information that they request from us; it’s our obligation to do so,” commented Rice who also cited Facebook and Twitter among others as an integral part to documenting Entergy’s response, good or bad. “This was the first storm that we experienced where social media was a major player and that changes the entire dynamic. If there are 1.2 million people in the metro area and 800,000 of them have smartphones, you now have 800,000 reporters who can record everything that’s going on. And they can drive by a staging area and see trucks sitting there and take a picture and tweet it out.”

When I asked Charles about dealing with the 2013 storm season, he had a definite plan in mind. He immediately talked about raising the bar in communication with customers, especially after a storm hits land. “We need to communicate with our customers a lot better…telling them the process for restoring power as well as why we do a lot of the things we do,” explained Rice who is also very aware of that the most important job right now is restoring consumer confidence. “We are doing and have done a very thorough analysis of our response to this storm and realized, as with every storm, that there are things that we can do better,” stated Rice. “I can assure each and every customer that I, along with all of my colleagues, everyone in the Entergy organization, that we heard you, and we take our obligation to serve very seriously, and I can assure you that we’re going to do better the next time.”

At the moment, can we ask for anything more? I don’t think so and I truly believe Mr. Rice is a man of his word. Nevertheless, the expectations have been set and the pledge will be tested starting next June.