During hurricane season, it is difficult to overemphasize the importance of the city’s power provider, Entergy New Orleans, and the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, which is responsible for drinking water, wastewater treatment and much of the city’s drainage.
The performance of the two utilities during the next five months could determine whether New Orleans experiences some of the deadliest consequences of hurricanes: extended power outages, flooding and lack of clean drinking water.
Both agencies have been harshly criticized in recent years for failing to keep the city running during emergencies, despite sharply rising bills. In 2021, Hurricane Ida knocked down all eight transmission lines that bring power into New Orleans, causing a city-wide power outage that took 10 days to significantly fix.
Both public advocates and the utilities themselves have argued that the city needs a long-term, sustainable solution to the rising challenges of climate change. But many of those long-term solutions won’t be ready for this hurricane season.
A new electric substation at the Sewerage & Water Board’s Carrollton Plant to run the city’s drainage pumps, for example, won’t be ready until next year at the earliest. Entergy New Orleans also recently submitted a plan to harden the grid against hurricanes, but the high cost to customers makes its passage far from guaranteed, and it will take years to finish if it is approved by the City Council.
For now, the plan is to shore up the often aging and outdated equipment of the two utilities to the greatest extent possible.
Sewerage & Water Board
Two of the key metrics for the Sewerage & Water Board is the status of the 99 pumps that drain water from the city into Lake Pontchartrain, and the generators that provide electricity to those pumps when they can’t be powered through Entergy.
The city’s drainage system has repeatedly failed to stand up even to seasonal rainstorms due to breakdowns in the utility’s power-generating equipment, canals clogged with abandoned cars and various issues plaguing a system designed more than a century ago.
At a press conference last month in advance of the hurricane season, Sewerage & Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban said that the utility’s equipment is in good shape. He said that 92 out of the city’s 99 pumps were working, and that three of those not in service would be fixed in the coming weeks. Korban said the remaining four out-of-service pumps “do not cause us any concern because we do have redundancy in the system.”
One of the utility’s major power-generating turbines — which provide an antiquated form of electricity that runs most of the pumps in the city’s oldest neighborhoods — is offline. Officials originally said it would be operational in time for the beginning of Hurricane Season 2023, but it is now estimated to return to service next month.
“We are in a very, very good place relative to powering all of our drainage pumps as well as our drinking water pumps,” Korban said.
Korban said the agency has also been clearing out drainage canals and fortifying the backup generator at the East Bank Wastewater Treatment Plant, which lost power during Hurricane Ida, forcing it to discharge sewage into the Mississippi River and Bayou Bienville.
“We’ve fortified our backup generator because it sustained damage and rendered the entire plant inoperational during Ida,” Korban said. “Hopefully we’ve reduced, if not eliminated, chances of damage to that generator.”
In the long term, Entergy is looking at a major overhaul of its grid to withstand future hurricanes. The company has applied for millions in federal aid to harden the grid. And it recently proposed a plan to spend $1.3 billion over 10 years to harden the grid against strong winds and flooding.
The plan would initially add 20 cents a month to a typical residential customer bill, but that would escalate to more than $11 by 2033. Still, Entergy has argued the cost is smaller than what the company’s customers would likely have to pay if the upgrades aren’t made, and the utility has to continue restoring inadequate equipment in the wake of storms.
That spending plan hasn’t been approved by the New Orleans City Council yet, however, and we are still years away from experiencing its benefits.
Entergy did finish a smaller reliability project recently. It replaced a segment of one of the transmission lines that brings power into New Orleans, which crumpled into a pile of scrap metal during Hurricane Ida. Entergy says that section is now capable of withstanding winds of up to 175 miles per hour. Hurricane Ida’s maximum winds at landfall were recorded around 150 miles per hour.
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