Almost 600 New Orleans residents recently experienced Entergy account set-up delays — with some forced to go without power  for extended periods of time during a brutal heatwave — as the company tried to clear a backlog created by changes to its system for verifying identities for new customers seeking new services or making changes to their account, the utility told the New Orleans City Council on Thursday (June 29). 

New Orleans has already exceeded the record for the most heat warnings in a single year, according to NOLAReady, and the National Weather Service. Last year, the National Weather service issued five excessive heat warnings for the area. Friday (June 30)  marked the eighth  day  the city was placed under such a warning this year. 

Extreme temperatures that feel as high as 115 to 120 degrees are expected to continue through this weekend. This unprecedented heat wave has been cited as the cause of 13 deaths in Texas and another in Shreveport this month, as reported by the Associated Press this week. 

In the middle of the deadly heatwave, Entergy, the region’s largest energy provider, told the New Orleans City Council on Thursday that 584 New Orleans customers had been forced to wait for power at their residences while the utility dealt with a backlog in verifying customers’ identities for new hook-ups or account changes. 

Sandra Miller, vice president of customer service for Entergy New Orleans, said the company first began to see a backlog of customers trying to set up new service beginning May 25, with the delays continuing as late as June 21. 

Entergy customer service representatives — speaking to Verite on the company’s customer service line — have provided a range of answers on what the standard wait time is for a call back from the verification department, spanning one day to five days, while  Miller quoted the standard wait time as 72 hours in an interview after the council meeting. However, during the backlog in June, customer complaints quoted as long as seven days without service and before receiving a call, which was confirmed by Entergy’s customer service line. The heatwave in New Orleans was already in swing in early June, with temperatures as high as 96 degrees as early as June 9

According to representatives reached through the  customer service line,  it is standard practice for customers’ service to be suspended if they are waiting to be verified, and the customer service department can’t do anything to restore their service until the verification process is complete. 

Entergy corporate communications staff confirmed that the delays were company-wide — Entergy serves parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas — but did not say how many people outside of New Orleans had experienced delays or were without power for extended periods in the month of June. 

 “This verification of identity is a process that’s used by cities across the country,” Miller told the council’s utilities committee, “so that we can ensure that we know who we are doing services with and making sure that we’re protecting our customers’ identity as well,” she said, pointing to the recent DMV records breach that affected millions of Louisianians.

“The Company must verify its customers’ identity prior to providing service to prevent identity theft and a host of other crimes,” the company said in a written statement on Friday. “Overall, the company experienced delays in the verification process due to a transition of bringing the department in-house from a third-party vendor in order to ultimately improve the customer experience.”

The statement added that only a small number of customers are now waiting for verification.

“The current number of customers waiting for verification is less than 300 across the Entergy system out of the over 3 million customers the company serves. Entergy New Orleans specifically has 15 customers out of approximately 200,000 waiting to be verified as of June 30, with new accounts being worked within 24 hours.”    

Why it happened and Entergy’s solutions 

Until recently, the account verification process was handled by a third-party.. (Entergy has declined to provide the name of the company that provided the service). When it was brought in-house last month, Entergy said, the company did not have adequate personnel to handle what they say is a busy time of year, with early and late summer having more service account set-ups than other times of the year. 

At Thursday’s council committee meeting, Miller said that the backup of customers in the city who were waiting for a call from verification has been cleared, and restored to what she described as the normal wait time of 72 hours. Entergy said it has also committed to making it easier for customers to reach the verification department instead of waiting for a call, if their service is off. 

Miller said customers should soon be able to call the Entergy customer-service line and request to be transferred to the verification department. However, Miller said it may take until next week for customer-service representatives to be fully trained in connecting customers directly to verification.  

In the meantime, New Orleans is heading into a weekend of temperatures in the mid- to high 90s, with “feels-like” temperatures well into the triple digits. 

As of Thursday, frontline Entergy customer-service representatives — reached by Verite — said they did not have a number for the verification department and are unable to transfer customers directly to verification, regardless of whether they are without service. 

When asked what customers should do if they have medical devices that need to be plugged in, or have medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to extreme heat, Entergy employees said it could not guarantee a customer’s service would not be suspended while waiting for verification, but encouraged those with vulnerabilities to call in early ahead of moving to set up service, and to request to “flag” their account as a customer who needs service for medical reasons. 

Members of the council utilities committee did not ask questions of company representatives during Thursday’s presentation on the problem. Councilman JP Morrell, who chairs the committee, did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Davante Lewis — who represents an a district that includes New Orleans and Baton Rouge —  first became aware of the issue on June 9 and received additional constituent complaints about it in the following weeks, including a call from an elderly Baton Rouge woman whose service was shut off on the Juneteenth national holiday. Lewis, who does not regulate the company’s New Orleans subsidiary, met with Entergy Louisiana  — which provides service outside of New Orleans — early this week  to discuss his concerns. He said he was satisfied with the assurance that the public would have a way to directly call the verification department, though he did not receive a timeline as to when this would go into place, and that the backlog had been cleared.

However, he says he continues to have concerns about public trust. “It is completely unacceptable to me that the official statement is coming after pressing from the regulators and reporters,” said Lewis. “Entergy New Orleans and Entergy Louisiana has to recognize that being transparent is better than pretending problems don’t exist.”  

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Climate and multimedia journalist Lue Palmer is a native of Toronto, Canada, with roots in Jamaica. Before entering their career in journalism, Lue was a writer, documentarian and podcaster, covering race,...