At Charity hospital in New Orleans, as the emergency generator ran out of fuel yesterday, nurses hand-pumped ventilators for patients who could not breathe and doctors used canoes to get supplies from neighbouring hospitals.
“It was like our tsunami,” said Vincent Creel, spokesman for the coastal city of Biloxi, one of the worst-hit areas. “The city’s power grid, water and sewage systems were destroyed.”
How can Off-Grid help the disenfranchised and dislocated people of New Orleans? This is not going to be a temporary phenomenon. Readers are invited to make comments at the end of this story for ways to use our know-how for their benefit. New Orleans looks set to be off the grid for the next year at least. The city may become a case study of a large-scale off-grid community, using renewable energy.
“The entire grid system in these areas is completely ruined,” said David Botkins, a spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power, which sent 200 workers to Louisiana and Mississippi. “They’re starting from scratch.”
About 1.4 million people were without power yesterday, from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, down from more than 2.1 million tuesday, as power company personnel struggled to restore electricity to customers.
Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, said it’ll be at least two or three months before New Orleans has electricity, but that seems highly optinmistic. For legal reasons the wiring of every house connected to the grid will have to be checked before the power can be switched back on. And the Mayor is also calling for everyone to leave the city now.
At Entergy, the utility that serves the city, Randy Helmick, the vice president for customer service and head of the system command center, said technicians could not get near equipment to determine its status.
“We cannot and will not begin performing restoration in that area, until the flooding has gone down,” he said. The underground system is designed to be submerged, and may be unscathed, he said, but above-ground equipment has been damaged. The electronic controls on dozens of transformers, which must stay dry, are probably submerged now.
Service will not be restored until each house has been inspected for wiring damage, he said, “to ensure we’re not going to create a problem by re-energizing.”
“It’s going to be a huge, huge task,” Mr. Helmick said.
Customers choosing to use portable electric generators should do so in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Never connect a generator directly to a building’s wiring without a licensed electrician disconnecting the house wiring from the grid. Otherwise, it can create a safety hazard for the user or linemen working to restore power, and it may damage the generator or the house wiring. Connect only essential appliances – such as freezers and refrigerators – directly to the generator.
The giant pumps that will have to dry out New Orleans are operated by the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board, which has its own generators, he said.
What will be left when the waters recede or are pumped away will be a city that has been inundated not only with water but with a witches’ brew of petroleum byproducts, industrial and household chemicals and human waste.
“The toxic soup, as it has been called, is touching every square inch of the flooded areas,” said W. Paul Farmer, the executive director of the American Planning Association. “That issue of the environmental cleanup is one that we have not typically faced with other disasters. It’s not just the structural integrity of the buildings, but it’s the whole issue of contamination: contamination of buildings, contamination of yards.”
Just under one million Entergy customers remain without power in Louisiana and Mississippi as very limited restoration has begun. Due to the scope and amount of damage to its electrical system, Entergy expects a long and difficult restoration after “the worst storm in Entergy’s history,” the company said, and service may take weeks to restore.
“Customers who smell natural gas must leave the area immediately,” Entergy officials warned. “Gas lines in the New Orleans area have been severely damaged by Katrina’s extraordinary destruction. It may be several days before crews can gain access to these areas due to flooding and other obstacles,” the company said.
Entergy follows a restoration plan that concentrates on getting service restored to essential customers first, such as hospitals, police, fire, communications, water, sanitary services and transportation providers. Then, Entergy crews turn their attention to making repairs to electrical facilities that will return service to the largest number of customers in the shortest period of time, then the next largest number and so on until power is restored to everyone.
Entergy reminds customers to stay away from downed power lines and flooded areas. Do not walk in standing water and do not venture into areas of debris, since energized and dangerous power lines may not be visible, the company warns.
After a full day of restoration work on Tuesday, Gulf Power has restored power for almost 90,000 customers left in the dark after Hurricane Katrina moved through the area.
“After just more than 24 hours of work, we’ve restored almost 70 percent of those who lost power,” said John Hutchinson, company spokesman. “We’re asking those who are still without power to be patient as our crews complete their work tonight and tomorrow.” Most of those still without power are in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
Mississippi Power will begin the rebuilding process today to restore service to its customers. All of the company’s 195,000 customers are without power in the aftermath of the hurricane.
“Along with Southern Mississippi and surrounding areas, Mississippi Power has suffered the worst catastrophe in our company’s history,” said Anthony Topazi, president and CEO of Mississippi Power. “We mourn the loss of life and pray for the families who have suffered from this tragedy.”
“To support our employees in the restoration effort, more than 2,000 additional workers from outside the company will begin arriving today,” said Kurt Brautigam, Mississippi Power spokesman. “They will be able to help us begin restoring service to essential customers such as hospitals and public safety agencies. We’ll also have tree-trimming crews arriving to begin making way for the main rebuilding process.”
“We urge the public to be cautious and safe around all power lines,” Brautigam said. “Please be patient, knowing that this will be an extended process. In the meantime, we ask customers to call and let us know about any serious conditions or dangers.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is working with operators at three nuclear power plants to ensure safe and secure operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
As a precautionary measure, the Entergy operated Waterford 3 nuclear plant near Taft, Louisiana, 20 miles west of New Orleans, shut down when a hurricane warning was issued for St. Charles Parish on Saturday. It remains in an Unusual Event, the lowest of four emergency action levels. Electrical power for key safety systems on site is being supplied by the plant’s standby diesel generators, following a loss of off-site power caused by instability in the regional electrical grid.
NRC staff have independently verified that key plant systems and structures, are undamaged and able to support current plant operations.
A member of the NRC staff plans to accompany officials from FEMA and the state of Louisiana during a survey of the site within the next 48 hours. NRC approval is needed before the plant can be restarted. This survey will include off-site evacuation routes and emergency sirens.
The Grand Gulf nuclear plant near Port Gibson, Mississippi, and River Bend Nuclear Station near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, were both operating at reduced power Tuesday morning. The plants operated through the storm, but voluntarily reduced power generation to assist in restoring stability to the electrical grid when a drop in energy consumption caused grid voltage to fluctuate.
Questions of whether the authorities could have done more to prepare for the catastrophe and whether the emergency provision against terrorism has led to the dangers of natural disasters being ignored will have to wait while the battle to find the missing continues .