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After Hurricane Ida Failures, Calls Grow For A Probe Into New Orleans' Power Company

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When Hurricane Ida struck Louisiana, it was a powerful storm. But was it really necessary that so many people would lose power for so long? Millions of people were in the dark for a week, and 11 died. A joint investigation from NPR News and ProPublica finds the city of New Orleans pushed the local utility for decades to prepare for disasters like this, and Entergy New Orleans resisted.

NPR's Tegan Wendland reports.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: On a sweltering afternoon, a week after Hurricane Ida, Albert Lewis and Tammy Lovick sit on a neighbor's stoop in New Orleans' 7th Ward.

ALBERT LEWIS: No power, no gas, no car, nothing - everywhere I go, I got to walk. And I'll never make it - so hot - daytime and nighttime.

WENDLAND: That's not just an inconvenience; it's dangerous. Lewis can't get his medications. He's sweating so much his colostomy bag needs to be changed often. But he can't get new ones because none of the pharmacies have power. And Lovick can't check her heart monitor. She passed out in the backyard from the heat.

TAMMY LOVICK: While I was sitting outside in my backyard trying to get cool - and I just fell out. I don't - all I remember is him come and helping me up off the ground.

WENDLAND: Her face is all scraped up. They would have evacuated, but like many, they just couldn't afford to. So they hunkered down in their apartment and hoped for the best. It wasn't Ida's wind or rain that proved most deadly. It was being left for days and days without power - no air conditioning, refrigeration or cell service. Local advocates, regulators and residents say it didn't have to come to this. Many have been fighting for years to get the local power company, Entergy New Orleans, to better prepare for a storm just like Ida.

MONIQUE HARDEN: It did not surprise me. But it is appalling. And it did infuriate me.

WENDLAND: Monique Harden is a lawyer who works at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. As storms get more intense, temperatures get more extreme and sea level rises. She says New Orleans' energy grid isn't ready.

HARDEN: We're surrounded by an entire system that the company, Entergy, has neglected over the years and can't stand up to the challenges of climate change.

WENDLAND: The city council alleged the company slashed spending on equipment upgrades and diverted funds earmarked for basic repairs. Advocates like Harden have been pushing for years for Entergy New Orleans to better prepare for climate change - solar and wind power, microgrids that provide backup during emergencies and burying power lines so the poles don't get knocked over in every storm - ideas backed by experts. Harden says the company had the perfect opportunity after Hurricane Katrina. But ProPublica and NPR found that Entergy fought those proposals.

ED QUATREVAUX: They're not governed. They're - you know, they're almost rogue actors.

WENDLAND: Former New Orleans inspector general Ed Quatreveaux issued a report on the company in 2015. Oversight of the for-profit monopoly is unusual. And it doesn't answer to state utility officials. Instead, it answers to city council members, who handle everything from police budgets to trash pickup, as well as power bills. And Quatreveaux found in the report that the city council was ill-equipped to regulate Entergy New Orleans.

QUATREVAUX: These companies have, you know, an army of economists and accountants. And you can't match them.

WENDLAND: The city council spends millions on outside experts just to regulate Entergy New Orleans. And the council has tried to push back on the company by levying fines. But the company sued. The city and state are trying to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But Entergy has fought those efforts, implying it might sue again. It keeps building natural gas power plants. And its PR firm even hired paid actors to rally support at public meetings.

Council president Helena Moreno chairs the utilities committee.

HELENA MORENO: There's an expectation that regulators are supposed to do whatever the company wants. And I think that that has been the expectation of the company for a while.

WENDLAND: Moreno is pushing the council to launch an investigation into Entergy New Orleans to find out what went wrong when Ida hit, why all eight of its transmission lines failed and whether the company's doing enough to prevent future catastrophes. Lawyers have now filed a class action lawsuit against the company, calling recent blackouts deadly and avoidable. The company declined to comment.

MORENO: I don't think a carrot is necessarily working for this corporation. I think unfortunately, you know, as a regulator, we do have to use stick in this regard.

WENDLAND: New Orleanians pay a bigger chunk of their income for electricity than people in other parts of the country - in a city where about twice as many people live in poverty than the national average. Entergy did not agree to an interview. It sent us a statement saying it spent more than $6 billion improving the Louisiana grid and is trying to get federal money to update its system even more.

During a recent press call, Entergy CEO Phillip May deflected questions about how the company could have prepared for storms like Ida.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHILLIP MAY: Mother Nature is the undisputed world champion. And we can engineer some of the most robust structures, and Mother Nature will simply take those out in storms like this.

WENDLAND: But after reviewing articles and public records compiled by NPR and ProPublica, five utilities experts agreed. The company could have gone further to avoid a disaster like this by, for example, investing more in routine maintenance.

DESTENIE NOCK: I don't think that New Orleans residents should accept a company not acting in their best interest.

WENDLAND: Destenie Nock is a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon. She says Hurricane Ida represents another missed opportunity.

NOCK: Entergy should have an obligation to make sure that its customers have reliable power throughout the year, throughout disasters.

WENDLAND: The company has deployed thousands of linemen, who are busy repairing the grid, building it back the way it was. Ultimately, the risk is that next time, people like Lewis and Lovick, will once again be left in the dark.

Tegan Wendland, NPR News, New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUSSELS PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA'S "LEVEES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.