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Restoring Power to Ike Victims Proves Tough Task

September 19, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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When Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas coast, the storm inflicted major damage to the electrical grid, leaving hundeds of thousands of people without power. Tom Bearden reports on the electrical grids in Southeast Texas and why restoring power has proved so difficult.

JIM LEHRER: And, finally tonight, Hurricane Ike. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden has been reporting on recovery efforts in Texas all this week. Tonight, he has a Science Unit report on restoring electrical power.

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: It hasn’t been an easy week for Houston residents Michael Williams, his wife, Lydia Luz, and their 8-year-old son, Alex.

Their electricity, and the power to much of southeast Texas, failed as Hurricane Ike came ashore. No lights, no refrigerator, no stove since early Saturday morning. They finished eating all of their perishable food several days ago.

LYDIA LUZ, Hurricane Victim: You know, the first couple of days it’s sort of an adventure, and it’s like camping, and we’ve camped before, and we have our cook stove.

But now I call it “Ike fatigue.” You know, you’re just kind of tired. The first thought I have in the morning is, “Here’s another day, you know, of like, OK, am I going to be able to find ice? You know, am I going to be able to entertain Alex?”

TOM BEARDEN: They have a lot of company in their misery. At one point, Hurricane Ike knocked out power for 5 million Americans.

JOE DOMINO, President and CEO, Entergy Texas: … hot all the way to — it’s hot all the way up to here now.

Damage to power lines

TOM BEARDEN: Joe Domino is the CEO of Entergy Texas, the electric utility that serves cities and towns from the Louisiana border nearly to Dallas, excluding Houston.

How badly damaged is your system?

JOE DOMINO: In this particular hurricane, of the 395,000 customers that we had, we really knocked out 392,000. So all but 3,000 customers were affected by this particular hurricane.

And Beaumont is all up in here.

TOM BEARDEN: The sheer size of the failure is best illustrated by a giant diagram in Entergy's transmissions operations center in Beaumont. Like other power systems, Entergy's grid is a network of interconnecting power lines which provide alternate pathways for electricity.

It's designed to handle small failures, but the grid goes dark when too many lines go down.

In the display, Louisiana is on the right, Texas on the left, representing a system that covers nearly 28,000 square miles. Anything that's lit up isn't working.

Billy Reynolds manages the center.

BILLY REYNOLDS, Entergy Texas: The best thing we ever see is darkness. And you see on this side here in the Lake Charles area, it is dark. Everything is back to normal there. This Texas side, we're working on it, you know. It's been six days, and, you know, we're doing pretty good. It's coming.

TOM BEARDEN: Not surprisingly, the number-one question people are asking is, "When do my lights come back on?" The second is, "Why is it taking so long?"

Customer service manager Sam Bethea hears those questions all day long.

SAM BETHEA, Entergy Texas: OK, Gary. We'll get that done as quick as we can.

Challenges to restoring power

TOM BEARDEN: His phone never stops ringing. He took us on a tour of damaged power lines around Beaumont. He says all of the various components of the grid have to be fixed before power can be restored.

For example, the company's Sabine generating station was flooded. All the switches have to be cleaned and a cooling tower repaired. Then, the big transmission lines that distribute high voltages over long distances have to be pulled back upright, and some of those are very difficult to get to.

SAM BETHEA: A lot of time in this area, we'll be using specialized equipment, track vehicles, flotation-type equipment with tracks on it that we can get through these marshy areas.

TOM BEARDEN: At the same time, damaged substations and neighborhood power lines also have to be repaired.

JOE DOMINO: In the neighborhoods, we have substations that step that high-voltage power down to a lower voltage, which we call distribution voltage, which carries it through the neighborhoods up to someone's house, and then it's stepped down near the house through a little transformer that actually gets the power into the house.

All of those are very important to making the entire connection between the power plant, where the electricity is generated, to your home, where you actually use the electricity.

TOM BEARDEN: It all has to work, because generation has to precisely match the demand for electricity. If it doesn't, the grid will fail.

And so you've got to go step by step as you restore it across?

BILLY REYNOLDS: Step by step. Yes, sir. Step by step. And it's kind of a long process, because as you come up you've got to balance the generation with the load. If you get a little high, you've got to come back down. And you're always balancing. And it's a big balancing act.

It's difficult. It's complicated. It's a ballet. It's guys over here working on the transmission system at the same time that other crews are working our distribution system, and people in the middle working on substations, and making sure the power plants have load on them and are running and available when we need them.

TOM BEARDEN: It takes a lot of very skilled people to repair a damaged power grid, far more than any single utility could afford to keep on the payroll year-round. So the utility industry has established a system of mutual aid, where thousands of workers from all over the country converge on temporary cities, like this one in Beaumont.

Eleven hundred people are currently living in this camp. And the onsite kitchen feeds about 2,000 people every day. There are 21 more like it all over the region.

Multiple generators power air conditioning for sleeping trailers, run washers and dryers, and pump hot water for showers. About 14,000 workers from 33 different states and Canada have responded to Entergy's call for help, and Entergy frequently returns the favor.

Celebrating electricity repairs

TOM BEARDEN: As the workday was ending yesterday, serviceman Albert Clay was supervising a crew from Shelby, North Carolina, as they put the finishing touches on 5th Street in Beaumont, restringing the wires from the poles to people's houses, and getting ready to restore the circuit breakers at the nearby substation.

Do a lot of people come out of their houses and ask you when the lights are coming back on?

ALBERT CLAY, Entergy Texas: Oh, all day long, all day long. "When the power's going to be up?" You know, you don't want to give them false hope, so you give you -- sometimes you give them a little longer day. Say, "Maybe tomorrow." You know, so when the power do come up, they'll be surprised. Well, it came up today, and they're happy. So it makes everybody happy.

TOM BEARDEN: Billy Reynolds says he gets a lot of satisfaction out of restoring power, that it makes sleeping in his office for weeks at a time worthwhile.

BILLY REYNOLDS: You know, when you see lights come on in a city and people dancing in the streets and stuff, it's great. It really is.

TOM BEARDEN: You've actually seen people dancing in the street?

BILLY REYNOLDS: Oh, yes, Rita, they danced. I heard there was dancing in Port Arthur last night when the lights came on. So it's pretty good to see that.

TOM BEARDEN: Entergy says out-of-town crews will remain in Texas until power is restored to about 95 percent of their customers. It may be several more weeks before everyone in Texas has power again.

Back in Houston, Michael, Lydia and Alex were dining by candlelight, waiting for their turn to dance in the street.