September 1, 2005

Katrina Swamped Utilities’ Underground Power Lines

SAN FRANCISCO -- Electric utilities struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina said on Thursday that installing neighborhood power lines underground offered little protection against breakdowns and blackouts.

The electric distribution network supplying New Orleans has underground lines in the French Quarter and the eastern part of the city but the entire power network was overwhelmed by the floodwaters that poured into the city, utility Entergy Corp. said.

In the entire U.S. electric distribution system, about one-fifth of the power lines are underground, mostly in and around cities, according to the Edison Electric Institute, the utility industry's trade group.

"About one-fourth of New Orleans has an underground distribution system but it's difficult to keep it operating in flood conditions," Morgan Stewart, a spokesman for Entergy, said.

Getting the lights back on in New Orleans will be a long-term project because of extensive damage caused by brackish water flooding the city, Entergy spokeswoman Yolanda Pollard said.

The brackish water -- salt water mixed with fresh -- that has engulfed the city will cause electrical equipment to corrode, she said.

"Brackish water flooding in the city of New Orleans is expected to significantly impact substation restoration," Pollard said.


Katrina left more than 4.5 million homes and businesses in the Southeast without electricity after it first made landfall in Florida last week.

Entergy, FPL Group in Florida and other utilities along the Gulf coast were restoring service on Thursday but some 2 million customers were still in the dark.

About one-third of FPL Group's distribution lines in Florida are underground, mostly in the southern part of the state.

The utility said 41 percent of its customers in greater Miami have underground power lines and 57 percent of customers in Broward County north of Miami get underground electricity.

Overhead power lines are easier to repair than locating and repairing faulty transformers and other equipment in underground systems, Bill Swank, a spokesman for FPL, said.

"Flooding and corrosion from saltwater can cause problems that don't come to light until later," he said. "Repairs often can take longer."

Installing power cables under ground also is expensive but Florida counties can order them for new housing developments and require developers to pay the extra costs.

Homeowners also can be assessed for the added costs of burying the lines.

"There is pressure for undergrounding after every big storm," Swank said. "If the Florida Public Service Commission want to do it, FPL Group will work with them."

FPL had 1.4 million customers without power in southern Florida after Katrina struck, and Swank said less than 14,000 remained without service on Thursday. "We expect to get them back on tonight or Friday," he said.

(Additional reporting by Ben Berkowitz in New York)