More Than A Recovery: Working Hard In The Big Easy

By Erin Nelsen, Online Editor | April 2010 Vol. 237 No. 4

Danny Brumfield and Richard Nunez of ENO tap a gas main and prepare to cut off a large section of low-pressure pipe.

On Aug. 28, 2005, the day before Hurricane Katrina hit, utility Entergy New Orleans (ENO) served approximately 144,000 customers in the gas side of its electric and gas business.

The hometown subsidiary of the much-larger Entergy Corporation experienced occasional difficulties with its 19th-century cast iron gas mains and mid-20th-century steel pipe. Like much of New Orleans, the gas system was well-established, full of history and difficult to predict. But it worked, for the most part--until Katrina.

A Utility’s Nightmare

“After Katrina, when the levees broke and the flooding occurred, we flooded about 534 miles of our low-pressure system,” recalled Perry Dufrene, rebuild project manager at ENO. The New Orleans system was a mix of utilized pressure and 90-pound high pressure, with the low-pressure areas concentrated on the east side of the city and around the devastated Lower Ninth Ward.

“We had water, saltwater and brackish water in approximately 840 miles of pipe — about 60% of our system — and about 110,000 of 144,000 total customers were without gas service. By the time we got the entire system back up, it was May 2006.”

Barely four years later, ENO has been recognized with a Platts Energy Award for Global Infrastructure Project of the Year for a ground-up rebuild of 844 miles of its gas line network. In the first three years of the project, it has so far replaced more than 135 miles of pipe — ahead of schedule and under budget. The goal is to completely renovate the city’s gas lines, using 21st-century methods and materials, decrease cost of ownership, increase service reliability — and while they’re at it, send a message to the city.

“We faced both the uncertainty of those dark days and the gravity of the task ahead with the same resolve,” said Rod West, who was named president and CEO of ENO in 2007. “We were going to do everything in our power to help restore the gas system and, in doing so, help New Orleans recover. We’re not there yet, but we’ve made tremendous strides.”

The distance from the starting place to the goal is indeed staggering. As Katrina approached, Dufrene and about a dozen other ENO employees stayed within city limits, on call to respond to emergencies and begin damage assessments as soon as the storm passed.

“After the storm was over we went right back to work,” Dufrene said. The team left its headquarters at the downtown Hyatt, next to the Superdome, and visited ENO’s Tulane Avenue facilities, about 1.5 miles away.

Dufrene, a native of New Orleans who has been with ENO for 30 years, noticed the water in the streets wasn’t all due to the storm. “The water just kept on rising. It was like, okay, something’s not right here.” Other people who’d stayed in town were also beginning to come out to assess the situation. ENO’s team split in two, with some members staying behind at Tulane Avenue while Dufrene’s party returned to the Hyatt, not yet knowing that the levees had burst. The group at Tulane Avenue quickly found itself trapped by rising water and rising fears among the refugees outside.

“They had a boat, but if they went out the front entrance, they would have been sunk by all the stranded people trying to get out of the water,” Dufrene explains. “So they went out the back of the property onto the interstate, cutting through fences.” Central New Orleans was covered with so much water that they made the entire journey back to the Hyatt in the boat.