Owen Courreges: Is Entergy Isaac’s Titanic?

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Owen Courreges

Well, New Orleans has officially weathered its first direct hit from a hurricane post-Katrina. As with all disasters, we seem to be hoping that all our heroes and villains come straight from central casting. Most peoples’ immediate ire seems focused on Entergy New Orleans for failing to flip on the lights quickly enough. Corporate villains are always the easiest to write.

Of course, the truth is more complicated, and not being an expert in electrical grids, I’m hardly the person to turn to for education in whether Entergy is to blame in its power restoration efforts. On the other hand, Entergy has done much to destroy any goodwill with New Orleanians with excessive fuel surcharges and the like.

Thankfully, this time we were spared conspiracy theories of rich plutocrats blowing up levees to flood poor neighborhoods, but that’s another stock subplot to any disaster – an upper-class conspiracy to not just to neglect the poor, but to kill them outright. If there were even the vaguest of rumors to suggest a plot to utilize Hurricane Issac to kill the working class, you can bet we’d be hearing about it endlessly.

Popular response to disasters always reminds me of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Every film concerning the Titanic has the same stock stories. There’s always the mustache-twirling villain of J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line that owned Titanic. In all fairness, he did kind of resemble Snidley Whiplash.

The story goes that Ismay demanded that Titanic speed up despite ice warnings to arrive early in New York, and then cowardly abandoned Titanic in the last lifeboat while women and children clamored to get on (sometimes he is depicted disguising himself in a woman’s shawl). In other words, the kind of fellow people in movie theaters yell “boo” at.
In reality, Ismay wasn’t running around giving orders to speed up the ship. He had announced his retirement as White Star’s chairman the previous January and was merely traveling to New York to observe the maiden voyage and to discuss the change in leadership upon his arrival. Likewise, there was no evidence that he took a seat in a lifeboat from anybody else. He got on one of the last collapsables to launch after assisting other passengers at a time when there were no women and children on deck, according both to Ismay and other witnesses.

Ismay was still a convenient villain, though. Although Captain Smith was far more to blame for the situation than Ismay, he went down with the ship. He also wasn’t a corporate executive. Also, Ismay was personally hated by William Randolf Hurst over some personal squabbles, and Hurst happened to own a lot of newspapers. Ismay’s reputation didn’t stand a chance.

The other big Titanic myth is that the steerage passengers were intentionally locked below decks to prevent them from reaching the lifeboats. In fact, the gates to steerage were already locked because U.S. emigration laws required them to stay locked to prevent the spread of diseases aboard ship. There were likely cases of confused crewmembers not knowing whether to unlock certain gates, but there was no organized conspiracy to drown steerage passengers below decks.

The Titanic legacy is one of dramatic interpretation trumping actual facts. Katrina, in many ways, has become like Titanic, its characters reduced to ridiculous, garish stereotypes and its true lessons lost in the waters.
Unlike those disasters, Issac will not go down in the history books. It’s a speed bump in New Orleans history. However, we’ve become too accustomed to viewing these types of occurrences, both the massive and the minor, in cartoonish terms. We like heaping blame. We like identifying villains. It’s easy, at least easier than becoming a policy expert.

The real conspiracies we face are disorganized groupings of policies that serve a common purpose. They aren’t melodramas and they normally won’t satisfy the attention span of your average American. Sometimes they do involve large corporations, but usually the stories involve corporations abetted by unconstrained government power to crush their competition.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s a free market cure for the Entergy monopoly that would get your lights flipped on faster, but I am saying that we need to ask that question – who benefits from what. That may not make James Cameron’s next opus, but it will make for a more informed public. And maybe the next time we start pointing fingers at villains, we’ll actually know what we’re talking about.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

17 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: Is Entergy Isaac’s Titanic?

  1. I can’t be the only one sick of WWL radio making excuses for Entergy.

    Robinette, McConnell, Tucker and the other WWL hosts have been cutting off callers all week when they criticize Entergy, repeating Entergy’s talking points (just be patient; they don’t get paid if the wheel isn’t spinning; etc.) and generally diverting attention from Entergy’s ineptitude.

    There is a story to be investigated. Why has WWL been so irresponsible? What do they get out of carrying water for Entergy?

    • WWL, the TP, and the other major local media outlets give Entergy lip service because they are afraid of driving away the city’s only Fortune 500 company. The “they don’t get paid if the wheel isn’t spinning” talking point is bogus – Entergy will recoup anything they lose now through government approved “emergency storm reserve riders” tacked on to our bills. The longer it takes them to restore power the easier it is for them to convince regulators that they need to tack on fees because obviously time to restore directly correlates with amount of damage.

  2. Entergy is a private company cutting corners to make profits. They do not invest enough in their own infrastructure. After Katrin,a they added surcharges for the public to compensate them for “extra” expenses rather than go into the profits they had made in past years. This has nothing to do with the TITANIC and everything to do with a private company that puts profits above their responsibility to the people. Too bad they could not get a forced evacuation and have almost two months to restore power, like Katrina. These pesky citizens , daring to demand extraordinary service in an extraordinary situation. Entergy does not prepare for emergency storms it is obvious, they take big profits instead.

    • littlewitch,

      I agree in part, but I don’t see how this is all Entergy’s fault. It’s unreasonable to expect them to act on anything other that financial incentives. Unless the city gives Entergy a financial motive to improve infrastructure, they won’t do so. It is the government that has a responsibility to the people of New Orleans. Entergy, conversely, has a responsibility to its shareholders. This is why our current arrangement may be misguided.

      Now, this doesn’t excuse any clearly unethical and illegal behavior on the part of Entergy (like bogus fuel surcharges, which I believe were proven in court). Nor does it mean I approve of their rent-seeking (they didn’t become an energy monopoly by foregoing lobbying). But tarring Entergy doesn’t solve the problems related to our high energy bills and poor electrical system. It’s just casting a villain.

      Also, going back to a municipal corporation may not improve matters either. At least Entergy is better than the Sewerage and Water Board.

      • Most large fortune 500 companies receive tax credits from the city their headquartered at. I would be surprised if Entergy is not receiving any. With that being said. The city has given Entergy a financial motive to stay here, meaning we as tax payers have given Entergy a reason to stay. Are you saying that for us a community to receive modern infrastructure we must give Entergy additional incentives? And its not Entegy’s fault?

      • Entergy is just like the Sewerage and Waterboard except that Entergy senior execs make millions more a year.

        We seem to have a problem of semantics what you call “tarring ENTERGY” I call holding them responsible.

  3. Good points and an intelligent discussion may ensue. Not being the brightest bulb on the marquee, I still have some ideas about Entergy, et al.
    First: Blatant falsehoods. Despite Charles Rice’s pre-storm comments at the press conference, there WAS NO PLAN in place. Two thoughts on this: either Entergy NEVER had a plan, OR, that plan was inept, incomplete, or just plain stupid, OR the “plan” WAS carried out ACCORDING to said “plan”.
    This is not hearsay or rumor. There were EYEWITNESSES at specific locations around town that reported whole crews of Entergy workers, READY to get down to the job at hand, but with no “work orders” or no guidance even as to where the problems were. At least three individuals that I spoke to, PERSONALLY, reported seeing HUNDREDS of Entergy trucks and crews SITTING in on location with no guidance or direction from the “man upstairs”. Not two or three, but HUNDREDS. Entergy workers themselves told frustrated citizens that THEY could not move without directions or instructions.
    So, just where was this “plan” and who devised it in the first place?
    The complaints about WWL carrying the ball for Entergy, I have no first-hand comments about that. I DO know that WWL RADIO (FM) answered hundreds of calls a day, and none were cut off or dismissed. The way I know this is the ONLY communication I had with the outside world was my little old Sony Walkman, tuned to the ONLY station that had useful and up-to-the minute coverage of the storm. ALL of the other stations just played their annoying music, stopping only to deliver more annoying commercials about things nobody needed. My hat’s off the the WWL RADIO team and their humane and intelligent way of keeping us informed. The only time a woman was cut off was when she began making racist remarks.
    Finally, the 8th district NOPD patrolled my neighborhood at least every 20 or 30 minutes, a sight that gave me some hope that someone, SOMEWHERE, was in charge and doing their DUTY. Bless you, boys and girls of the 8th District.

    • I DO know that WWL RADIO (FM) answered hundreds of calls a day, and none were cut off or dismissed.

      Fair point. The WWL hosts did not “cut off” any callers that I heard either; however, they all found ways to take up for Entergy no matter what the caller said and to repeat Rice’s dumb talking points.

      After one call, Garland Robinette sneered “If you have something bad to say about Entergy, don’t call me.” That’s almost an exact quote.

  4. Forgive a cynical old geezer, but one fact remains: No one will be held responsible for anything. Not one major player in the White House of the previous administration and it’s shameful performance from the war in Iraq to the horrendous financial meltdown that has destroyed millions of lives and dreams has been called to answer their “crimes”. Not ONE!
    Do we dare think that these little people in Louisiana will be even noticed, now that Isaac has passed? The MOST cynical thought I have is that “they” know it and can count on the public to give them a “pass”.

  5. Take a step outside and look at your utility poles.The utility poles and the boxes are from the 50’s. Do we really believe that the current state of these utility poles can continue to take hurricane beatings.The antiquated infrastructure of the utility pole’s maintenance is Entergy’s responsibility. The lack of diligent tree trimming is the responsibility of Entergy. The lack of educating the public to not plant trees that will one day intersect with the power lines is the responsibility of Entergy. What we can blame on ourselves is our lack of action. We pay more in energy costs than our neighboring parishes. We should demand more.

    • Blast. Actually I didn’t Google at all and tried to do it from memory (I wrote it in a place with no wi-fi). This is my second column in a row with a glaring spelling error. Maybe we should make it a contest.

  6. Absolutely. The decades-long “plan” to put utilities underground is NOT being seriously considered. Therein lies the problem. No intelligent decisions made by anybody. ANYBODY. Living in other parts of the country spoils some of us into expecting some kind of BRAINS. It is a miracle that New Orleans exists/

  7. Tanara-jane,

    I’d like to bring down the whole stupid system of giving corporations “incentives.” It perverts the market and favors large companies over small ones. That said, the City of New Orleans willingly made a private company, Entergy, a regulated monopoly. They have not passed regulations forcing major upgrades to the transmission system in New Orleans. Entergy is only required to maintain the lines, so that’s what Entergy is doing. Thus, Entergy is doing exactly what a corporation is supposed to do — maximizing profits for its shareholders. Blaming Entergy for that is like scolding a frog for being green.

    Given the dissatisfaction with Entergy, perhaps New Orleans ought to consider ending the monopoly or passing regulations compelling Entergy to spend more on transmission upgrades. I get the idea that we haven’t done that precisely because Entergy is the last remaining Fortune 500 company in the city. That being the case, there’s no real offense here — just a trade off. If we feel like we’re being held hostage by Entergy, we might just have to bite the bullet and cut ties. Entergy doesn’t care all that much — it can probably find another patron city because local politicians love throwing money at large corporations to relocate. Cost-effective or not, local officials can claim to have drawn in jobs and it gets them reelected.

    Again, this is a highly complex issue not reducible to a “big bad corporation” narrative. I don’t necessarily think Entergy is a great company (in fact, I know they’ve done some pretty lousy things) but I can’t blame them for maximizing profits in legal ways.

  8. Wisconsin has a pretty good model for the regulated monopoly with WPS: they offer a guaranteed profit of a certain percent, provided they keep the lights on. This offers an incentive to keep the lights on. Three days with no power during the dead of winter would result in people freezing to death up there. Our power was never out for more than a few hours at a time growing up there, and that was in the 1980s. It’s the 21st century; Entergy needs to catch up. Granted, we didn’t have hurricanes up there, but we don’t have blizzards down here.

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