09/08 - Hurricane Gustav: Aftermath and Recovery

What went right and wrong?

Arriving just 3 days after the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Gustav spawned approximately $15 billion dollars in property damage, $5 billion in lost business activity and power outages for over 1 million Louisiana residents. But it also generated quick, decisive governmental action at the state and parish level. Explore what went right and what went wrong on "Hurricane Gustav: Aftermath and Recovery," the next edition of Louisiana Public Square.


Hurricane Gustav smashed into Louisiana three days after the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The Category 2 storm made landfall on September 1st about 9:30 am, just over 70 miles southwest of New Orleans, in Terrebonne Parish. With peak winds of over 90 miles per hour, Gustav was the third major storm to hit the state in three years [Katrina and Rita both came in 2005].

Dry air and the high speed [16 mph] of the storm helped weaken it to a Category 1 hurricane within a few hours. But Gustav was no weakling.

Early estimates indicate Hurricane Gustav produced 12 million to 15 million cubic yards of debris in the state, compared with 26 million generated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The storm’s northwesterly path created a wide swath of destruction that was surpassed only by Katrina. Fortunately, the death toll was much lower than in 2005.

Nearly four dozen died because of Gustav; Katrina killed about 1,000 people, mostly drowning victims. In fact, Gustav can be thought of as a wind event, as opposed to Katrina, which was primarily a flood event. The difference accounts for one of the most devastating features of Gustav: wide-spread electrical outages. According to Entergy’s website, 63 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes experienced power outages of some kind, mainly due to damage caused by wind.

Power Outages

According to the Louisiana Public Service Commission, 1,313,902 of the 1,993,152 residential -- nearly two-thirds of commercial and industrial electricity customers in Louisiana -- lost power as a result of Gustav.

Looking at Gustav’s path and intensity, it’s easy to see why. Moving from the central Louisiana coast in a northwesterly direction, Gustav tracked along the state’s major electrical transmission lines, hurling debris at – and in some cases toppling – high voltage towers and other equipment.

Three quarters of Louisiana residents experienced winds of at least 58 miles per an hour. According to New Orleans demographer Gregory C. Rigamer, more than half the state was hammered by hurricane force winds. Katrina’s equivalent wind field covered 39 percent of Louisiana.

The result for Entergy was:

 2 nuclear plants shut down

 14 fossil fuel electricity generating plants offline

 13 of 14 transmission paths from BR to NO disrupted

 169 transmission structures down

 212 of 798 transmission lines not working

 257 of 456 substations out of service

A total of 828,982 Entergy customers were without power at the peak of the storm. Nine days later, 88 percent were back on line. That left 117, 590 customers in the dark.

Cleco, which services mainly rural areas in Louisiana, had 90 percent of its 273,000 customers lose power. It was the most outages in the company’s history. Ninety percent of its distribution circuit miles were de-energized – nearly 20 percent more than with hurricane Rita. In seven days, it had restored power to 99 percent of its customers.

The long wait for electricity drew much criticism from unhappy residents, business owners and politicians, including Governor Jindal. Initial estimates for some areas of the state were three weeks or more. The governor called the timeline for restoration of power “unacceptable.” Entergy’s head of transmission, Randy Helmick, told the Louisiana Public Service Commission [PSC] it was “… the best restoration we’ve ever achieved.”

Commissioners inquired about steps electric companies had taken to reduce the possibility of system damage from severe weather. Asked about the feasibility of running power cables underground to protect them from wind damage, Helmick responded that such construction is extremely costly. He cited a 2008 study by the state of Oklahoma that estimated the cost per meter [user] to be about $16,000. That would be just to bury the distribution lines from the substations to the end-user. Burying the transmission lines would nearly double the cost.

Representatives from Entergy and Cleco told the PSC that they were both on target with their multi-year preventive maintenance plans, which include trimming trees around distribution lines. Many lines fell victim to large trees 100 feet or more from utility right-of-ways.

Entergy said it The PSC will initiate an in depth review of the preparation for, and response to, Gustav by Louisiana’s electric utility companies. These issues directly affect the state’s ability of function economically.

Economic Impact

The final tally on the economic impact of Gustav is still a long way off, but the costs – monetary and otherwise – will be high.

Gustav forced the shutdown of many Louisiana businesses. On September 11, Conoco Philips in Belle Chase became the last remaining refinery in Louisiana to get enough power restored to begin start-up operations. The long delays in getting power – 10 days, in the case of Conoco – created severe hardships for employers and employees in every business sector across the state. Shrimpers were left with rotting piles of seafood: no electricity meant no ice for their catches.

Early estimates put property damage at up to $15 billion and up to $5 billion in lost economic activity, mainly because of electrical outages. By comparison, estimates for Katrina and Rita damage are in the $100 billion range. Stephen Moret, head of Louisiana Economic Development [LED], characterized the widespread loss of power and the long timeframe for restoration as “a significant economic threat.” At one point, LED estimated losses to the gross domestic product for the state to be as high as $250 million a day.

Many Louisianans complained about the lack of national media coverage, once it was determined that the brunt of the storm had missed New Orleans. Some in the business community may have been reminded of the adage “be careful what you wish for” when the New York Times reported on the long power outages in the Baton Rouge area. Economic development boosters don’t like articles highlighting lost business opportunities due to compromised access to electricity or mandatory evacuations of workers and customers. Such stories can have a negative effect on efforts to attract new industry to the state.

The LSU AgCenter estimated agricultural production losses in the neighborhood of $450 million statewide. Fierce winds and 20 inches of rain in some places damaged crops across the state.

Estimates for some of the hardest hit crops:

 Cotton $112 million
 Sugar cane $ 73 million
 Soy Beans $ 61 million
 Rice $ 29 million
 Sweet Potato $ 27 million

Precautionary shutdowns in the Gulf of Mexico in advance of Hurricane Gustav brought refinery activity and oil and gas extraction to a virtual halt. By August 31, the Minerals Management Service reported that about 1.25 million barrels per day (or well over 90 percent) of the federal portion of the Gulf of Mexico’s crude oil production was shut-in. Nearly 6.1 billion cubic feet per day (or about 80 percent) of the federal portion of the Gulf of Mexico’s natural gas production was shut-in. Nineteen of the twenty-two major natural gas pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico declared force majeure, effectively shutting in all operations along their systems in the Gulf of Mexico. This included operations at Henry Hub, the largest centralized point for spot and futures natural gas trading in the United States. Many of the natural gas processing plants along the path of the storm shut down operations to allow workers to evacuate the area.

Preliminary post-Gustav reports from the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service indicated minimal impact to Gulf oil and gas platforms. About 40 were affected. Most damage was characterized as “minor.”

Gustav’s impact on insurers of Louisiana property will be less than Katrina’s, partly because the storm was weaker and partly because, after Katrina, major insurance companies acted to reduce their exposure to hurricanes. They increased the insured value of homes and raised insurance premiums by significant amounts. Companies declined to insure some coastal properties at any price. These changes mean property owners affected by Gustav will be paying more out of pocket for repairs.

Many owners may be unaware of the “named storm” clause in their policies. Losses incurred as a result of a named storm – like Gustav – are subject to a deductible based on a percentage of the value of the house, not the normal set dollar amount.

Governmental Response

Those in charge of responding to the challenges of Gustav were able to apply lessons learned from the storms of 2005. In the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, then–Governor Kathleen Blanco ordered the creation of procedures and contracts aimed at speeding response time in future crises. Gustav put those protocols to the test.

Governor Jindal acted swiftly to get the gears of government in motion. Seven days before Gustav hit Louisiana’s shore, he declared a state of emergency. Six days before the storm’s arrival, he had begun deploying troops.

Other actions taken days prior to landfall:

 Evacuation buses on stand-by in the New Orleans area

 State Emergency Operations Center activated

 Shelters prepared in Hammond, Baton Rouge, Alexandria, Monroe and Bossier City

 Assembled large quantities of meals and water at staging areas

Once the storm came ashore, Governor Jindal gave frequent, detailed updates from the State Emergency Operations Center. At the federal level, the Jindal administration requested fuel formulation waivers from the US Department of Environmental Quality in order to acquire adequate supplies of gasoline.

Requests were made early for supplies from FEMA and assurances were given. But there were snags; promised supplies sometimes turned out not to be where they were supposed to be. Such unanticipated hitches required quick adjustments to the existing plan for dealing with the emergency. When FEMA-promised generators failed to arrive in a timely manner, Jindal ordered the state to buy $20 million worth for powering gas stations, groceries and pharmacies. [Unlike Florida and several other states, Louisiana has no law requiring stations on evacuation routes to have emergency generators.]

When food distribution problems arose, the state worked with university kitchens and faith-based organizations to prepare thousands of meals for storm victims.

The state’s fleet-footed response generally drew high praise, but there were a few problems. Some shelters in north Louisiana operated by the Department of Social Services [DSS] lacked showers for three days. Later, there was confusion about the site of DSS emergency food stamp distribution centers set up in New Orleans. There was also a lack of properly trained staff. The centers were overwhelmed and had to turn away many who had waited hours in long lines for assistance. These high-profile problems resulted in the resignation of Ann Williamson, head of DSS. Later, two additional high-ranking DSS officials left the department after reports surfaced of software problems that resulted in large over-payments to some food stamp recipients.

The Category 2 hurricane came ashore on the morning of September 13.

It pushed high water into Terrebonne Parish, inundating thousands of homes. In Jefferson Parish, Grand Isle was completely overtopped by the Gulf. The LA 1 highway was impassable. Flooding in parts of Plaquemines Parish was greater than for either of Hurricanes Katrina or Rita. Water levels on the Northshore were higher than during Gustav.

Despite its impact on the state, the 600-mile-wide giant named Ike landed in Texas, not Louisiana. Its fury showed that even a near-miss can mean devastation for residents here. It also served as a reminder of the price we pay for living where we do -- in a climate that can be warm and inviting as well as fierce and unforgiving, and where the beautiful waters of the Gulf can turn, on a moment’s notice, from tranquil to terrifying.

Hurricane season ends November 30th.

Our Panelists:

This program was also funded in part by the Louisiana Forestry Association

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