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Risky road to electrical service in New Orleans

Many residents of New Orleans are breaking the law and risking serious injury or death to get their electricity restored.
Walter Vine holds the lock that is still on his meter at his home in the Broadmore community of New Orleans.Mary Ann Chastain / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tired of waiting in the dark for the lights to come back on, Walter Vine took matters into his own hands: He unscrewed his electrical meter and rigged it to bring power into his flood-damaged home.

Vine, a building contractor, broke the law and risked serious injury or death. But like so many others in this hurricane-ravaged city, he figured it was the only way to avoid the red tape and hair-pulling frustration so many have faced in trying to get their electricity restored.

“People cannot possibly do this by the book and stay in the city,” said Vine, who lives a block from one of the city’s former mayors in the upper-middle-class Broadmoor neighborhood.

Five months after Katrina plunged New Orleans into darkness, roughly 124,000 homes and businesses — or more than 66 percent of the city’s structures — still have no electricity, according to the utility, Entergy New Orleans.

The really frustrating part is that since December, power has been restored to 90 percent of the electrical grid — and the street lights are back on in many neighborhoods — yet only one-third of homeowners can draw juice into their homes.

That is largely because the city requires a permit before the utility can reconnect a meter at any home whose wiring was damaged by flooding. Getting that permit from one of the city’s few electrical inspectors has been a bureaucratic nightmare involving phone calls, waiting in line at city offices and waiting some more at home.

Late last month, Mayor Ray Nagin suspended the rule that said all electrical work done by contractors needs approval from a city inspector. Now, any state-licensed electrician can certify the work.

Greg Meffert, one of two deputy mayors, could not say how many residents have taken matters into their own hands, but acknowledged the practice appears to be widespread.

How it's done
The Associated Press interviewed six people who restored power to their homes on their own. Two of them showed the AP how it is done.

“It’s better than sitting in the dark,” said Jeff Bennett, 40, who broke a small lock on his Entergy electric meter, unscrewed the glass bubble and popped off two pieces of plastic that locked the current out of the house. It was that simple.

Bennett is living in a trailer home, parked alongside his gutted house. The trailer is powered by an orange extension cord running to a socket inside his house.

For weeks after he rigged his meter, Bennett would wake up and hurry out in his boxer shorts in the morning chill to unplug the cord, in case the inspector showed up. In December, two months after he turned the power on himself, the inspector finally arrived.

“We weren’t supposed to do it. But everybody is so fed up,” said retiree David Snyder, 74, who lives in a pink stucco house. An electrician tipped him off to how to fix the meter to accept power.

The meter-riggers are not getting the electricity for free. “Even if a customer has illegally connected himself, the meter is still spinning and we can still get a read on their usage,” said Entergy spokesman Chanel Lagarde.

Katrina flooded 11 of the city’s 18 electrical substations, causing an estimated $275 million in damage to New Orleans’ utility infrastructure, Lagarde said.

Within weeks, residents began returning to the city, gutting their houses and replacing their flooded wiring. But once it came time to have the electrical panel inspected, they found there were only six city inspectors charged with issuing permits for the thousands of rewired houses.

Liability fears
“We can’t waive the inspection because unfortunately the liability would be too great,” said Clinton Vince, an attorney who advises the City Council’s utilities committee. “The electrical work needs to be inspected because if the wire is not installed properly, it could cause serious safety problems — including loss of life.”

Meffert, the deputy mayor, said the city tried to get money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to hire more inspectors. But FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said FEMA money cannot be used to pay a City Hall employee’s salary.

While concerned about the illegal hookups, Meffert said, the city will not prosecute homeowners. “I can’t blame them,” he said. “These are extraordinary times.”

Vine has had his lights on illegally since Nov. 11, the same day he applied for a permit. An electrical inspector has yet to show, but the utility bills never stopped coming.

“I told my wife, ‘Pay it,”’ Vine said. “The last thing I want is for them to come and put a real lock on my meter.”