The Plight of the Powerless

Sep 7, 2012

Although Hurricane Isaac blew out electricity for the entire New Orleans metro area, do we collectively understand what it means to be powerless? For too many residents, neither Isaac nor Entergy will prevent electricity from returning; powerlessness will. The silver lining to our temporary blackout should be that it illuminated our awareness to the day-to-day conditions of the poor in New Orleans. 

For now Entergy is being cast as spoiler for an otherwise successful hurricane defense. Otherwise, air conditioning could have literally brought cooler heads. So will residents hold Entergy in such venomous contempt when power is fully restored? I ask this question because I believe the notable acrimony towards Entergy will subside when electricity is completely restored in the upper-income neighborhoods. However, the quest for energy solutions should not end when those with power are comforted.

I’m concerned that emotional responses will bury opportunities to deal with deeper questions of energy and power. Anger, pain and pity seldom provide clarity. Deeper problem solving requires people to look beyond their own feelings — no matter how hot — toward the greater good.

More than 769,000 people went without electricity in Louisiana as a result of Hurricane Isaac. For at least three days, electricity didn’t flow through the veins of approximately 50 percent of New Orleans’ households. Significant portions (18 percent) of the city sweated six nights without air conditioning, refrigeration or coffee makers.

Consequently, the weeklong battle to get electricity restored to the region motivated the New Orleans City Council to hold an “emergency meeting.” Fortune 500 companies don’t need a defense, but this meeting was called only a day after crews could get on utility poles. Power outages and restorations were surprisingly democratic. Black and poor areas seemed to get power alongside white and wealthy sections at ostensibly the same pace.

Nevertheless, neighborhood leaders and callers on radio talk shows are crying for the Entergy New Orleans Present Charles Rice’s ouster. If I questioned Mr. Rice I would ask, “How many people lived without electricity before Isaac? For those families who did not have electricity for sustained periods of time, how can we increase the likelihood of them having it thereafter?” In other words, how can we recognize and defend against the seemingly never-ending storms for the most vulnerable in New Orleans?

Clearly, a conversation regarding the region’s physical infrastructure should include talk about a diversification of power services and the development of adequate backup systems. We must also talk about energy affordability. The long lines outside of Entergy don’t just emerge after hurricanes.

At least for a few days, powerlessness unified New Orleans more than the Saints or Mardi Gras ever could. How long will that bond last? The New Orleans metro should collectively demand energy solutions from Entergy, government and us. Blaming rarely finds solutions. Most importantly, our demands should expose our better selves.

Andre Perry (twitter: @andreperrynola) is Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education and author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.