As flood waters move downstream, utility companies are hitting the streets to see where power can be restored and where electricity will have to stay off – thousands of people will be affected – for an undetermined amount of time.

Utility companies on Wednesday rolled out new procedures and sent crews into the once flooded neighborhoods. They’re removing meters on severely damaged structures, which will force proper repair and inspection before lights are turned on again.

“We have to go slowly and methodically to ensure that we can safely give them power,” said Kacee Kirschvink, spokeswoman for Entergy Louisiana LLC, which sells electricity to half the state and most of the Baton Rouge metropolitan area.

Generally, crews will remove the units if water rose as high as the electric meters – about eye level. Electricity from distribution lines flows through meters to power individual structures.

“Water reaching the meter is a good litmus test,” said David Latona of DEMCO, the cooperative that provides power to those not serviced by Entergy in East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes.

“If water gets that high, then that’s a good indicator that you’re going to need to go through the permitting process,” he said. It also keeps utility personnel from having to go inside buildings when deciding whether to stop power to individual structures.

Even when a meter is not taken, if water got inside a structure, particularly to the height of the lowest outlet, the owner should hire an electrician to check out the electrical system, both Entergy and DEMCO agree.

Water causes corrosion in the wires, which heats the connections inside the walls. “It’ll start a fire that could occur months from now,” Latona said.

For flood victims losing their meter, they will need to hire an electrician, then depending on where they live, go through their local permitting process.

For instance, impacted residents of East Baton Rouge Parish will have to pay for an official code inspection before Entergy or DEMCO can flip on the main breakers again. But Livingston Parish authorities suspended the permit requirement during this emergency response period.

The Louisiana Public Service Commission reported 22,661 storm-related power outages statewide on Wednesday. That’s down since Monday when the numbers were nearly 40,000.

DEMCO had 9,052 meters off as of Wednesday afternoon – 3,091 in East Baton Rouge and 1,838 in Livingston Parish. Those outage numbers are down since earlier in the week. But as the flood waters ebb in some areas, allowing for some power to be restored, it’s rising in others, causing more outages.

“We’re doing well in some places, not so well downstream,” Latona said.

The shift in high water dramatically increased the number of outages in Ascension Parish from a few hundred over the weekend to 4,004 meters on Wednesday.

Entergy showed about 12,200 electricity outages late Wednesday – down from a peak of 32,157 reached Tuesday – with 5,371 in East Baton Rouge Parish, 4,646 in Livingston and 1,593 in Ascension.

While the power will be switched on in the next day or so as the water recedes, an untold number of customers will have to go through the permitting process.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, for instance, Entergy reports that many of the 4,600 customers without power live near the Amite and Comite rivers and tributaries. Water went to the rooflines in some neighborhoods. Other structures and neighborhoods on the same circuits were on higher ground and didn’t flood.

Entergy crews spent the night building flood barriers around substations in Ascension, St. James, St. John and Jefferson Davis parishes that could be impacted by backwater flooding.

The Gonzales substation services about 9,500 Ascension Parish customers and is being threatened by high water. Substations take the electricity transmitted from generating plants and send the power through to distribution lines connected to individual customers. Entergy is trying to keep the water out of the Gonzales station in order to keep the electricity on for those customers.

In Livingston Parish about 5,000 Entergy customers are without power because of severe flooding in Denham Springs, mostly in the area between Range Avenue and the Amite River.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.