Images of tens of thousands of New Orleans residents fleeing a city flooded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 demonstrated the vulnerability of the levees and led to a $14 billion improvement.

The new levee system kept New Orleans, at least, dry when the far stronger Hurricane Ida passed through the state last week. But more than a million southeast Louisiana homes and businesses were thrown into the dark when Ida’s high winds — 150 mph at landfall — cut a 170-mile-wide swath across the most populous portion of the state.

“We’ve got to harden the grid just like we hardened the levees,” U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said Thursday while touring the damage in St. Tammany Parish neighborhoods.

Sixteen years ago, President George W. Bush committed to fixing the levees. “Are we going to make the commitment now for the grid?” said Cassidy, who was a key negotiator on Senate-passed legislation that includes funding for hardening the electrical grid.

While the U.S. House is scheduled to vote on the $1.1 trillion infrastructure bill in three weeks, only one of Louisiana’s six House members is unequivocally backing the measure.

The inability of utility companies to keep the storm from damaging its wires, poles and equipment led to no lights, no air conditioning, no refrigeration, no Wi-Fi. It was so bad that President Joe Biden promised the people of LaPlace that he’d send Federal Emergency Management Agency workers door to door to explain the available assistance and help people apply.

All eight transmission lines failed, stopping the flow of electricity from generating plants into New Orleans. Two-thirds of Baton Rouge went dark.

More than 1.1 million homes and businesses across southeast Louisiana lost power. (There are only about 2 million utility customers in the entire state.)

Six days later, 718,559 homes and businesses were still without electricity.

Refineries along the river were unable to make gasoline. And the Mississippi River itself was closed when a 400-foot transmission structure that supported wires carrying electricity from the east bank to the west toppled in the high wind.

Last year was bad too

The 155-mph winds of last year’s Hurricane Laura knocked Lake Charles and its industrial corridor out of power for weeks.

“Ida had the devastating impact, like Laura, in a specific region, plus it impacted three neighboring regions, including the two largest metropolitan areas in Louisiana,” Chip Arnold, Louisiana operations and safety senior manager, said Sunday.

In the past 369 days, seven named systems, including five hurricanes, made landfall in Louisiana.

From government officials to residents cleaning up their homes, fixing electrical infrastructure was a recurring theme when Biden toured southeast Louisiana on Friday, said Gov. John Bel Edwards, who accompanied the president. “The severity of these weather events and the frequency of these weather events is increasing, seems like, every single year. These are both things I talked with the president about. He heard it at every single stop,” Edwards said.

“It is hard for me to imagine that we will ever have electrical infrastructure that can withstand a storm of this severity without any disruptions. But we know we can minimize those disruptions. It’ll take a big investment, but it’s an investment that will pay for itself over time,” Edwards said Saturday.

Money is the issue

Louisiana utility customers already are on the hook for the $2.4 billion it took to restore power after last year’s hurricane season and the unprecedented freeze in February. Restoring the lights after Ida is expected to cost residential, commercial and industrial customers billions more.

“Is there a way to make this whole thing bulletproof? Not really. Is there a way to make it much more resilient? Yeah, absolutely we can do that,” said Phillip May, Entergy Louisiana president and CEO.

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Everything built is constructed to ever-improving engineering standards. The infrastructure built in the past decade fared fairly well, he said. The older equipment, not as much.

“What we’re dealing with these days is a little more intense and a little more frequent than we may have seen when these things were put in place 30, 40 years ago,” May said.

Replacing the downed towers and equipment to the new higher standards is expensive and will increase monthly bills. That’s before considering what hardening the overall system will cost.

Public Service Commission Chair Craig Greene, R-Baton Rouge, wrote Biden last week for federal help to keep Louisiana ratepayers from bearing the bulk of that expense.

“Incorporating all utilities in federal assistance is a direct assurance that their customers — regular people trying to make a living — would be relieved from paying the dollar-for-dollar actual costs of repairing the electric grid after each hurricane,” Greene wrote on behalf of the five elected commissioners who regulate utilities in the state.

Biden’s infrastructure bill

Most of Louisiana’s congressional delegation want a separate appropriation to fund infrastructure hardening. But they’ve done little more than talk. What is on the table is Biden’s $1.1 trillion bill.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, H.R. 3684, includes at least $26.5 billion for “enhancing the resilience of the electric grid to extreme weather and natural disasters.” Grants are to be distributed based on the number of federally declared natural disasters a state experienced over the past 10 years.

Another $18.5 billion is proposed for transmission buildout to “maintain reliability,” and $3 billion more is included to provide flexibility that would quickly rebalance a damaged electrical system. Then there are corporate tax breaks and money from other pots that can be used on hardening the power system.

The U.S. Senate passed the measure Aug. 10 on a 69-30 vote. Seventeen Republicans, including Cassidy, crossed party lines to send the measure to the U.S. House. The House has scheduled a Sept. 27 vote.

Right now, the bill’s only supporter among Louisiana’s six representatives is Democratic U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, whose district straddles parts of New Orleans and Baton Rouge with the River Parishes in between, an area severely damaged by Ida.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, wants a package to harden the power infrastructure but not the one proposed by Biden and negotiated by Cassidy, which he claims has “job-killing taxes” and “radical anti-fossil fuel mandates.”

“As it stands, this bill is full of extremist socialist items unrelated to infrastructure that would destroy Louisiana’s economy and drastically raise energy costs for families all across America,” Scalise said Friday.

Lafayette Republican Rep. Clay Higgins agreed: “Anyone who says this bill is about traditional infrastructure is lying. There’s socialist horror buried within the 2,700 pages. This is a losing deal for Louisiana. It’s not paid for.”

Republican Congressman Mike Johnson, of Bossier City, also won’t support the legislation, saying “only a fraction of it is dedicated to actual infrastructure, and only a tiny fraction of that would ever make its way to Louisiana.”

Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Garret Graves dispatched his press spokesperson, Zach Barnett, to say that as the bill stood Friday, political criteria would choose projects rather than a cost-to-benefit analysis that would maximize taxpayer funding.

“If President Biden commits to backing off their political manipulation of funding and just allow the best projects to be funded, Garret won’t just vote yes, he will be a champion for the bill. If the administration sticks with their political games to divert infrastructure funding from Louisiana to their cronies in California and New York, they’ve got a fight on their hands,” Barnett said.

Cassidy dismisses the criticisms as political excuses not based on provable facts.

“I say go down to Lafourche and Terrebonne Parish, to people who will not have electricity back until Sept. 29 and tell them you’re going to vote against a bill which hardens our grid, which gives coastal restoration dollars, which has flood mitigation, which will build levees and protect Louisiana and other states from natural disasters. Go to those parishes and tell them whatever cockamamie reason you have to vote no,” Cassidy said Sunday morning on ABC’s "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

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