PSC on 01312018 (copy)

The Louisiana Public Service Commission members are, from left to right are: Lambert C. Boissiere III, D-New Orleans, Foster Campbell, D-Bossier Parish, Eric Skrmetta, R-Metairie, Mike Francis, R-Crowley, and Craig Greene, R-Baton Rouge.

Graphic scenes of people having sex interrupted utility regulators at the Louisiana Public Service Commission meeting on Wednesday, held virtually over Zoom.

The five-elected PSC members were set to talk about electricity and phone service during Hurricane Ida – a controversial issue that has led to lawsuits and threats directed at the commissioners and the utility companies they regulate, like Entergy Louisiana.

But the Zoom meeting had to adjourn for about 15 minutes while staffers addressed unknown meeting participants who overtook the shared screen function to run explicit pornographic videos as commissioners tried to speak.

Constrained by open meetings laws, the PSC had to continue the hearing without banning viewers they could not identify among the usual group of about 200 lawyers, lobbyists, and utility company executives.

When the meeting reconvened, PSC Chairman Craig Greene, R-Baton Rouge, said the commissioners would vote quickly on the issues that were on the agenda, then go into reports of outages and recovery efforts from each of the utility and telecommunication companies impacted by the storm.

Greene said once the required votes were complete, he would adjourn the meeting at the first instance of another disruption. If that happened, the expected reports would be submitted and posted on the PSC website.

"It was unfortunate and disgusting," Greene said after the meeting. "Apparently, the hackers have adequate electricity and internet access."

The meeting continued for another three and half hours uninterrupted. The commissioners voted on several, mostly technical, issues that required their action.

Among the issues decided was a resolution, approved without dissent, asking the state’s congressional delegation to pursue federal disaster relief that would offset what customers ultimately will have to pay for storm-related losses and to help fund upgrades that would harden the lines that transmit large amounts of electricity from generating plants to the system that steps down the power and distributes it to customers.

Ida destroyed 212 transmission structures and damaged another 296. More than 36,000 distribution poles and 50,000 spans of wire went down cutting electricity to 1,098,433 customers – second only to the 1.3 million taken out by Hurricane Gustav in 2009. About 25,000 customers are still without power.

Entergy Louisiana President Phillip May told commissioners that preliminary estimates indicate that the state's largest electricity provider spent $2 billion to $2.4 billion to get the lights back after Hurricane Ida. Those remaining customers without power lived in areas near the path of the hurricane's eye wall and-in many cases those homes were too destroyed to accept electricity.- 

The scoop on state politics in your inbox

Get the Louisiana politics insider details once a week from us. Sign up today.

During the past year, Louisiana and its utility system has been hit with four named hurricanes – two of which, Laura and Ida, came ashore as among the strongest in history. Recovery costs, under law, are paid by the customers, not the utility companies.

PSC Commissioner Foster Campbell, D-Bossier Parish, pointed out that the entire Republican congressional delegation voted against legislation that would provide $28 billion in emergency storm recovery funds.

Early Wednesday morning the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, on a 220-211 party-line vote, approved funding the federal government through Dec. 3 and suspending the nation's borrowing limit until the end of 2022.

The $28.4 trillion debt ceiling legislation includes more than $28 billion in disaster funding, with a large part of that amount headed for Louisiana, if the bill makes through the U.S. Senate. Republicans have vowed to block it.

Campbell asked the three Republican PSC members to reach out to the five GOP representatives and two senators to support the bill that even though it outlines Democratic-backed financial arrangements. The measure also would provide immediate billions for people trying to dig out of not only Hurricane Ida, but the four storms that came ashore in Louisiana last year.

“Maybe y’all can talk to them. I can’t talk to them because they are so partisan,” Campbell said. “It’s a tragedy for the state of Louisiana.”

Once the required votes were taken without incident, the hearing continued with utility companies giving numbers-laden details about how the storm disrupted their services and their restoration efforts illustrated with maps and graphs.

Commissioners scolded electricity, cable, and telephone companies for several systems failures, particularly poor communications, which has led to an atmosphere, in the words of one regulator, of customers “lighting brooms” and seeking company executives. The lack of information created anger and an unproductive rumor mill.

“All of those rumors make it back to elected officials,” PSC Commissioner Eric Skrmetta, R-Metairie, told executives. “We don’t need to have that extra level of angst …We’re going to find a way for you to become more concerned” about communicating what's going on with a company's customers.

 

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.