By Holbrook Mohr and Garance Burke
WAVELAND, Miss. (AP) — When Hurricane Katrina’s punishing storm surge plowed ashore, it swamped seven of Coast Electric Power Association’s substations, vital to powering thousands of Mississippi homes and businesses. The facilities have long since been repaired, but a decade after the storm they remain at the same elevation, and just as vulnerable to catastrophic hurricanes.
Such storms are a growing threat. An Associated Press analysis of industry data found that severe weather is the leading cause of major outages on the nation’s power grid. The number of weather-related power outages has climbed over the last decade, with the greatest spikes in 2008 and 2011, according to the AP analysis and independent studies.
That leaves Coast Electric and other utilities across the country struggling to balance customer costs with the need for improvements to counter the rising number of violent storms, floods and droughts threatening the U.S. power grid’s core infrastructure.
The eye of Katrina ripped through the coastal city of Waveland in late August 2005, leveling neighborhoods, destroying infrastructure and knocking out power to Coast Electric’s entire coverage area.
Facing sweltering summer heat and $110 million in damage, the small nonprofit cooperative focused on restoring power to customers as quickly as possible, said vice president of engineering Scott Brown. The old substations that flooded were repaired to pre-storm conditions — at the time, it would have been impractical to raise them or move them elsewhere.
“We’re only a few feet above sea level right here,” Brown said during a recent visit to a Waveland substation.
Coast Electric was able to make some major improvements post-Katrina; it used a large mound of dirt to elevate a new substation 18 feet above sea level. But raising the old substations that flooded would cost Coast’s 68,160 customers millions of dollars, Brown said.
Hundreds of companies own and manage the equipment that makes up the U.S. power grid. They range from large investor-owned companies like New York’s Consolidated Edison to small municipal utilities and cooperatives like Coast Electric, and each faces a unique set of challenges.
When Hurricane Irene hit the Northeast in 2011, it marked the first time in the history of Con Ed that more than 200,000 customers lost power from a storm. Superstorm Sandy struck just 14 months later, quickly followed by a devastating Nor’easter, leaving 1.1 million customers in the dark.
“It was clear to us that weather patterns were changing fundamentally. Severe weather events were becoming more frequent and devastating,” Allan Drury, a Con Ed spokesman, said in an email.
Con Ed is spending $1 billion to harden its system. Drury said the utility has been able to afford all the upgrades it wants.
The test will be when the next, powerful storm hits.
UPGRADES ARE COSTLY, BUT SO ARE OUTAGES
There’s no doubt that improvements are costly for utilities and the customers they serve, but so are outages. A 2013 report by the White House said weather-related blackouts cost the U.S. economy an annual average of $18 billion to $33 billion, when adjusted for inflation, from 2003 to 2012. They can also be deadly. The report said 50 deaths in the aftermath of Sandy were attributed to power outages, including senior citizens who died from hypothermia and others poisoned by carbon monoxide from generators.