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 and coffee makers.
If for a week, many of us felt powerless. Powerlessness is the first cousin of dependency. Our neighborhoods, communities and families depended upon the expertise, rectitude and infrastructure of municipal governments, energy companies and first responders. I trust all of these entities, but if you’re like me, you don’t like feeling dependent or powerless.
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. Particularly on radio talk shows, questions have turned to diatribes and threats. I find the acerbic and often times unreasoned reactions to our recovery as dramatic and anticlimactic as Hurricane Isaac.
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 addition, “How was our response to the elderly and infirmed?” In other words, how can we recognize and defend against the seemingly never-ending storms for the most vulnerable in New Orleans?
A recent study by the Greater New Orleans Data Center Found that in 2010 as partly a consequence of the Great Recession, New Orleans poverty rose to “27% - statistically the same as a decade ago, and well above the national rate of 15%.”
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. These systems should be green. Noisy gas driven generators don’t seem like a citywide solution. We must also talk about energy affordability. The long lines outside of Entergy don’t just emerge after hurricanes. Many families have to make paradoxical decisions on whether to pay health insurance or their electric bill.
As an educator, I know that stressful conditions open opportunities for growth and improvement. Stress also starts the blame game. Blaming rarely finds solutions. We have to do better next time. There will be a next time.
If the city and region is actually one of the most innovative as recent reports say, then shouldn’t our infrastructure be transformative for the people who need it to be? A measure of how quickly we become cool shouldn’t be an indice of improvement. An innovative city is one that uplifts people who are seldom cool into power. That would require caring about problems that exist next week and the week after. There is nothing more innovative than care.
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. But those demands should expose our better selves.