Storm response in rural areas dogged by miscommunication

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At least 2,600 customers, mainly in rural areas, had not gotten their power restored as of Tuesday afternoon, following severe storms that blew through parts of Mississippi Sunday.

However, some rural customers wondered not only why the lights were still off more than 48 hours, but why the utility company was saying power had been restored.

Why?

A spokeswoman for Entergy Mississippi, which services the central region of state, said during a storm, the utility’s priority is to restore power for essential services or  lines that power the most homes.

The sequence goes in this order: power plants, transmission lines, emergency services, areas with the largest number of homes and businesses and, finally, individual services in less populated areas with time-consuming repairs.

But many people who live in rural areas may receive alerts that their power at home is up and running, even though it is not. Or vice versa—sometimes homes get alerts that their power has gone out even though everything is in working order.

Entergy Mississippi spokeswoman Mara Hartmann said this happens because during massive outages, the quickest way is to get power going again for the largest number of people is to switch customers to a secondary power source until the main power source is fixed.

However, the outage-management system, doesn’t always know when the utility has alternated power sources, resulting in miscommunication.

For example, the utility uses software that predicts how many customers are without power based on the volume of complaints customers call in. If customers call multiple times about the the same problem, the computers can overestimate the impact of the outage, Hartmann said.

“In our effort to get customers the most info we can in widespread outages, sometimes we don’t match up 100 percent,” Hartmann said.

Entergy also uses technology called a predictive dialer, which sends text notification blasts to customers’ phones, including some who might have electricity

“It helps us reach the most people,” Hartmann said.

Another thing that happens is that on occasion, the preparation of an outage message will take a couple of hours to nail down which customers should receive the notification.

“Sometimes by the time we send the message, our linemen have outworked us and they restored power to everybody,” Hartmann said.

Because less populated areas are usually last on the list to get their power restored, those places disproportionately feel the effect of communications challenges.

“If we have to do this and it’s correct for 95 percent of the people it goes to, and it’s not correct to about five percent, then that’s something we’ve decided we can live with and work through,” Hartmann said.

As of  Tuesday afternoon, virtually all of the remaining outages in Entergy’s service area were in rural areas, with 100 or fewer customers per outage case, Hartmann said. Those outages are in 15 of the 45 counties that Entergy services.

Paul Hartfield, a Hinds County resident, said he lives on a spur off of a main line, where there are six houses.

He understands that his home is in one of the last areas addressed if there is a widespread outage.

“It gets frustrating but I understand why,” Hartfield said. “This last experience, just got power back on (at 11 a.m.). The longest we went without power was a little over a week, after Katrina.”

He said he reported the outage and Monday started getting text alerts that his home’s power had been restored when it had not. He prepares for moments like the recent storm with a generator.

“It’s understandable when you have hundreds of thousands of people out,” Hartfield said. “If the weather is pleasant, it’s not a huge issue.”