Hurricane Gustav was an unpredictable storm. In some ways that was good as the storm slowed down before coming ashore, and hence did less damage on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in New Orleans than was feared. But who would have guessed that the region round Natchez would be without power longer than areas farther south including Picayune and the Coast?
Southwest Mississippi was hard hit by the storm that didn’t seem to want to go away. The system stalled out, with heavy rains and high winds hampering efforts to restore the power.
At the peak, approximately 40,000 people — including all of Adams County — in the Entergy service territory were without power after wind gusts estimated at 60 miles per hour during the storm caused trees to fall taking down power lines.
Natchez, Gloster, Centerville, Meadville and Liberty were completely in the dark Monday due to extreme damage to the transmission system, said Maura Hartmann, spokeswoman for Entergy Mississippi. There were 75 substations out and big transmission lines were town.
“That area was really hard hit,” Hartmann said. “Crews were working hard to get service restored, but this systems stalled over the Louisiana area around Shreveport. There were tornado warnings and lots of flooding from water being dumped something like what happened in Florida a couple of weeks ago when Fay stalled and caused massive flooding. Because of those conditions with wind, rain and possible tornadoes, it hampered our ability to go in and restore anything. Conditions just weren’t safe.”
The storm came in Monday, and Tuesday not much progress was made. More of the same kind of weather was experienced Wednesday.
There are unique challenges to restoring power to that part of state. Hartmann said it is not like an urban area where there most power lines are in densely populated areas. In an urban area, if one power line is restored hundreds or thousands of customers go back up. But in a rural region, perhaps only five to 10 customers get service back.
“We were facing a different animal restoring power to that area,” Hartmann said. “There was a lot of flooding and trees down across the road, and recovery work was hampered by the feeder bands that continued to go through the area. Tuesday we were still very much in the middle of this storm. It was still the Gustav weather system.”
Most of the damage was to utility lines and roads that had to be cleared of downed trees and limbs. In downtown Natchez, the facade of an unused building on Commerce Street collapsed and the roof of a house on Union Street landed in the street.
When the hurricane came ashore, much of the national attention was on the first test of the reinforced levee system in New Orleans. When New Orleans escaped from the storm relatively unscathed, it may have given the impression that the storm overall didn’t cause that much damage. But that wasn’t true. Gustav surpassed Hurricane Rita in terms of damage and the numbers of outages in Louisiana.
“It was a big issue for Entergy Louisiana,” Hartmann said. “Our sister utilities Entergy New Orleans and Entergy Louisiana had 800,000 customers out with widespread damages to the infrastructure. It was the second worst storm in the 95-year history of Entergy in Louisiana. They are looking at weeks and weeks before electricity is restored to everyone.”
Natchez is just across the river from Louisiana, and so is impacted by the devastation in the Miss-Lou area. But this time Louisiana was clearly more hard hit than Mississippi.
“We were not in as bad a situation as Louisiana with this storm,” Hartmann said. “I think our people in Mississippi were much, much better prepared this go around.”
Because people in both states took the threat of Gustav seriously, Entergy had difficulties finding enough hotel rooms for the 9,000 utility workers brought in from 27 different states to assist Entergy in restoring power after the storm.
“There was a huge challenge getting lodging for these crews, feeding these crew, and meeting their various needs,” Hartmann said. “When we went to get hotel rooms, the public had beat us to it. We started Wednesday before the storm trying to book hotels from Jackson south. Nothing was available. People made reservations way far in advance of any evacuation orders. We have never seen that kind of reaction before. Katrina and Rita got people’s attention, and people are taking these kinds of storms much more seriously right now.”
Entergy had to resort to non-traditional lodging such as churches, state parks and shelters for their power restoration crews.
Farther south in the Picayune and Poplarville area, there was relatively little damage.
“Generally it was rather light to medium damage as best I could tell,” said Glade Woods, president of the Partners for Pearl River County and Partners for Stennis.
“There were a few limbs and trees down in Picayune itself, but most people were getting thing back together quickly. It was nothing like Katrina at all when we saw a lot of wind damage all the way up to Jackson.”
Woods said the main impact from the storm was a lot of traffic and visitors from Louisiana. In the days after the storm, some South Louisiana residents remained in Pearl River County at hotels or stayed with relatives. They were heading advice by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal not to rush back home until vital services were restored.
Fuel was hard to find prior to the storm. Woods said if you could find it, there was a huge line. But by Tuesday afternoon, fuel was available again and things were getting back to normal in Pearl River County. Power was out ranging for an hour to most of a day, but everyone’s power was restored by Tuesday evening.
“In talking with the mayor of Picayune, he feels like it was very light damage here,” Woods said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.