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Entergy continued billing after Hurricane Ida destroyed their homes: 'Like salt to the wound'

  • Aug 12, 2022
  • 179 views
Source: 
The Acadiana Advocate

Utility bills were the last thing on Andria Nasset's mind in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, which sent a 100-year-old oak tree through her Tickfaw home and left her without power for months.

A nearby transformer failed during the Aug. 29 storm, causing every electronic in her home to be damaged and the Entergy meter to be ripped away from the side of her home. Ten of the 14 rooms in her house had to be stripped down to the studs. Work continues on the home today, nearly a year after the hurricane devastated her rural corner of Tangipahoa Parish.

And in the midst of it all, Nasset has been fighting with Entergy over $1,300 worth of bills she received after the storm in the months before power was even restored to her property. She says her concerns were dismissed by the company's customer service representatives, and she was told that service would not be reconnected until she paid her September through December 2021 bills in full.

"In the middle of dealing with the aftermath of the storm and rebuilding our home, it's almost like we were being held hostage by Entergy," Nasset said. "We were displaced and homeless. We basically had to pay for energy and a service we're not using to get electricity restored so we can even start to rebuild our home. It was like salt to the wound."

At least three other families in southeastern Louisiana were billed at their usual rate after Hurricane Ida when power was not even available in the area. The problem appears to be tied to estimated usage — a common practice among utility companies for when a meter cannot be read. Sometimes that happens because of a storm or physical barrier that prevents an employee from visiting the meter in person, and other times it is because a smart meter cannot connect to the company's equipment to send a reading.

Entergy was provided names and addresses of four customers who spoke with The Advocate about problems they've spent nearly a year trying to resolve with the company. An Entergy spokesperson could not comment on specific cases but provided a written statement in response to a reporter's questions.

"Although each customer case is unique, it's not uncommon to estimate bills following natural disasters because of inaccessibility issues and infrastructure damages," Entergy Spokesperson Brandon Scardigli wrote in an email. "To that end, we'll investigate each case in good faith, and once completed, take any necessary and appropriate steps to resolve those cases, including reversing any billing errors."

'Generators, hopes, prayers and candlelight'

Cut Off resident Alexis Braud said she called Entergy's customer service line on four separate occasions in an attempt to resolve steep electricity bills she received after Hurricane Ida.

It took six weeks before electricity was restored in her region of lower Lafourche Parish. It took nearly as long before mail service was restored in the area.

Braud's September bill for her home totaled $235.57. Her September bill for another meter for a small building on the property totaled $153.82. Both statements note that the readings are estimated.

"There was absolutely no power for September," Braud said. "Like, the whole month of September we were on generators, hopes, prayers and candlelight."

Braud said she struggled to get anyone on the phone who could explain the rationale behind the bills. When she finally reached an Entergy customer service representative, Braud said she was told the fees and charges on the bills had been approved by the Louisiana Public Service Commission and nothing more could be done.

She said her story is one of many that have been shared in Facebook groups for Ida recovery.

"I think now that everybody in the community has kind of had time to catch their breath, we've reached a point where we can add another thing to the list," Braud said. "Because in the aftermath of the storm, there was so much going on that when the weird billing started, you're so exhausted it was like 'Just pay it.' That's why it's coming out more now even though it's been going on for almost a year."

Joycelyn Terrebonne, who also lives in Cut Off, stayed with family until mid-November after Hurricane Ida ripped apart her home.

The Entergy meter box in her carport and other electrical elements were completely disconnected from the house during the storm.

"It was gone — the panels and everything — so obviously there was no electricity for a while," Terrebonne said. "We didn't stay in the house because there was so much damage. It's not like we had a generator or something. It was dangerous. You didn't want to have electricity coming to this house."

Terrebonne said her September bill was clearly wrong because it was based on estimated usage at a time when her meter could not be read.

It wasn't until the recent bill hikes with fuel surcharges and storm restoration fees that Terrebonne reached out to Entergy with her concern over the September bill, however.

"I think this is the biggest bunch of hogwash," Terrebonne said. "It's not their business to be estimating. It's their business to be reading the meter and charging us for exactly what's on that meter."

Terrebonne said she has not yet received a response from Entergy as to why her September, May and June bills were so high.

Nasset, the Tickfaw resident, eventually asked Entergy to conduct an audit of her account.

In a February letter to Nasset, an Entergy representative wrote that her bills from Aug. 25, 2021 to Jan. 24, 2022, were incorrect.

"After the corrections, your account balance is $1,247.26," the letter said.

The amount prior to the audit had totaled about $3,000. Still, Nasset believes the audit is incorrect because electricity was not restored to her home until early January.

"This letter is like, 'We investigated ourselves for fraud, and in our investigation for fraud, we discovered that you still owe us for the fraud,'" Nasset said. "And there's no one to do an external audit except for the Public Service Commission, which will not return my phone calls."

Nasset said she has asked Entergy for an additional audit and has left lengthy voicemails at the office of Commissioner Eric Skrmetta, who represents residents in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge region.

A spokesperson for Skrmetta said the commissioner was not available for an interview and directed a reporter to the commission's executive secretary.

Braud also said she filed a complaint over Entergy's billing practices with the Public Service Commission about three weeks ago. She had not received a response back as of Thursday.

Complaints 'extremely elevated' at this time

The Public Service Commission receives thousands of complaints per year. Each of the state's five commissioners has been inundated by complaints over the last two months as energy bills have soared to new highs because of storm fees and fuel surcharges.

More than 400 complaints were lodged against Entergy alone over billing concerns in June and July for a single region of the state, according to the executive secretary of the commission.

"It's extremely elevated," Brandon Frey said in a phone interview. "We usually get maybe one call in the main office every 5 or 10 minutes. The phone's ringing off the hook. We have three lines that rang consistently for about a week and a half period."

David Zito, spokesperson for Commissioner Craig Greene, said his office did receive complaints similar to those lodged by Nasset, Braud and Terrebonne in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

"Several customers did call us after the storm saying they were being billed a normal bill or even more — those customers were inappropriately being estimated by the utilities automatic accounting," Zito wrote in an email. "We were able to resolve those issues in their favor by addressing this mistake with the utility and reimburse the customer's money."

Greene's precinct includes Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, among those hardest hit by Hurricane Ida. Zito said many customers reached out after the storm over utility bills of $10 or $15 — the minimum charge for having an account, regardless of usage. Those bills were to be expected and are normal, he said.

Zito said this has been a difficult issue to address and recommended that customers reach out to the Public Service Commission if they have concerns.

Commissioner Foster Campbell, who is often outspoken and votes against the rest of the commission, said Entergy has a history of poor customer service.

"I can believe that people probably had problems communicating with Entergy," Campbell said. "That's one thing I've tried to get them to work on. I blame the company. They don't have good communication with customers."

An Entergy spokesperson said the company is constantly striving to improve the customer experience and recently has enhanced its customer portal at myentergy.com, updated its mobile app and announced the expansion of a call center in West Monroe.

"Our commitment to providing our customers exceptional service at all levels isn't something we take lightly," Scardigli wrote.

'Why do I have to go as far as getting it on the news to get them to fix it?'

Avondale resident Leigh Ann Achée said she spent hours on the phone with Entergy customer service representatives in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Sometimes, after an hour on hold, she would hang up out of frustration, she said.

Achée said she even took her meter box, which had been disconnected from her home after the storm, to an Entergy customer service center in New Orleans to prove the bills were inaccurate.

"We had a pecan tree through the house," Achée said. "And when they came through to repair everything, they cut the lines that went to our house. Yet every month after that, we were getting a bill."

Achée said her attempts to resolve the bills, which were calculated based on estimated usage, in person and by phone were futile. Eventually, Achée said she paid about $1,400 worth of bills in full in November so Entergy would connect power to a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on her Jefferson Parish property.

Yet Achée said she continued to receive bills from Entergy for the meter associated with her home, which remains without electricity to this day, in addition to bills for the meter tied to the FEMA trailer.

By July, Entergy had billed her for more than $2,200 of estimated usage for a meter that had not been connected to her home since Aug. 29, 2021. It wasn't until she voiced her concerns to New Orleans TV station WVUE that Entergy resolved the bills, Achée said.

"At 9:01 a.m. the day after the broadcast they called us," Achée said. "They zeroed it out. Why do I have to go as far as getting it on the news to get them to fix it? That's unnecessary."

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