Bill Howell hung up the phone and minced no words. "It's pretty brutal out there," he said with a blend of candor and calm.
Howell is running the show at one of Entergy Corp.'s three Hurricane Katrina command centers established to help restore electricity in Louisiana and Mississippi, where more than 1 million customers lost power.
The priority is to restore service to areas of public safety such as hospitals, police stations and fire and rescue buildings. But power is also needed to run the pumps that will drain New Orleans, get the hobbled oil refining business back on its feet and enable telephone equipment to function.
It could take Entergy and other utilities months to restore service to some areas, especially those still underwater. Howell's room handles the tactical side of the restoration effort, guiding crews to the next job throughout Mississippi and Lousiana. They use technology, but still reach for the traditional medium _ a road atlas.
There are 10,000 workers in the field, including thousands of workers from 20 states and several Canadian provinces, with whom the command center touches base regularly.
"This is a real nervy deal here," said Howell, who has worked 32 years for Entergy. "Things change instantly. Imagine trying to find clean drinking water for these people in some places or finding a place to sleep for these people."
John Fitzgerald, 40, and his crew from McDonough Electric Construction Corp., of Bedford, Massachusetts, worked Tuesday in the blazing midday heat to restore power to homes along Old Pass Road in Gulfport, Mississippi.
"The hardest part is you've got houses you can restore but it just seems like you've always got one house in the middle that just can't get up because it's so damaged," said John Rubeski, 37, working with Fitzgerald. "It's pretty hard telling people that their neighbors can have light but they can't have power yet. But everybody's pretty understanding."
Rubeski said they'll likely stay for at least a month, fanning out across town, helping to bring it back to life. "The wind just knocked all these poles down. Sometimes, we just have to wait for poles to be set. That's frustrating," he said.
"But the best part is when you put that power back on and you see that smile on that little kid's face. That makes it all worthwhile," he added, wiping sweat from his cheek with the back of his dirty hand. "Back home, we have a supervisor with us all the time. Here, there so much damage, they're saying 'Just go out there and get it up and running.' ... It's just satisfying to help people. I wouldn't do it just for the money."
By Tuesday morning, Entergy had restored power to about 631,000 of 1.1 million customers who lost service after Katrina and its power demand load was at 77 percent of normal, Leo Denault, Entergy's chief financial officer, said during a conference call with analysts.
Mississippi Power Co., which lost electric service to all of its 195,000 customers during Katrina, said power had been restored to more than half by Tuesday and the rest would have power back by Sunday. Alabama Power Co. said service had been restored to 99 percent of customers affected by the hurricane.
No one is prepared to place a price tag the project, for there will most certainly be surprises and unforeseen costs. Denault said Entergy's financial reserves for storm damage have been depleted by previous storms and are currently at a deficit of $80 million (Ђ64.1 million), AP reported.