More than 1 million homes and businesses in Louisiana and Mississippi — including all of New Orleans — were left without power as Ida, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. mainland, pushed through on Sunday.
The damage was so extensive that officials warned it could be weeks before the power grid was repaired.
US President Joe Biden met virtually on Monday with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves along with mayors from cities and parishes most impacted by Hurricane Ida to receive an update on the storm’s impacts, and to discuss how the Federal Government can provide assistance.
“We are closely coordinating with State and local officials every step of the way,” Biden said.
The administration said more than 3,600 FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) employees are deployed to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. FEMA staged more than 3.4 million meals, millions of litres of water, more than 35,700 tarps, and roughly 200 generators in the region in advance of the storm.
As the storm was downgraded to a tropical depression Monday afternoon and continued to make its way inland with torrential rain, it was blamed for at least two deaths — a motorist who drowned in New Orleans and a person hit by a falling tree outside Baton Rouge.
But with many roads impassable and cellphone service out in places, the full extent of its fury was still coming into focus. Christina Stephens, a spokesperson for Gov. John Bel Edwards, said that given the level of destruction, “We’re going to have many more confirmed fatalities.”
'We are going to work hard'
The governor's office said damage to the power grid appeared “catastrophic” — dispiriting news for those without refrigeration or air conditioning during the dog days of summer.
“There are certainly more questions than answers. I can't tell you when the power is going to be restored. I can’t tell you when all the debris is going to be cleaned up and repairs made," Edwards told a news conference. “But what I can tell you is we are going to work hard every day to deliver as much assistance as we can.”
Local, state and federal rescuers combined to save at least 671 people by Monday afternoon, Edwards said.
In hard-hit LaPlace, squeezed between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, rescuers saved people from flooded homes in a near-constant operation.
Debbie Greco, her husband and son rode out the storm in LaPlace with Greco's parents. Water reached a foot up the first-floor windows, then filled the first floor to 1.2 metres deep once the back door was opened. They retreated to the second floor, but then screaming winds collapsed the roof as waves broke in the front yard.
They were finally rescued by boat after waiting in the only dry spot, five people sharing the landing on the stairs.
'A COVID nightmare'
The hurricane blew ashore on the 16th anniversary of Katrina, the 2005 storm that breached New Orleans' levees, devastated the city and was blamed for 1,800 deaths.
This time, New Orleans appeared to escape the catastrophic flooding city officials had feared.
Stephanie Blaise returned to her home with her father in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward after evacuating. The neighbourhood suffered devastating flooding in Katrina, but only lost some shingles in Ida. However, with no idea when electricity would be restored, Blaise didn't plan to stay long.
“We don’t need to go through that. I’m going to have to convince him to leave. We got to go somewhere. Can’t stay in this heat,” she said.
The city urged people who evacuated to stay away for at least a couple of days because of the lack of power and fuel. "There’s not a lot of reasons to come back,” said Collin Arnold, chief of emergency preparedness.
Also, 18 water systems serving about 255,000 customers in Louisiana were knocked out of service, the state Health Department said.
Four Louisiana hospitals were damaged and 39 medical facilities were operating on generator power, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said. Officials said they were evacuating scores of patients to other cities.
The governor's office said over 2,200 evacuees were staying in 41 shelters, a number expected to rise as people were rescued or escaped flooded homes. The governor's spokesperson said the state will work to move people to hotels as soon as possible so they can keep their distance from one another.
“This is a COVID nightmare,” Stephens said, adding: “We do anticipate that we could see some COVID spikes related to this.”
Power grid and wireless network impaired
Preliminary measurements showed Slidell, Louisiana, got at least 39.8 centimetres of rain, while New Orleans received nearly 35.5 centimetres, forecasters said. Other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, Alabama and Florida got 12.5 to 28 centimetres.
The Louisiana National Guard said it activated 4,900 Guard personnel and lined up 195 high-water vehicles, 73 rescue boats and 34 helicopters. Local and state agencies were adding hundreds more. Edwards said he decided not to tour hurricane damage by air Monday to add one more aircraft to the effort.
The hurricane twisted and collapsed a giant tower that carries key transmission lines over the Mississippi River to the New Orleans area, causing widespread outages, Entergy and local authorities said. The power company said more than 3,200 kilometres of transmission lines were out of service, along with 216 substations. The tower had survived Katrina.
The storm also flattened utility poles, toppled trees onto power lines and caused transformers to explode.
The governor said 25,000 utility workers were in the state to help restore electricity, with more on the way. “We’re going to push Entergy to restore power just as soon as they can,” Edwards said.
AT&T said its wireless network in Louisiana was reduced to 60% of normal but was coming back. Many people resorted to using walkie-talkies. The governor's office staff had no working phones. The company sent a mobile tower to the state's emergency preparedness office so it could get some service.
Ida’s 230 kph winds tied it for the fifth-strongest hurricane ever to hit the mainland. Its winds were down to 64 kph around midday Monday.