HOUMA, La. — Full restoration of electricity to some of the hardest-hit areas of Louisiana battered to an unprecedented degree by Hurricane Ida could take until the end of the month, the head of Entergy Louisiana warned Saturday.
At least 16 deaths were blamed on the storm in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Ida damaged or destroyed more than 22,000 power poles, more than hurricanes Katrina, Zeta and Delta combined, an impact Entergy President and CEO Phillip May called “staggering.” More than 5,200 transformers failed and nearly 26,000 spans of wire — the stretch of transmission wires between poles — were down.
“The level of devastation makes it quite difficult or near impossible to get in and fully assess some places,” said May of five southeastern Louisiana parishes facing the longest delays. The company is estimating full power restoration by Sept. 29 or even longer for some customers.
About a quarter of New Orleans residents have power back, including all the city’s hospitals, and the city’s 27 substations are ready to serve customers, said Deanna Rodriguez, Entergy New Orleans president and CEO. Most customers should have power back by Wednesday, Entergy said.
One of the parishes facing long delays for power restoration is Terrebonne, where volunteers in the parish seat of Houma handed out ice, water and meals to shell-shocked storm survivors Saturday. Houma is roughly 55 miles southwest of New Orleans.
Among those in need was 26-year-old Kendall Duthu of Dulac, who collected a container of red beans and rice, pulling over an Infiniti with a shattered windshield to eat.
Duthu has been living in his car, with his girlfriend, since the storm hit. He was a cook at a jambalaya restaurant before the pandemic claimed that job, then a car wash worker until that went away. Duthu, a diabetic, lost his house in the storm and doesn’t know what’s next.
“Next stop, I don’t really ...” he said, trailing off. “We’ve just been living day by day.”
Houma's Hancock Whitney Bank, itself badly damaged by Ida, has distributed water along with about 42,000 meals since Tuesday, said CEO John Hairston.
“Hurricanes are just a part of life,” he said. “Buildings come and go. We may be on a different block. But next storm, we’ll be here.”
South of Houma, splintered trees, swamped furniture and the wreckage of houses littered roadsides. In Ashland, Louisiana, 27-year-old Rene Gregoire Jr. stood outside his house, where windows blew out and water gushed in. It was the latest blow for the tugboat worker after badly hurting his wrist on the job, contracting COVID-19, and his dog requiring a $3,000 surgery.
“It’s my home but I gotta find something new,” Gregoire said, pondering a move to Arizona with his girlfriend.
Just south along Bayou Grand Caillou, Harry Bonvillain surveyed damage to his home, the house raised on concrete pillars now surrounded by a maze of broken staircases and splintered lumber.
Much of Bonvillain’s possessions were lost, mildew covered his clothes and ants were taking over the house. With so much attention on New Orleans, the 58-year-old Bonvillain wondered why more people didn’t care about smaller communities like his.
He described himself as, “Sick. Tired. Stressed out. Depressed. Anxiety high.”
Some parishes outside New Orleans were battered for hours by winds of 100 mph or more.
By Saturday morning, 97% of damage assessment was complete and power restored to about 282,000 customers from the peak of 902,000 blacked out after Ida.
The lower Mississippi River reopened to all vessel traffic in New Orleans and ports throughout southeastern Louisiana after power lines from a downed transmission tower were removed, the Coast Guard said.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said the city was offering transportation to any resident looking to leave the city and get to a public shelter.
By the end of Saturday, city agencies conducting wellness checks had evacuated hundreds of people out of eight senior living complexes where officials deemed conditions unfit for living. The coroner's office is investigating four post-storm deaths that occurred at three of those facilities.
With temperatures in the 90s Saturday, many New Orleans residents just sought to keep cool.
At the Treme Recreation Community Center, a gated complex in the historic Black and Creole neighborhood, cars lined up for blocks to receive water, food and ice rations.
“That’s just not common sense to make us walk so far in the heat,” said Albert Taylor Jr., 76, dripping sweat as he tried to balance three cartons of water and a daily humanitarian ration on the walker he uses because of hip and knee arthritis. He and other disabled residents were living without power in a rental unit blocks away.
In the lower ninth ward, a neighborhood that suffered immensely after Katrina, Lationa Kemp, 57, was too far from the community center to go on foot. On Saturday, she relied on neighbors with cars to fetch ice, hot meals and bottled water.
As recovery efforts continued Saturday, state officials were monitoring a system of disturbed weather in Mexico's Bay of Campeche, which appeared set to move into the Central Gulf of Mexico closer to Louisiana.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said the state is planning an exercise to assess its emergency response if needed. Predictions so far don’t show the system strengthening into a hurricane, but he said “even if it’s a tropical storm, we’re in no state to receive that much rainfall at this time."
“We can’t take the playbook we normally use because the people and assets are no longer where they would have been,” Edwards said. “How do you staff up shelters you need for the new storm and continue to test for COVID? My head’s getting painful just thinking about it. ... We will be as ready as we can be, but I’m praying we don’t have to deal with that.”
Meanwhile, Coast Guard crews were responding Saturday to a sizable oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico following the storm. The ongoing spill appears to be coming from an underwater source at an offshore drilling lease about two miles (3 kilometers) south of Port Fourchon, Louisiana.
President Joe Biden arrived Friday to survey storm damage, touring a neighborhood in LaPlace, between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain that suffered catastrophic wind and water damage that sheared off roofs and flooded homes.
The president also promised full federal support to the Northeast, where Ida’s remnants dumped record-breaking rain and killed at least 50 people from Virginia to Connecticut.
Louisiana's 12 storm-related deaths included five nursing home residents evacuated ahead of the hurricane along with hundreds of other seniors to a warehouse in Louisiana, where health officials said conditions became squalid and unsafe.
On Saturday evening, State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter ordered the immediate closure of the seven nursing facilities that sent residents to the Tangipahoa Parish warehouse facility. “The lack of regard for these vulnerable residents’ wellbeing is an affront to human dignity. We have lost trust in these nursing homes to provide adequate care for their residents,” Kanter said.
The health department on Friday reported the death of a 59-year-old man believed poisoned by carbon monoxide from a generator running inside his home. Several post-storm deaths have been blamed on carbon monoxide poisoning, which can happen if generators are run improperly.