Ida inflicts ‘catastrophic’ destruction on Louisiana, over a million people without power

Bricks from a collapsed historical building in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Aug 30, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW ORLEANS (NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG) - Rescue teams fanned out across Louisiana on Monday (Aug 30) searching for people left stranded in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, even as New Orleans emerged from its most serious onslaught since Hurricane Katrina confident that its levees had held.

While city residents could take a measure of relief at having dodged a catastrophic flood, several surrounding communities remained cut off by the storm, with the extent of the devastation in those areas still coming into focus.

More than 1 million people, including most of New Orleans, were left without electricity; more than 300,000 were without water; and some 2,000 were in shelters, officials said.

New Orleans did not have a functioning 911 system for more than 12 hours on Monday, leaving officials to advise those in need of emergency assistance to go to their nearest fire station.

At least three deaths have been attributed to the storm, officials said: A man died while driving in New Orleans; a woman was found dead in the fishing village of Jean Lafitte, south of the city; and a man was killed in Prairieville, about 32km southeast of Baton Rouge, where a tree fell on a house.

All across southeastern Louisiana, officials and volunteers responded, sometimes in boats, to calls from residents stranded in houses swamped in the rising waters.

In Jefferson Parish alone, the authorities rescued more than 70 people from flooded neighbourhoods.

But the fate of many others remained unclear as rescuers struggled to reach those who had stayed home to ride out the storm.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said he expected the death toll to rise "considerably".

Hospitals in the state, already strained by a surge of Covid-19 patients, braced for an influx of people injured in the storm.

Louisiana has been dealing with one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the nation, leaving hospital staff exhausted and available beds limited.

Several hospitals had to be evacuated on Monday, officials said, including St Anne in Raceland, Chabert in Houma and Lady of the Sea in Galliano, where high winds ripped portions of the roof off on Sunday.

The force of the storm - with sustained winds reaching as high as 150 mph (240kph) - surprised even those accustomed to riding out powerful hurricanes.

"My roof just flew off, the whole roof," said Alexis Johnson, speaking outside a civic center in Houma that served as a shelter for residents of the badly hit city about 100km southwest of New Orleans. "I stayed still so the wind wouldn't take me."

Now, she said, she and her daughter have nowhere to go. "I can't go home," Johnson said. "We have nothing left."

Highway 51 is flooded after Hurricane Ida struck LaPlace, Louisiana, on Aug 30, 2021. PHOTO: USA TODAY/REUTERS

President Joe Biden, who received a briefing on the storm from local officials Monday, said that the "people in Louisiana and Mississippi are resilient" and that the federal government would "stand with you and the people of the Gulf for as long as it takes for you to recover".

Dozens of people who stayed in Grand Isle, a narrow beachy islet of homes on stilts facing the Gulf of Mexico, remained cut off and unreachable for much of Monday as phone lines were down and the one road in and out was impassable.

Water had pushed past or "overtopped" the levees around small towns in the southern half of Jefferson Parish, said Cynthia Lee Sheng, the parish president, sending several hundred people who were riding out the storm there into attics and onto roofs.

A 3m-high surge topped a levee in Plaquemines Parish, southeast of New Orleans, on Sunday, officials there said.

That levee is outside the federal storm risk reduction system, in an area where the National Hurricane Center had warned that overtopping of local levees was possible.

No such overtopping took place along any of the 307km of flood barriers that hold water back from New Orleans, according to the Flood Protection Authority, the local agency that runs the Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System. Nor had any of those barriers suffered a structural failure, called a breach.

The levee systems "performed magnificently", Edwards said. "The damage is still catastrophic, but it was primarily wind-driven."

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The levee system was hardened and expanded after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the city had similarly appeared to have avoided catastrophe from the storm, only to watch as the levees failed and the city flooded the next day.

But the system built at a cost of more than US$14 billion (S$18.8 billion) to protect New Orleans had worked, according to Elizabeth Zimmerman, who ran disaster operations for the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Obama administration. "It's a major accomplishment," Zimmerman said. "The things that were built were a major step forward."

Yet as Ida moved through the state, the storm caused "catastrophic transmission damage" to the electrical system, leaving more than 1 million utility customers without power. Entergy, a major power company in Louisiana, said Monday that it would "likely take days to determine the extent of damage to our power grid and far longer to restore electrical transmission to the region."

All eight transmission lines that bring electricity into New Orleans were knocked out of service by the storm, according to the power utility.

On Monday, the company said 216 substations and more than 3,200km of transmission lines were out of service. One transmission line that spans the Mississippi River was down.

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Climate threat

The storm raises fresh questions about how well the energy industry has prepared for natural disasters, which many scientists believe are becoming more common because of climate change.

This year, much of Texas was shrouded in darkness after a winter storm, and last summer officials in California ordered rolling blackouts during a heat wave.

Scientists have warned of a rise in cyclone activity as the ocean surface warms due to climate change, posing an increasing threat to the world's coastal communities.

"It's a known effect of climate change. Increasing ocean heat is causing strong hurricanes to become stronger," said Greg Foltz, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Branches, broken glass and other debris litter New Orleans's downtown. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

"I've been here 61 years. I've never experienced anything like this before," Glenn Brady said as he pulled waterlogged rugs and carpets from his home in LaPlace.

He recalled watching the storm rip the columns out of his neighbour's front porch and shoot them through a front window. "I definitely got a newfound fear for hurricanes," he said.

Ida astonished meteorologists with its rapid intensification in the days before it made landfall Sunday near Port Fourchon as a Category 4 storm. And it maintained its intensity for longer after coming ashore than is typical for hurricanes, a result of the swampy terrain and the fact it was still growing in strength as it reached the coast.

By Monday, the center of the storm crossed into western Mississippi, slowing and weakening into a tropical depression as it swept northward. Its path is expected to curve northeastward through the evening, and then into the Tennessee Valley on Tuesday.

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