The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Residents in Ida-battered southeastern Louisiana brace for weeks without power

Entergy, the power company in New Orleans, has faced scrutiny for not properly maintaining their systems to withstand natural disasters. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)
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LAFOURCHE PARISH, La. Bethanie Podany has spent days crammed into her sister’s house in Houma, La., with her husband, two young children and more than a dozen other relatives.

Hurricane Ida made refugees of them when it slammed into the Gulf Coast last week and knocked out electricity for hundreds of thousands of people in the region. For Podany, trying to keep her Raceland, La., house powered by a generator seemed like a lost cause because fuel was in short supply.

But her sister had a whole-house generator that operated on natural gas, and she opened her doors. Podany grabbed what she could out of the freezer — a bag of shrimp and 200 ounces of breast milk she’d pumped over the past year — and headed over.

Five families were cooped up in the five-bedroom property Saturday, waiting in sweltering heat for the electricity to return as recovery crews begin repairing the wrecked infrastructure.

“It’s tense. There’s been a few arguments,” said Podany, 29. “It’s hard to do anything with so many people in a house.” Still, she added, “I don’t know how people who are less fortunate than us who don’t have families to go to are going to make it.”

Across storm-ravaged southeastern Louisiana, residents are bracing for what could be several weeks or more without power as crews set to work fixing tens of thousands of downed utility poles, mangled transmission lines and broken transformers left in Ida’s wake.

Electricity was starting to come back online Saturday in parts of New Orleans, with officials expecting power to be restored in most of the city by the middle of next week. But surrounding parishes hit hard by the storm were still in the dark.

Entergy, the state’s largest utility, estimated in an update on its website that five parishes — Lafourche; lower Jefferson; Plaquemines; St. Charles; and Terrebonne, where Podany is staying — are not expected to have power restored until the end of the month. If outages continue beyond that point, the company said it “will explore every option to expedite restoration.”

New Orleans begins evacuating residents amid outages

The loss of electricity has jeopardized hospital care, hobbled businesses and added to the misery for countless residents dealing with the fallout from the storm.

A complex system of levees and storm walls erected after Hurricane Katrina appeared to have worked as intended against Ida, helping minimize flooding in New Orleans. But other areas without such protection were inundated, and damage to power infrastructure in Louisiana and Mississippi was already greater than in Hurricanes Katrina, Zeta and Delta combined, according to utility officials.

Gov. Jon Bel Edwards (D) said on Sept. 4 that the bipartisan infrastructure bill now in the House had "an awful lot of money" that could improve infrastructure. (Video: Reuters)

After making landfall last week, Ida has led to scores of deaths, including nearly 50 in the Northeast, where the storm’s remnants caused devastating rains and flooding.

Northeast officials vow to make changes after nearly 50 storm-related deaths in Ida’s wake

During a Saturday afternoon news conference, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said 12 people had died because of the hurricane, four because of carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.

Five nursing-home residents in Louisiana died after being evacuated to a warehouse in Independence, which is part of storm-battered Tangipahoa Parish. More than 800 people were packed into close quarters, where they slept on mattresses laid on the floor and relieved themselves in buckets.

The Louisiana Health Department relocated the people Thursday and on Saturday ordered the immediate closure of the seven nursing homes where the people lived, according to a news release.

“What happened in Independence is reprehensible, and I know there are many families hurting as a result,” Courtney N. Phillips, the department’s leader, said in the news release.

Those who survived the deadly deluge in Louisiana were grappling with its aftermath Saturday.

People flocked to grocery stores and stood in hours-long lines at gas stations to get fuel for generators and vehicles. The scramble to stock up on essentials has caused tensions to boil over in some places. In Metairie, a western suburb of New Orleans, a driver fatally shot another man at a gas station as they waited to fill their tanks, according to police. A 20-year-old was arrested Saturday on a charge of second-degree murder in connection with the shooting, authorities said.

Statewide, about 620,000 Entergy customers were without power Saturday, according to the company. Power had been restored to 327,700 customers, or a little more than a third of the 948,000 customers who lost power due to the storm.

Wreckage from the storm included 22,567 poles, 26,729 spans of wire and 5,261 transformers damaged or destroyed, according to Entergy.

“As restoration continues, these numbers could continue to rise,” the company said in a statement.

Shelia Rousse said the toppled poles and knots of wire have made the roads in Lafourche Parish treacherous for motorists.

“You have to maneuver the car, swerving back and forth” around the downed equipment, said Rousse, 55. “You have utility poles that are leaning in the road that you have to go around.”

For three consecutive days, Rousse and her daughter Meagan have driven from New Iberia, La., to the state’s southeastern tip to salvage belongings from their home, which was pummeled by the storm. Their two-story property in Cut Off, La., is still standing, but the ceiling has caved in, the chimney is blown off and water damage is extensive. Mold is spreading across the interior, and a foul stench lingers in the air.

Rousse, her husband and her six children have collected what they can — photographs, old VHS tapes, furniture — but Saturday may be their last day to do it for the time being. They check out of their New Iberia cottage rental on Sunday. With hotels and vacation rentals booked up all over, they’re not sure where they’ll go next.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Rousse said.

Other Lafourche residents spent Saturday struggling to make do without power as temperatures soared into the high 80s. Some roads were hot enough to create heat mirages, while others remained covered in water.

In Mathews, La., a hand-painted sign offered free ice to those in need. Shredded metal roofing material littered the edges of Bayou Lafourche, and the McDonald’s sign on Louisiana Highway 1 was crumpled to a single golden arch.

Ida’s impact from the Gulf Coast to Northeast — by the numbers

Sandra Boudreaux, 59, and her husband Allen Boudreaux, 62, sat on the porch outside their mobile home in a neighborhood lined by sugar cane fields.

“It rained in all my rooms,” Sandra Boudreaux said, describing how Ida’s winds took off half the couple’s roof. But a week out from the storm, the lack of electricity seemed to be a bigger threat to their well-being.

“It’s stressful,” Allen Boudreaux said of living without power. “You don’t realize what you have until it’s gone. And at this point, we don’t know how long we’ll be without it.”

“I can’t handle this,” his wife said. “I can’t handle the heat.”

Sandra Boudreaux said she has low blood pressure, and her husband has a disability. They survive on a joint income of about $1,200 a month. There’s not much left after the bills are paid, she said.

The Boudreauxs own a generator, but they said finding and affording the gasoline needed to power it was nearly impossible for them. They lacked any means of transportation to a gas station, and without working cellphone service, they said they were unable to apply for help from FEMA.

The couple also lost food because of the power outage — two deep freezers’ and one refrigerator’s worth — and Sandra said she had been living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Diet Coke and water since the storm.

“Overall, we made out good,” Allen said. “We still have our lives. And we still have part of a roof over our heads.”

“But we’re both sickly people,” Sandra said. “I hope we live through this.”

Across the bayou, in Lockport, Jory Hotard spent his 48th birthday using a 4,000-watt generator to manage the heat.

“It’s a little rough,” he said. “We’ve been scrounging around. You have to burn gas to go get gas. We last one or two days on what we can get, then we wait in line two or four or six hours to get more.”

In Luling, La., a town of 14,000 people in St. Charles Parish, Ida’s winds blew thick, wooden utility poles horizontal, atop the homes and aboveground graves lining Paul Maillard Road. Parish leaders do not expect power to return for another four to six weeks.

Tonya Williams, 40, sat in her shaded driveway with her neighbor, son, daughter and grandson.

“We’re trying to save gas for the generator, to put it on at night,” she explained. “So we sit outside. Cook on the little grill. Then late at night, we go inside.”

Williams said she did not want her young grandchildren, who are 1 and 4, to suffer in the heat. But she was also fearful about leaving, saying she had seen neighbors return to the devastated town after running out of money to continue staying elsewhere.

“We haven’t made up our minds yet,” she said.

Hurricane Ida power outages lead to shortages in groceries and other essentials

On Saturday, Williams was refreshing her phone to see whether federal assistance had come through, hoping the family could escape to an air-conditioned hotel once FEMA money arrived.

In the meantime, she tried to remain calm about the situation. “It’s life,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”

Down the street, Brittani Ingram, 30, was also trying to navigate life without electricity.

“I have six kids, so this is very stressful for me,” she said.

“It’s hot,” she added. “You can’t breathe.”

Ingram said power was out there for more than 80 days after Hurricane Katrina. Living without power in the Deep South heat was untenable with her small children, she said.

“I tried to do the generator thing, but I don’t know how to use that. It’s scary to hear that a lot of people are passing away because of the generators,” she said. Health officials have linked at least four deaths to carbon monoxide poisoning from improper generator use.

Instead, Ingram and her children, who range in age from 3 to 10, have been spending days pulling mucky toys and other belongings out to the street in front of their home, then driving nearly two hours to a hotel in Biloxi, Miss., at night.

“I want to be back here as soon as possible, but it is looking doubtful,” Ingram said.

Further along the river, in Hahnville, Raynee Tregre, 44, spent the morning hanging clothes along her fence to dry.

She and her husband have a generator, but Tregre said it can only do so much. She mostly uses it to keep her refrigerator powered, and said she is also storing food for her father, who is staying with the couple after losing his home in Grand Isle.

“It’s hard at night. It’s hot,” Tregre said.

On Friday, the family bought a small window air-conditioning unit. All three adults slept on the living room floor, excited to finally have a reprieve from the heat.

“Last night was our first day with the air conditioner,” Tregre said, “so we slept hard.”

Hawkins reported from Washington. María Luisa Paúl in Lakeville, Minn., contributed to this report.