Capital Weather Gang
The path of Hurricane Ida
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Slight change in wind direction creates vastly different disasters for New Orleans suburbs

First responders rescue residents from floodwater left behind by Hurricane Ida in LaPlace, La. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)

LAPLACE, La. — Carmen Girton fled her trailer park this weekend for a friend's two-story home in this Louisiana parish, hoping her family would be safer from Hurricane Ida's nerve- and home-shredding winds.

She watched in terror as the eyewall ripped off pieces of the roof late Sunday, leaving Girton’s family exposed to a storm that whirled slowly and stubbornly as a Category 4 torrent for far longer and farther inland than many in this New Orleans suburb could have imagined. She wept when she saw what was left of her home.

“It’s devastating, having no home,” Girton, 43, said through tears. “Coming back to find you don’t have none. We don’t know what we’re going to do.”

On the opposite shore of Lake Pontchartrain, Kevin Minihan’s home was surrounded by four feet of floodwater, but he was ecstatic that his property — which is on stilts — was mostly unscathed.

“This is a bad storm, but it still ain’t no [Hurricane] Katrina,” said Minihan, 66.

The residents of these lakeside communities north of New Orleans woke the morning after the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to different realities after yet another cataclysmic summer storm. Even as officials assess the damage, the slightly more westward track of Hurricane Ida and wind direction wreaked sporadic devastation on Louisianans across the brackish waters of this estuary.

For residents on the northeastern shore in Slidell, which was devestated in 2005, Ida was bad, but not the monster Katrina had been. Evacuations were voluntary, but many traumatized residents left. Stricter building codes post-Katrina kept homes way above floodwater levels. The most severe wind and rain stayed mostly west.

But 60 miles southwest in LaPlace, the winds of Ida’s eyewall whipped the lake water so violently it splashed back and forth like a bathtub. The storm surge, wind and rain drenched St. John the Baptist Parish, a community that straddles the Mississippi River. Rising water forced residents onto their roofs and into their attics in the city of nearly 30,000. Brigades of boaters fanned out Monday to rescue families.

The federal government spent billions reinforcing flood protections across the New Orleans metropolitan area in the years since Katrina, but outside the urban core, low-lying areas upriver such as Girton’s neighborhood, were still vulnerable. Widespread coastal land loss made these communities subject to tides and storm surge in ways they were not in decades past, said U.S. Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.).

Hurricane Ida’s intensity knocked out power, crippled mobile and 911 communications and triggered rescues from across southeastern Louisiana, but the early low death toll and damage reports have state officials declaring this storm was nothing like its devastating predecessor. Yet for LaPlace, Ida may be close to their Katrina.

LaPlace, a largely low-income community of mostly Black residents, sustained relatively little damage in 2005. But like many neighboring parishes that are New Orleans suburbs, it is surrounded by rising seas and coastal land erosion tied to climate change.

Hurricane Isaac in 2012 was a wake-up call for the parish after nearly 5,000 homes flooded after the Category 1 storm dropped heavy rain on its eroding and dying marshes. Local officials and residents pushed for and broke ground on a $760 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers levee construction project in late July that was first proposed in the 1970s and funded in 2018. Graves said LaPlace and other west lakeshore communities were “victims of bureaucracy.”

How climate change helped make Hurricane Ida one of Louisiana’s worst

“You end up spending billions of dollars after a disaster instead of spending millions of dollars on the front end actually trying to make these communities more resilient,” he said.

After Ida, desperate residents eager to see how their homes and relatives fared, spent the day dodging downed power lines and swinging streetlights in town. Shredded roofs and submerged cars were visible for miles along this stretch of St. John the Baptist Parish.

Kieran Bourgeois, 30, had not been able to reach his many aunts and uncles when he arrived to Captain G. Bourgeois Street, named after a relative who died in Operation Desert Storm, looking for them.

“This is my people’s street. We came to check on all them,” he said, pointing out a home that belonged to his great-grandfather and is now occupied by an aunt and uncle. Bourgeois knocked on the door, but no one answered.

The neighborhood, which lies along the Mississippi River levee, was full of submerged homes and streets Monday as helicopters whirred overhead. The rain stopped but the winds gusted while flash-flood warnings buzzed incessantly on phones that were otherwise without service.

With Bourgeois was Arikea Thomas, 37. She, too, was worried about family.

“My brother and sister-in-law’s house flooded to their chests,” Thomas said. “She was sending out SOS, like, ‘Help me,’ on Facebook. She couldn’t go on the roof because she’s pregnant. She was watching the water flood in her house.”

As of Monday afternoon, Thomas had still not heard from them.

“This is insane,” she said. “We riding through LaPlace, crying, seeing people’s houses. It’s just crazy. It’s real sad, man. People’s houses gone.”

Carl Mason Sr., 67, and his neighbor Harold Basile Jr., 46, stayed in the neighborhood and tried to shelter in place for Ida. But when floodwaters started coming up fast around 4 a.m., Mason retreated to his truck and fled mid-storm.

“It never was like this before,” he said, pointing to the floodwater blocking his street.

Basile’s home lost power around 5 p.m. Sunday and his cellphone stopped working around 10 p.m. that night.

“This storm was totally different from Katrina. I evacuated for Katrina. This one here we tried out, because we thought it wouldn’t be that bad,” said Basile, whose house was shaken and the ceiling damaged. “It was horrible. Never again.”

Nearly 500 requests to help residents in LaPlace were made between Sunday afternoon and Monday afternoon on Crowdsource Rescue, a website connecting people needing water rescue or food and supplies with professional first responders and civilian rescue teams. In contrast, Slidell only had four online requests for assistance.

Nearly 72 percent of calls for help were made from LaPlace or on behalf of residents there, according to an analysis of the data — mostly for residents who needed rescue boats.

The data is skewed toward people who have access to a computer or a phone or who have a friend or family member with access to those devices, said Matthew Marchetti, executive director of the nonprofit based in Houston that started after Hurricane Harvey. It's still early to look at the data thoroughly, he said, but historically, activity with Crowdsource Rescue correlates with 911 availability in the area at the time or neighbors' hesitancy to rely on 911.

Inside the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries command station, Maj. Cliff Comeaux oversaw five teams of 10 men awaiting calls for water rescues.

By Monday afternoon, they had rescued about 170 people here in LaPlace, about 50 people in Houma and around 20 people in Lafitte, Comeaux said.

Many calls were from residents who made it to dry land but who were trapped by floodwaters, he said. Still others came from people who were unable to reach loved ones and wanted help checking on their well-being. The command station also compiled a list of pleas for help from social media, gathering images from Twitter and Facebook throughout the night and ensuring that those homes were checked first thing this morning.

Across the lake in St. Tammany Parish, Slidell residents expected the worst but were spared. During Katrina, nearly 50,000 homes were damaged, 10,000 residents were left without a home and claims soared into the billions. Haunted by that experience, local and federal officials spent millions to upgrade its infrastructure and flood-control measures.

In New Orleans, dozens of the city’s homeless remain unsheltered amid Hurricane Ida

Joyce Perez, 58, lives about three miles from the lake and decided to stay through Ida, even though the house was inundated with four feet of water during Hurricane Katrina.

This time, only ankle-deep water covered her yard and driveway. After all the water had receded Monday morning, Perez was reattaching wreaths and placing mats back on her front steps.

Like most of the New Orleans region, Perez said the biggest challenge she now faces is living without electricity.

“I just want power back on, and I want power back on right now,” said Perez, a schoolteacher. “But you make the most of it, and I am just so very thankful.”

Lisa Atwood, 53, also stayed behind, in a first-floor apartment that borders a canal in Slidell. She spent the night huddled in the dark, upset with herself she had forgotten to buy candles. Then about midnight she realized floodwaters were creeping up the stairs leading to her apartment door. But none of it came inside.

Sixteen years earlier, Atwood wasn’t as lucky. The damage was so severe to her Slidell home on Treasure Isle that it took her nearly two days to dig a path across her property to see what remained of her house. She found only a few bricks.

“It was gone, and our clothes were in the trees,” Atwood recalled. “So this isn’t that bad.”

But Atwood and others in Slidell said they understand it’s only a matter of time before their town is again in the direct path of a major storm. And the lessons they learned in Katrina may not be enough next time.

“It all just depends on which way the wind blows,” Minihan, another Slidell resident, said.

Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.

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