Energy company: Hurricane Ida restoration could take weeks

Matt Sedensky, Chevel Johnson and Aaron Morrison
Associated Press

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.

Hurricane Ida leaves behind destruction at Port Fouchon, La., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

“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, although May said that was a “no later than” date with the hope of earlier restoration.

About a quarter of New Orleans residents have had power restored, 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 on Saturday. Houma is roughly 55 miles (90 kilometers) 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. He was working at a car wash until that went away, too. 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 about 42,000 meals since Tuesday, and many more bottles of water, 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, coming down with 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, insulation 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 (160 kph) or more.

As of Saturday morning, 97% of damage assessment was complete and power restored to about 282,000 customers from the peak of 902,000 who lost power after Ida.

The lower Mississippi River reopened to all vessel traffic in New Orleans and key 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 would offer transportation starting Saturday to any resident looking to leave the city and get to a public shelter. It already began moving some residents out of senior homes.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Albert Taylor Jr., 76, pushes a walker with supplies gathered from a distribution site, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.

With temperatures in the 90s Saturday, many New Orleans residents still without power looked for ways to stay 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, one-liter cartons of water and a daily humanitarian ration on the walker he uses because of hip and knee arthritis. Since the storm, he and other disabled residents have been living without power in a rental unit blocks away on North Galvez Street.

In the lower ninth ward, a city neighborhood that suffered immensely after Katrina, Lationa Kemp was too far from the community center to seek assistance there on foot. On Saturday, she relied on neighbors with cars to get ice, hot meals and bottled water.

To stay cool, Kemp, 57, has been leaving her front door open to allow in fresh air. But her house is “not in really great shape,” she said.

In suburban New Orleans, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joseph Lopinto urged people “to calm down” as he announced Saturday that a man wanted in the shooting death a day earlier of another man during a dispute in a line at a gas station was in custody.

Meanwhile Saturday, the U.S. Coast Guard cleanup crews were responding to a sizable oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico following the storm. The spill, which is ongoing, appears to be coming from an underwater source at an offshore drilling lease about two miles south of Port Fourchon, Louisiana.

President Joe Biden arrived Friday to survey the damage in some of those spots, touring a neighborhood in LaPlace, a community between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain that suffered catastrophic wind and water damage that sheared off roofs and flooded homes.

The president has 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 who were evacuated along with hundreds of other seniors to a warehouse in Louisiana ahead of the hurricane. State health officials have launched an investigation into those deaths and an additional one at the warehouse facility in Tangipahoa Parish, where they say conditions became unhealthy and unsafe.

The health department on Friday reported an additional death — a 59-year-old man who was poisoned by carbon monoxide from a generator that was believed to be running inside his home. Several deaths in the aftermath of the storm have been blamed on carbon monoxide poisoning, which can happen if generators are run improperly.