NEW ORLEANS — As hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana faced the prospect of punishingly hot weeks ahead without electricity, officials urged those who had fled before the onslaught of Hurricane Ida to stay away indefinitely as the long slog of recovery began.
While search-and-rescue efforts wound down in the bayous and small towns of southern Louisiana, the ugly reality of the storm’s aftermath, even in places like New Orleans that were spared the worst, was becoming miserably clear.
“Many of the life-supporting infrastructure elements are not present, they’re not operating right now,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a news conference in the flood-wrecked city of LaPlace on Tuesday. “If you have already evacuated, do not return.”
In New Orleans, which has been without power since Sunday night, the situation has grown so dire for those who remained that city officials have considered extensive post-storm evacuations. But for now, given that the current crisis is not one of ruined homes, as it was in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina, city officials are focused on getting food, water and ice to residents desperately in need of them.
“We know it’s hot, we know we don’t have any power,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said during a news conference, adding that the power company, Entergy, had yet to give a timeline for restoring electricity to the city. Food and water distribution points were being set up in parks and churches, and city buses were serving as “mobile cooling centers.”
Still, officials emphasized that they had not fully eliminated the possibility of large-scale evacuations for the 200,000 people they estimate remain in the city.
“We have to look at every contingency,” said Collin Arnold, director of the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
While New Orleans residents sweltered in a thick, soupy air that felt hotter than 100 degrees, things were even worse in other parts of southern Louisiana, where damage from the wind and water on Sunday was catastrophic. About 700,000 people were without water on Tuesday, including hundreds of thousands in Jefferson Parish, where buses were picking up people who did not have access to transportation and taking them to shelters elsewhere in the state.
“We’re getting calls all day,” said Byron Lee, a Jefferson Parish councilman.
Tens of thousands of other people in the state were under boil-water advisories. Eleven hospitals have been evacuated as the state endures one of its worst COVID-19 outbreaks of the pandemic. Some facilities were damaged in the storm; at least one reported a malfunctioning backup generator.
“Our hospitals are full,” the governor said at the news briefing. “And we know that even if you have a generator, typically, after so many days, they start to fail. And so we’re doing everything we can to work with them to get them to restore electricity as soon as possible.”
Leaving behind a trail of destruction in Louisiana, the remnants of Ida continued to move northeast on Tuesday, bringing heavy rains, and the risks of flash flooding, to Alabama, Tennessee and eventually the Mid-Atlantic. Back in the state where it had come ashore, more than 1 million customers were without power, including everyone in New Orleans.
A spokesman for Entergy, the largest electric utility in New Orleans, said in an email Tuesday that it expected “to have first light within the city by end of day Wednesday” but did not provide specifics. Still, city officials said that, given the extent of the damage, it would take some time to get electricity to people’s homes even after power started to return.
In a sweaty, miserable city on Tuesday, this was all just talk.
“I could barely breathe last night,” said Eddie Garner, 32, who found himself behind a hundred people hoping to buy generators when he arrived at Lowe’s shortly before 9 a.m. His mother and brother are both hospitalized with COVID-19 — his mother on a ventilator, he said — and he has not been able to reach the nursing station by phone. The heat has left him dizzy, exhausted and despondent.
“We may have made it through the storm, but this is just too much,” Garner said, his voice quavering. “We can’t make it much longer like this.”
Because of $14.5 billion in flood protection infrastructure, New Orleans was spared the worst of Hurricane Ida. The levees held firm, the surge gates kept the lake out and the hurricane, while feinting toward the city at the last minute, did not deliver the punishing blows that residents have learned to fear.
But avoiding the worst of a disaster does not mean avoiding disaster. With the power out all across the city, schools are closed indefinitely and hospitals are working on generator power. City officials are discussing the possibility of using the convention center as a shelter for people from around the region with specialized medical needs.
On Tuesday morning, students at Tulane University were put on buses for Houston, told to return in person in October; at Covenant House, a homeless shelter across town, 60 people, including three very young children with their mothers and two pregnant women, were headed to Houston as well.
New Orleans residents who were already in Houston hotel rooms, having assumed they would spend a day or two away, sat calculating how long they could possibly afford to stay there. Those who had not left and had nowhere to go now were considering how they would fare during some of the most punishingly hot days of the summer.
On Tuesday evening, the mayor announced an 8 p.m. curfew, standing next to the New Orleans police chief, Shaun Ferguson, who warned that a city without streetlights after dark was “totally unsafe.”
In New Orleans East — one of the neighborhoods that saw the worst flooding after Katrina in 2005 — the poor and working-class residents of an apartment complex called the Willows were overwhelmed by the heat Tuesday. None had electricity, and many did not have cash or gas or working cars or cellphones that still had a charge.
Dianne Delpit, 40, who had been living with her extended family in a unit where the roof failed and water soaked their belongings, was hoping relatives might come get them from Baton Rouge. But it was difficult to reach anybody, and no one had come to check on her and her family.
“It’s like we just have to survive on our own,” Delpit said. “It feels like Katrina.”
Natalie Jayroe, the president and chief executive of the Second Harvest Food Bank, said food banks in southern Louisiana were usually prepared for the short-term fallout of hurricanes and other disasters. But because of how quickly Ida barreled through and how long its effects are expected to last, she said, there was an “increasing nervousness” about food and clean water shortages.
Louisiana typically has about 750,000 people in need of food assistance. During the pandemic that number rose to about 930,000. “Layer on top of that, all those people that are normally food secure but have no power and no ability to shop and buy groceries and you’re talking a million-plus people in the state that need help,” Jayroe said.
All over New Orleans, people seemed to be waiting in line — for generators, for gas, for meals, for bags of ice, for some sort of deliverance from the misery. On the corner of Josephine Street, dozens of Spanish-speaking men were waiting under a relentless sun for the possibility of a storm cleanup job. But no vans or trucks came by.
“I don’t know what we are going to do,” said Gerardo Caal, a 41-year-old Guatemalan man in a baseball cap. “There’s no food. And we don’t have electricity to cook.”
A few feet away, traffic heading Uptown was impeded by a line of cars blocks long that led to one of the few open gas stations in the area. Malcolm Scott, 60, a former star tight end at Louisiana State University, said he had been waiting for hours to get gas. He was not trying to get out of town, he said, but to move to his girlfriend’s place on the third floor of an apartment building, out of a hard-earned fear that the city’s levees might still give way.
“Ain’t nowhere to go,” he said of leaving town. “People don’t want New Orleans people no more since Katrina. They think we’re the worst of the worst.”
A block away, the front door of a Family Dollar store had been smashed, with bottles of hair-care products and packages of food strewn about amid the broken glass. Two employees were stepping around the debris, recording it on their phones. “I guess we’re not coming back to work for two months,” one of them, a young woman, said.
A black sedan pulled up with a family inside. The worker said there were not items for sale.
“No diapers, no nothing?” a voice said from inside the car.
The young worker shrugged.
A man stepped out of the car, looked over his shoulders, and walked through the hole in the door.