Hurricane Ida has passed by, but New Orleans remains powerless.
The city has been without electricity since Sunday, and there’s no word on when the lights will flicker on. Gasoline is scarce, most grocery stores are closed, tap water is iffy and officials are telling people who fled not to come home.
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It’s a challenge just to care for those who are there: More than half the population rode out the storm, and about 200,000 are enduring the smothering August heat and trying to put food on the table without electricity. Louisiana’s biggest city is now confronting the most extensive U.S. outage since February, when a brutal storm in Texas left more than 200 people dead. In the Crescent City — beloved for its jazz, nightlife and food — people are picking their way through a labyrinth of downed trees and power lines to find the few stores where they can stock up on supplies.
“I’m thankful something’s open,” said Amanda Ballon, 38, as she left a Winn Dixie Stores Inc. grocery. The store has air conditioning and refrigeration, thanks to a diesel generator. Ballon’s home doesn’t, at least until she can find gasoline for her new generator. Her cart was filled with snacks like chips and honey buns that won’t spoil in the heat.
“Hopefully more things will open when the power comes back on,” she said.
More than 1 million homes and businesses across Louisiana and Mississippi are still in the dark. Entergy Corp., the state’s biggest utility, said Ida took out 216 substations and more than 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) of power lines, including all eight of the main transmission lines that feed New Orleans.
The company is still assessing damage before predicting when it will start restoring service, which could take several days. The hardest-hit areas probably won’t have service for weeks, though city officials say the power could start flowing to some neighborhoods within 48 hours.
“Now is really the most dangerous time, over the next couple of weeks,” Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said at a news conference Tuesday. The humidity is making it feel like the temperature is 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) or more, air conditioning is out and hospitals are running on generators. “We’re asking people to be patient and we’re asking people to be careful.”
Some people are trying to get out. Will Scott was at a Brown Derby convenience store Tuesday morning to get cash from an ATM. The shop has its own natural-gas generator and was one of the few open near downtown New Orleans. After waiting out the storm, he was heading to Baton Rouge to stay with his daughter, who has both electricity and clean water.
“I need to find some gas,” Scott said. “Everywhere I go the line is too long. It’s cash only for gas right now.”
Many service stations are closed. The Brown Derby has gas pumps, but no fuel to sell. Other places have gas, but without power the pumps won’t run.
Scott also survived Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans 16 years ago after the levees failed and flooded the city. Ida had stronger winds, but its watery surge wasn’t as bad as the 2005 storm. The flood-control measures built after Katrina have held this week, limiting the damage. Ida’s gusts, however, left the power grid a tangled mess.
“This time isn’t as bad as Katrina, because there’s no water,” Scott said. “But this time there’s no power.”
The suffering in New Orleans reveals an economic divide. The people who left were largely those with the means to do so and a place to go.
“The areas of poverty are highly concentrated and understanding who is in a specific area should be factored into prioritizing of power,” said Alison Alvarez, chief executive officer of BlastPoint Inc., a Pittsburgh-based company that uses predictive analysis to help utilities spot problems. Companies can find people fast though water-usage data, she said, or by communicating with first responders.
About 24% of New Orleans residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census. Those on the edge may have lacked connections or transportation to reach safety, Alvarez said.
“It’s end of the month, and if you are working paycheck to paycheck, you are likely flat broke. You couldn’t even pay for gas,” she said.
Utility poles lean over a street following Hurricane Ida in Houma, Louisiana.
Those who remained are now enduring hot days and sticky nights with no air conditioning and questions about what to eat when everything in the fridge has spoiled.
Darrell Behre, 61, is staying at his in-laws’ house, where rooftop solar panels were installed in 2013. But the panels send power to the grid, not the building, so they’re in the dark just like their neighbors. And they had water to contend with besides.
“We ain’t got nothing but leaks since those panels have been up there,” Behre said. And the leaks got worse during Ida.
Others are more fortunate. Ken Guillory had a $10,000 natural-gas powered generator installed last week. It kicked in within moments of losing power and has made his two-story home a refuge for neighbors and relatives.
“The power goes out often because of storms,” Guillory said. “You always think about getting one, but it’s expensive. But it’s so worth it.”