NEW ORLEANS — As hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana faced the prospect of punishment for hot weeks without electricity, officials urged those who had fled before Hurricane Ida’s attack to stay away indefinitely as the long recovery journey began.
As search and rescue efforts in the swampy and small towns of southern Louisiana stalled, the ugly reality of the storm’s aftermath, even in places like New Orleans that were spared the worst, became woefully clear.
“Many of the life-support infrastructure elements are not in place, they are currently not working,” Governor John Bel Edwards said at a news conference in the flood-ravaged city of LaPlace on Tuesday. “If you’ve already been evacuated, don’t return.”
In New Orleans, which has been without power since Sunday night, the situation for those left behind has become so dire that city officials have considered extensive evacuations after the storm. But for now, since the current crisis isn’t one of destroyed homes like it was in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina, city officials are focused on getting food, water and ice to residents who desperately need them.
“We know it’s hot, we know we don’t have power,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said at a news conference, adding that the energy company, Entergy, has not yet given a timetable for recovering electricity in the city. Food and water distribution points were set up in parks and churches, and city buses served as ‘mobile cooling centers’.
Still, officials stressed that they have not completely ruled out the possibility of large-scale evacuations for the 200,000 people they say remain in the city.
“We need to look at all contingencies,” said Collin Arnold, director of the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
While New Orleans residents suffocated in thick, soupy air that felt hotter than 100 degrees, it was even worse in other parts of southern Louisiana, where wind and water damage on Sunday was catastrophic. About 700,000 people were without water on Tuesday, including hundreds of thousands in Jefferson Parish, where buses picked up people who had no access to transportation and took them to shelters elsewhere in the state.
“We get calls all day long,” said Jefferson Parish Councilman Byron Lee.
Tens of thousands of other people in the state were given advice about boiling water. Eleven hospitals have been evacuated as the state is experiencing one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks of the pandemic. Some facilities were damaged in the storm; at least one reported a faulty backup generator.
“Our hospitals are full,” the governor said at the press conference. “And we know that even if you have a generator, it usually starts to fail after so many days. And so we do everything we can to work with them to restore electricity as quickly as possible.”
The remains of Ida left a trail of destruction in Louisiana and moved northeast on Tuesday, bringing heavy rains and the risk of flash flooding to Alabama, Tennessee and eventually the Mid-Atlantic. In the state where it landed, more than a million customers were without power, including everyone in New Orleans.
A spokesperson for Entergy, the largest electric utility in New Orleans, said in an email on Tuesday that it expected “to have first light in the city by the end of the day Wednesday,” but did not provide details. Still, city officials said, given the extent of the damage, it would take some time to get electricity into people’s homes, even after power began to return.
In a sweaty, miserable town on Tuesday, this was all just talk.
“I could barely breathe last night,” said Eddie Garner, 32, who was behind a hundred people hoping to buy generators when he arrived at Lowe’s shortly before 9:00 am. His mother and brother are both in hospital 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 survived the storm, but this is just too much,” Mr. Garner said, his voice trembling. “We can’t make it like this for much longer.”
Thanks to $14.5 billion in flood protection infrastructure, New Orleans was spared the worst of Hurricane Ida. The levees held up, the storm surge barriers kept the lake out, and the hurricane, which feigned the city at the last minute, didn’t deliver the punishing blows residents have learned to fear.
But avoiding the worst disaster does not mean avoiding disaster. With power cuts 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 across the region with specialized medical needs.
On Tuesday morning, Tulane University students were put on buses to Houston, with orders to return in person in October; at Covenant House, a homeless shelter on the other side of town, 60 people, including three very young children with their mothers and two pregnant women, also went to Houston.
New Orleans residents who were already in Houston hotel rooms, assuming they would be away for a day or two, were calculating how long they could afford to stay there. Those who hadn’t left and had nowhere to go now contemplated how they would fare during some of the sweltering hot days of summer.
On Tuesday night, the mayor announced a curfew at 8 p.m., standing next to 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 to experience the worst flooding after Katrina in 2005 — the heat ravaged the poor and working-class residents of an apartment complex called the Willows on Tuesday. None of them had electricity, and many had no cash or gas or working cars or cell phones that were still charged.
Dianne Delpit, 40, who had lived with her extended family in a unit where the roof broke and their belongings were soaked with water, hoping relatives would come and get them from Baton Rouge. But it was difficult to reach anyone, and no one had come to see her and her family.
“It’s like we have to survive alone,” said Mrs. Delpit. “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 effects of hurricanes and other short-term disasters. But because of how quickly Ida got through it and how long the 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. “On top of that come all those people who are normally food safe but have no power and are unable to shop and run errands, and you are talking about over a million people in the state who need help,” said Ms. Jayroe .
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 relief from the misery. On the corner of Josephine Street, dozens of Spanish-speaking men waited under a relentless sun for the opportunity of a storm-clearing job. But no vans or trucks passed by.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Gerardo Caal, a 41-year-old Guatemalan man in a baseball cap. ‘There’s no food. And we have no electricity for cooking.”
A few yards away, traffic toward Uptown was hampered by a line of blocks of cars leading 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 waited hours to get gas. He wasn’t trying to get out of the city, he said, but to move into his girlfriend’s house on the third floor of an apartment building, out of a hard-earned fear that the city’s levees would collapse.
“There’s nowhere to go,” he said as he left town. “People don’t want people in New Orleans since Katrina. They think we are 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 food packages smashed into the broken glass. Two employees stepped around the rubble and recorded it with their phones. “I don’t think we’ll be going back to work in two months,” said one of them, a young woman.
A black sedan pulled up with a family in it. According to the employee, there were no items for sale.
“No diapers, nothing?” said a voice from inside the car.
The young worker shrugged.
A man got out of the car, looked over his shoulders and walked through the hole in the door.
Sophie Kasakovic, Giulia Heyward, and Ivan Penn reporting contributed.