Rescue Works Search for Those Stranded by Hurricane Ida

More than a million people, including most in New Orleans, were without electricity, but the city’s levees held.

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NEW ORLEANS — Rescue teams fanned out across Louisiana on Monday searching for people left stranded in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, even as New Orleans emerged from its most serious onslaught since Hurricane Katrina confident that its levees had held.

While city residents could take a measure of relief at having dodged a catastrophic flood, several surrounding communities remained cut off by the storm, with the extent of the devastation in those areas still coming into focus. More than a million people, including most of New Orleans, were left without electricity, more than 300,000 were without water and some 2,000 were in shelters, officials said.

New Orleans did not have a functioning 911 system for more than 12 hours on Monday, leaving officials to advise those in need of emergency assistance to go to their nearest fire station.

At least three deaths have been attributed to the storm, officials said: A man died while driving in New Orleans; a woman was found dead in the fishing village of Jean Lafitte, south of the city; and a man was killed in Prairieville, about 20 miles southeast of Baton Rouge, where a tree fell on a house.

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Evacuees from Jean Lafitte are unloaded by the Louisiana National Guard.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

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Jean Lafitte was flooded by storm surge.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

All across southeastern Louisiana, officials and volunteers responded, sometimes in boats, to calls from residents stranded in houses swamped in the rising waters. In Jefferson Parish alone, the authorities rescued more than 70 people from flooded neighborhoods.

But the fate of many others remained unclear as rescuers struggled to reach those who had stayed home to ride out the storm. Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said he expected the death toll to rise “considerably.”

Hospitals in the state, already strained by a surge of Covid-19 patients, braced for an influx of people injured in the storm. Louisiana has been dealing with one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the nation, leaving hospital staff exhausted and available beds limited.

Several hospitals had to be evacuated on Monday, officials said, including St. Anne in Raceland, Chabert in Houma and Lady of the Sea in Galliano, where high winds ripped portions of the roof off on Sunday.

The force of the storm — with sustained winds reaching as high as 150 miles per hour — surprised even those accustomed to riding out powerful hurricanes.

“My roof just flew off, the whole roof,” said Alexis Johnson, speaking outside a civic center in Houma that served as a shelter for residents of the badly hit city about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans. “I stayed still so the wind wouldn’t take me.” Now, she said, she and her daughter have nowhere to go.

“I can’t go home,” Ms. Johnson said. “We have nothing left.”

President Biden, who received a briefing on the storm from local officials on Monday, said that the “people in Louisiana and Mississippi are resilient” and that the federal government would “stand with you and the people of the Gulf for as long as it takes for you to recover.”

Dozens of people who stayed in Grand Isle, a narrow beachy islet of homes on stilts facing the Gulf of Mexico, remained cut off and unreachable for much of Monday as phone lines were down and the one road in and out was impassable.

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In Houma, about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, it was strong winds that brought the most destruction.Credit…Callaghan O’Hare for The New York Times

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A damaged home in Houma.Credit…Callaghan O’Hare for The New York Times

Water had pushed past or “overtopped” the levees around small towns in the southern half of Jefferson Parish, said Cynthia Lee Sheng, the parish president, sending several hundred people who were riding out the storm there into attics and onto roofs.

A 10-foot-high surge topped a levee in Plaquemines Parish, southeast of New Orleans, on Sunday, officials there said. That levee is outside the federal storm risk reduction system, in an area where the National Hurricane Center had warned that overtopping of local levees was possible.

No such overtopping took place along any of the 192 miles of flood barriers that hold water back from New Orleans, according to the Flood Protection Authority, the local agency that runs the Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System. Nor had any of those barriers suffered a structural failure, called a breach.

The levee systems “performed magnificently,” Governor Edwards said. “The damage is still catastrophic, but it was primarily wind-driven.”

The levee system was hardened and expanded after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the city had similarly appeared to have avoided catastrophe from the storm, only to watch as the levees failed and the city flooded the next day.

But the system built at a cost of more than $14 billion to protect New Orleans had worked, according to Elizabeth Zimmerman, who ran disaster operations for the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Obama administration.

“It’s a major accomplishment,” Ms. Zimmerman said. “The things that were built were a major step forward.”

Yet as Ida moved through the state, the storm caused “catastrophic transmission damage” to the electrical system, leaving more than a million utility customers without power.

Entergy, a major power company in Louisiana, said on Monday that it would “likely take days to determine the extent of damage to our power grid and far longer to restore electrical transmission to the region.”

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Clearing debris from a street in New Orleans on Monday.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

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A temporary evacuation shelter in Houma.Credit…Callaghan O’Hare for The New York Times

All eight transmission lines that bring electricity into New Orleans were knocked out of service by the storm, according to the power utility. On Monday, the company said 216 substations and more than 2,000 miles of transmission lines were out of service. One transmission line that spans the Mississippi River was down.

“I’ve been here 61 years. I’ve never experienced anything like this before,” Glenn Brady said as he pulled waterlogged rugs and carpets from his home in LaPlace. He recalled watching the storm rip the columns out of his neighbor’s front porch and shoot them through a front window.

“I definitely got a newfound fear for hurricanes,” he said.

In Houma, it was the strong winds and not the rising waters that brought the most destruction. “The trees and power lines were swaying back and forth and then they finally snapped,” Hannah Carter, 39, said. “It was horrifying.”

Daylight provided a glimpse of the devastation in this city of about 33,000 people. The storm leveled buildings, smashed trees into homes and filled entire blocks with debris.

“We can’t stay here,” said Dusan Roncevic, 47, estimating it would take weeks for officials to restore power and other services to the region.

Ida astonished meteorologists with its rapid intensification in the days before it made landfall on Sunday near Port Fourchon as a Category 4 storm. And it maintained its intensity for longer after coming ashore than is typical for hurricanes, a result of the swampy terrain and the fact it was still growing in strength as it reached the coast.

By Monday, the center of the storm crossed into western Mississippi, slowing and weakening into a tropical depression as it swept northward. Its path is expected to curve northeastward through the evening, and then into the Tennessee Valley on Tuesday.

Though the storm had moved on, New Orleans officials urged residents not to return to a city still struggling to get back on its feet. “Now is not the time for re-entry into the city of New Orleans,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said during an afternoon news conference.

Most city streets were strewn with a carpet of green leaves and littered with large pieces of debris — metal roofs, wood fences — and fallen trees.

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Residents in Gray, La., retrieve their belongings from their damaged home.Credit…Callaghan O’Hare for The New York Times

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A flooded home in Laplace, La.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

By the first hours of Monday, each neighborhood’s fire station was also tasked with a new responsibility. With the city’s 911 lines down, officials mass-texted residents, telling them to seek help in person from the nearest fire station or police officer.

At a fire station on Poland Avenue, a generator powered the lights and kitchen, but its firefighters were reliant on hand-held radios for any communication. “We’re all in the dark right now,” said one firefighter, who sat near the station’s open garage doors on Monday morning, ready to assist anyone walking up for help.

The system was up and running again by late afternoon.

Some residents who have lived through previous storms said they were taking the power outage and a boil-water advisory in stride.

“Guess what? This is part of life in New Orleans,” Antoine Davis, 58, said as he stopped at Duplantier Ice at the edge of the French Quarter for bags of ice to keep his refrigerator cold. “If we lived in California, there would be fires and earthquakes. If we lived in Tennessee right now, we’d have floods.”

Over on Elysian Fields Avenue a few blocks from the river, Darrian Rivers, 41, was shaking his head at the damage to his house’s second-floor front porch, now missing one of its large white wooden columns.

He and his neighbors were left wondering if their lives would be put on hold for days or even weeks as they waited for the power to return. “Everybody wants to know what’s next,” he said. “That’s the question I keep hearing. ‘What’s next?'”

Reporting was contributed by Rick Rojas, Stacy Cowley, Giulia Heyward, Richard Fausset, Campbell Robertson, Jesus Jimenez and Winston Choi-Schagrin.

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