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Rescuers rush to Louisianans' aid after storm

Officials warn of long effort to repair ravaged power grid by Compiled Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | August 31, 2021 at 7:20 a.m.
Flooded streets are shown in the Spring Meadow subdivision in LaPlace, La., after Hurricane Ida moved through Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Hard-hit LaPlace is squeezed between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

NEW ORLEANS -- Rescuers in boats, helicopters and high-water trucks transported hundreds of people trapped by Hurricane Ida's floodwaters to safety Monday as utility repair crews rushed in, after the storm swamped the Louisiana coast and ravaged the electrical grid in the summer heat.

Residents living amid the maze of rivers and bayous along the state's Gulf Coast retreated to their attics or roofs and posted their addresses on social media with instructions for search-and-rescue teams on where to find them.

More than 1 million homes and businesses in Louisiana and Mississippi -- including all of New Orleans -- were left without power as Ida, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. mainland, pushed through Sunday after making landfall late in the morning near Port Fourchon with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.

The damage was so extensive that officials warned it could be weeks before the power grid is repaired.

Four Louisiana hospitals were damaged, and 39 medical facilities were operating on generator power, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said. Officials said they were evacuating scores of patients to other cities.

In addition, 18 water systems serving about 255,000 customers in Louisiana were knocked out of service, the state Health Department said.

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But the system of levees, barriers and pumps that protect New Orleans appeared to have held firm against the onslaught, officials said, passing the most significant test since being expanded and hardened after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

As Ida was downgraded to a tropical depression Monday afternoon and continued making its way inland with torrential rain, it was blamed for at least two deaths -- a motorist who drowned in New Orleans and a person hit by a tree that fell on a home in Prairieville, about 30 miles from Baton Rouge.

But with many roads impassable and cellphone service out in places, the full extent of the storm's fury was still coming into focus. Christina Stephens, a spokesperson for Gov. John Bel Edwards, said that given the level of destruction, "We're going to have many more confirmed fatalities."

The governor's office said damage to the power grid appeared "catastrophic" -- dispiriting news for those without refrigeration or air conditioning during the summer, with highs forecast in the mid-80s to near 90 by midweek.

"There are certainly more questions than answers. I can't tell you when the power is going to be restored. I can't tell you when all the debris is going to be cleaned up and repairs made," Edwards said at a news conference. "But what I can tell you is we are going to work hard every day to deliver as much assistance as we can."

Local, state and federal rescuers combined to save at least 671 people by Monday afternoon, Edwards said.

The Louisiana National Guard said it activated 4,900 members and lined up 195 high-water vehicles, 73 rescue boats and 34 helicopters. Local and state agencies were adding hundreds more. Edwards said he decided not to tour the hurricane damage by air Monday, instead adding one more aircraft to the effort.

President Joe Biden detailed the federal government's efforts to aid those affected, including the deployment of more than 200 generators and "millions" of meals and gallons of drinking water.

"We're in close contact with local electric providers to see what they need. ... We're doing all we can to minimize the amount of time it's going to take to get power back up for everyone in the region," Biden said during a virtual meeting with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and officials in the affected states.

The president also noted that he has asked the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to make available any satellite imagery that could be helpful in assessing the damage.

LOUISIANA DAMAGE

People venturing out Monday in the hardest-hit parts of the state found smashed buildings in Houma, mangled infrastructure in Bridge City and streets still submerged in LaPlace, the first hints at the regionwide fallout from a night of destruction.

LaPlace, a town of quiet subdivisions where many evacuees from New Orleans had decided to settle after Katrina, was still badly flooded in areas, and calls had gone out over social media all night for boat rescues.

Small communities that had slowly built back from hurricanes past were flooded again as levees overtopped outside the giant storm-protection system encircling New Orleans and some of its suburbs.

At least one sheriff's office in Louisiana took note that evacuees were anxious to return home to begin cleanup efforts, but it warned, "Today is not that day."

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell expressed relief that the worst-case scenario did not come to pass, and she urged evacuees to remain out of the city until further notice.

"We did not have another Katrina," Cantrell said during a Monday afternoon news conference. "So far, we have not had reports of massive loss of life, but we did have a tragedy [the drowning], and one is too many," she said.

"While we held the line, no doubt about that -- now is not the time for reentry," the mayor said.

She said city officials are "only at the beginning of that process determining what the actual impacts have been across the city of New Orleans. City agencies have been out since daybreak; they're going block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. No one will be left out. No one has been left out."

"There's not a lot of reasons to come back" yet, echoed Collin Arnold, chief of emergency preparedness.

"If you evacuated from the city, take a breath -- we're doing good here, we're doing well, under the circumstances. But it's not the time to return," he said. "There's not a lot open right now. There's not a lot of fuel resources. ... And I want to add with covid, if you get hurt ... hospitals are strained right now, so it's not a good time if you're out of the area to come back."

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In adjoining Jefferson Parish, where there were reports of people climbing into their attics to escape rising waters, authorities had received at least 200 rescue calls since Sunday, and crews were anxious to get to those who may still need help, said Cynthia Lee Sheng, president of the parish.

In hard-hit LaPlace, squeezed between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, rescuers saved people from flooded homes in a near-constant operation.

Debbie Greco, her husband and son rode out the storm in LaPlace with her parents. Water reached the first-floor windows, then knocked down the back door and filled the brick home with 4 feet of water. They retreated to the second floor, but then screaming winds collapsed the roof.

They were finally rescued by boat after waiting in the only dry spot, five people sharing the landing on the stairs.

"When I rebuild this, I'm out of here. I'm done with Louisiana," said Greco's father, 85-year-old Fred Carmouche, a lifelong resident.

Elsewhere in LaPlace, people pulled pieces of chimneys, gutters and other parts of their homes to the curb, and residents of a mobile home park waded through floodwaters.

AVOIDING THE WORST

The hurricane blew ashore on the 16th anniversary of Katrina, the storm that breached New Orleans' levees, devastated the city and was blamed for 1,800 deaths.

This time, New Orleans appeared to escape the catastrophic flooding that city officials had feared.

Stephanie Blaise returned to her home with her father in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward after evacuating. The neighborhood suffered devastating flooding in Katrina, but it only lost some shingles in Ida. However, with no idea when electricity would be restored, Blaise didn't plan to stay long.

"We don't need to go through that. I'm going to have to convince him to leave. We got to go somewhere. Can't stay in this heat," she said.

The governor's office said more than 2,200 evacuees were staying in 41 shelters, a number expected to rise as people were rescued or escaped flooded homes. The governor's spokesperson said the state will work to move people to hotels as soon as possible so they can keep their distance from one another.

"This is a covid nightmare," said Stephens, adding: "We do anticipate that we could see some covid spikes related to this."

On Grand Isle, the 40 people who stayed on the barrier island through the brunt of the hurricane gave aircraft checking on them Monday a thumbs-up, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto said.

The road to the island remained impassable, and rescuers will try to reach them as soon as possible, the sheriff said.

The hurricane twisted and collapsed a giant tower that carries key transmission lines over the Mississippi River to the New Orleans area, causing widespread outages, said local authorities and Entergy, a major power company in Louisiana. The utility said more than 2,000 miles of transmission lines were out of service, along with 216 substations. The tower had survived Katrina.

Entergy said Monday on Twitter 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."

The storm also flattened utility poles, toppled trees onto power lines and caused transformers to explode.

The governor said 25,000 utility workers were in the state to help restore electricity, with more on the way. "We're going to push Entergy to restore power just as soon as they can," Edwards said.

AT&T said its wireless network in Louisiana was reduced to 60% of normal but was coming back. Many people resorted to walkie-talkies. The governor's office staff had no working phones. The company sent a mobile tower to the state's emergency preparedness office so it could get some service.

Charchar Chaffold left her home near LaPlace for Alabama after a tree fell on the house Sunday. She frantically tried to get in touch via text message with five family members who stayed behind.

She last heard from them Sunday night. They were in the attic after water rushed into their home. "They told me they thought they was going to die. I told them they are not and called for help," she said.

STORM'S PATH

Ida's 150 mph winds tied it for the fifth-strongest hurricane ever to hit the mainland. Its winds were down to 40 mph around midday Monday.

Preliminary measurements showed Slidell, La., got at least 15.7 inches of rain, while New Orleans got nearly 14 inches, forecasters said. Other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, Alabama and Florida got 5 to 11 inches.

In Mississippi's southwestern corner, entire neighborhoods were surrounded by floodwaters, and many roads were impassable. Several tornadoes were reported. A suspected twister in Saraland, Ala., ripped part of the roof off a motel and flipped an 18-wheeler, injuring the driver, according to the National Weather Service.

Ida was expected to pick up speed Monday night before dumping rain on the Tennessee and Ohio River valleys today, the Appalachian mountain region Wednesday and the nation's capital Thursday.

Forecasters said flash flooding and mudslides were possible along Ida's path before it blows out to sea over New England on Friday.

Information for this article was contributed by Rebecca Santana, Jay Reeves, Janet McConnaughey, Kevin McGill, Melinda Deslatte, Michael Biesecker, Sudhin Thanawala and Jeffrey Collins of The Associated Press; by Paulina Firozi, Gina Harkins, Kendra Nichols and Felicia Sonmez of The Washington Post; and by Jesus Jimenez, Derrick Bryson Taylor and Campbell Robertson of The New York Times.

Rene Hebert walks through the family's destroyed offices as cleans up in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in Houma, La. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Rene Hebert walks through the family's destroyed offices as cleans up in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in Houma, La. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
New Orleans Firefighters assess damages as they look through debris after a building collapsed from the effects of Hurricane Ida, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in New Orleans, La. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
New Orleans Firefighters assess damages as they look through debris after a building collapsed from the effects of Hurricane Ida, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in New Orleans, La. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Traffic passes by a traffic light hanging from a cable after Hurricane Ida moved through Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in LaPlace, La. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Traffic passes by a traffic light hanging from a cable after Hurricane Ida moved through Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in LaPlace, La. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Alexis Hayes and her husband, Kristopher, get a ride out of a flooded neighborhood after Hurricane Ida moved through Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in LaPlace, La. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Alexis Hayes and her husband, Kristopher, get a ride out of a flooded neighborhood after Hurricane Ida moved through Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in LaPlace, La. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Michael Thomas, back, carries his daughter Mikala, out of his flooded neighborhood after Hurricane Ida moved through Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in LaPlace, La. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Michael Thomas, back, carries his daughter Mikala, out of his flooded neighborhood after Hurricane Ida moved through Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in LaPlace, La. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Jerilyn Collins returns to her destroyed home with the assistance of a Louisiana National Guard high-water vehicle to retrieve medicine for herself and her father, and a few possessions, after she evacuated from rising floodwater in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in LaPlace, La., Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Jerilyn Collins returns to her destroyed home with the assistance of a Louisiana National Guard high-water vehicle to retrieve medicine for herself and her father, and a few possessions, after she evacuated from rising floodwater in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in LaPlace, La., Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Flooded streets and homes are shown in the Spring Meadow subdivision in LaPlace, La., after Hurricane Ida moved through Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Hard-hit LaPlace is squeezed between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Flooded streets and homes are shown in the Spring Meadow subdivision in LaPlace, La., after Hurricane Ida moved through Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Hard-hit LaPlace is squeezed between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
People are evacuated from floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in LaPlace, La., Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
People are evacuated from floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in LaPlace, La., Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Jacob Hodges, right, and his brother Jeremy Hodges work to clear debris from their storage unit which was destroyed by Hurricane Ida, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in Houma, La. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Jacob Hodges, right, and his brother Jeremy Hodges work to clear debris from their storage unit which was destroyed by Hurricane Ida, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in Houma, La. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

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