NEW ORLEANS – Shattered communities across southern Louisiana were still assessing storm damage from Ida on Thursday (Sept 2) as floodwaters had yet to recede in many places four days after the hurricane knocked out power to a million homes and businesses.
The Category 4 hurricane came ashore on the barrier islands and swampy lowlands known as the bayou, where many small towns are difficult to reach even without roads being clogged with fallen trees, power lines and debris hurled about by gusts of wind that reached 276kmh.
The crucial offshore-oil hub of Port Fourchon was directly in the path of the storm and cut off from supply boats, fuel and air ferry services, crippling operations in the US Gulf of Mexico, which supplies about 16 per cent of US oil production.
Around 600,000 people had no water and another 400,000 were advised to boil their tap water before drinking it, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said.
At least nine deaths have been reported.
The Louisiana Department of Health said four people in nursing homes in Tangipahoa Parish recently died, with three of the deaths related to the hurricane, and one under investigation. It said 721 residents of an unnamed nursing home had been evacuated, with 12 receiving additional medical care.
Ida levelled Grand Isle, a town of 740 on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, where officials said virtually every structure sustained damage and about 40 per cent were destroyed.
About 1m of sand covered the island, rendering it uninhabitable.
In the Cheniere area near Grand Isle beach, Jim King, 75, said he and his wife are now discussing whether to leave the area for good, having suffered the trauma of losing their home 16 years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit.
He was stuck on the deck of his home after Hurricane Ida ripped off the stairs that gave him access to the road below. He flagged down a helicopter and asked for a ladder.
“I built this house myself. I lost everything after Katrina and I had to rebuild,” King said. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
Surrounding homes, mostly built about 4m to 5m above ground on stilts, suffered severe damage. Many had roofs blown off and were reduced to rubble. Downed power lines lay tangled along the only road onto the island.
“These storms are only going to get more powerful,” King said.
Kendall Simoneaux, 49, a maintenance worker at the Hurricane Hole Hotel on the island, said his team planned to bring in excavators and bulldozers.
“The debris is easy to pick up but it’s the sand. It’s heavy. It’s almost like cement,” he said.
Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng told a news conference after flying over Grand Isle and the rest of Ida’s path on Wednesday that the community was “broken.”
“We don’t have electricity. We don’t have communication. We don’t have gas or water, and sewer systems are very fragile,”Lee Sheng said.
Wrecked neighbourhoods looked like “a little pile of matchsticks,” she added.
US Representative Steve Scalise, whose district took the brunt of the storm and joined Lee Sheng on the flight, reported seeing major marine vessels and dry docks picked up and moved.
President Joe Biden is scheduled to survey the destruction for himself on Friday, when Edwards said he would present Biden with a long lists of needs.
“We need all the help we can get,” Edwards said.
On Thursday, Biden said Ida had caused “unimaginable damage.”
Biden said more than 6,000 National Guard members had been activated in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and other states to support search and recovery efforts.
Long lines formed outside the few places selling gasoline or distributing emergency supplies.
Although most of Louisiana’s hospitals escaped catastrophic damage, many were running on generators, and some in the hardest hit areas evacuated their patients to safer ground.
In Houma, the Terrebonne General Health System building was abandoned after Ida tore its roof off and flooded the interior, but ambulances used its parking lot as a staging area for responding to emergency calls across Terrebonne Parish.
“We have been running constantly. All units have been all-hands-on-deck since Monday,” said Donna Newchurch, who heads the Louisiana Ambulance Alliance.
Ida struck a state where hospitals were already crowded with Covid-19 patients and short of nurses.
Edwards said 2,447 Covid-19 patients were hospitalised on Wednesday, including 446 on ventilators. The state recorded 12,380 new infections over the previous four days, though Edwards said the real figure was likely much higher because so many testing centres were closed.