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16 Years After Hurricane Katrina, News Orleans Is Forced To Deal With Ida

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Sixteen years after Katrina hit New Orleans, the city finds itself recovering from yet another major storm. Schools are closed, many trees are down, and much of southern Louisiana is without power following Hurricane Ida's landfall this past Sunday. NPR's Liz Baker joins us from New Orleans. Liz, latest figure is that at least a million customers are without power. How much longer is that going to last?

LIZ BAKER, BYLINE: Well, there's no real way to know for sure just yet. But the energy company here, Entergy, says it could be weeks to get power restored. There are utility poles and lines down on nearly every street here. And it's not even just a matter of fixing those residential lines and utility poles, which - make no mistake - is going to be a big job; the real concern right now is that a huge transmission tower fell into the Mississippi River, and that took out a main electrical artery for a huge portion of greater New Orleans.

MARTINEZ: And, Liz, you drove around the city yesterday after the storm passed. I mean, what'd you see?

BAKER: Well, in the city, at least, there's no flooding. So it looks very different from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But it does certainly look like a big wind storm came through here. There's leaves and branches everywhere, uprooted trees, slabs of tin roofing curled around unlucky cars. Some buildings have extensive damage. We saw one brick building downtown that just completely collapsed. Some homes we saw were partially crushed by large trees. Here's Darlene Wilson, who lives right under the Mississippi levee. She was on her way to find ice, to keep her refrigerated food from spoiling.

DARLENE WILSON: The water's on low pressure, no air. And we're not raining. And this is the result of it, right here - trees falling and limbs and everything else. We got the roof down on this side. You know, we probably, surely got - other people have worse situations right now than this. But this is it.

BAKER: And on Ms. Wilson's street, like nearly every other street, there were those power lines down, lines that are probably not active because the power is out pretty much everywhere, but people are still being really careful to avoid those lines just in case. And in some neighborhoods, you can just see whole roads where utility poles snapped and dragged each other down like dominoes.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, that and Darlene's story - I mean, it sounds overwhelming. I mean, there got to be lots of scary individual stories of how people rode out the storms. What are people telling you?

BAKER: Well, lots of people did evacuate on Saturday before the storm hit. But Ida came up so fast it was upgraded to a major hurricane, basically, in one afternoon, and because of that, there wasn't time to declare a mandatory evacuation for New Orleans. So people living inside the city's levee system had a choice of whether or not to leave. But, you know, let's remember, A, evacuating can be really expensive. You need a functional car, gas, often a few days' stay in a hotel. So not everyone who wants to leave can afford to do so. And then there are people who stay because of their jobs - think medical workers who were already dealing with a huge surge of COVID patients and couldn't, you know, just leave.

But for those who did decide to ride out the storm, all the folks we've talked to say they're not going to do it again next time. Ida was just too scary. People were stuck out in their homes. They had to listen to the wind howl for hours, wondering if they were going to be OK every time there was a loud crash or a strong gust. And, you know, this is New Orleans, where residents will list with pride the big ones they've rode out in the past. So that's saying something.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, yeah, but we know that climate change contributed to the speed and intensity of this storm and is likely to make future storms just as intense. I mean, are the people you spoke with still committed to living in such a vulnerable spot?

BAKER: In general, yes. And keep in mind - we were speaking yesterday with mostly people who rode it out anyway, including Chris Dufrene Jr. (ph), who is outside the town of Lafitte, which is right up against the Gulf and took the full force of Hurricane Ida. He was trying to get back in to check the damage of his home. He had left and come downtown to shelter. So he wasn't in Lafitte for the storm. But he wasn't having any luck getting back in there. Authorities were not letting anyone in because that area is still under enough water to need boat rescues for those who stayed behind. And Dufrene told us he knows climate change has come for Louisiana, but he absolutely plans to stay where he is.

CHRIS DUFRENE JR: People's going to come back. People around here are hard-headed, I hate to say. This is our home. This is where I grew up. This is where I lived my whole life, except when I went away to college, you know? But this is where I live. I mean, I'll be back. I'm going to fix - get my house ready. The only thing that's killing me is not being able to go down there and at least see my house, check on my parents' house. It's just this waiting game that kills us all the time.

MARTINEZ: Liz, how would you characterize the emergency response from local, state and federal governments? Is southern Louisiana getting the help it needs?

BAKER: Right now it's still in the damage-assessment phase, just trying to get a better sense of what resources and repairs are needed. Five thousand National Guard and 25,000 cleanup crews and linemen from all over the U.S. have been sent down to help with recovery and repair efforts. So we'll just have to wait and see in the coming days whether that aid is enough and what else is needed.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Liz Baker in New Orleans. Liz, thanks a lot.

BAKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.