16 years after Hurricane Katrina, Ida takes ‘significant’ toll on Louisiana

Hurricane Ida tore through Southeastern Louisiana's cities and towns, flooding streets and ripping apart buildings and homes, killing at least two people. Crews are still trying to assess its full impact. Electricity remains out in New Orleans and surrounding areas for more than 800,000 customers, and it's not clear when it will be restored. John Yang begins our coverage with this report.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Our other major story: the devastation of Hurricane Ida.

    The Category 4 storm cut a path of destruction across Southeastern Louisiana. Ida tore through cities and towns, flooding streets and ripping apart buildings and homes. At least two people were killed. Crews are still trying to assess the full impact. Electricity remains out in New Orleans and surrounding areas for more than 880,000. And it's not at all clear when it will be restored.

    John Yang begins our coverage with this report.

  • John Yang:

    Today, Louisiana officials began surveying the damage from Hurricane Ida, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the United States.

    Blasting ashore on Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane, Ida brought winds that reached 150 miles per hour, tearing off roofs from buildings and knocking out power to the entire city of New Orleans. Ida 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina, a storm that killed more than 1, 800 residents in Louisiana and Mississippi.

    Latoya Cantrell, Mayor of New Orleans, Louisiana: Good afternoon.

  • John Yang:

    New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell told reporters this afternoon that the city had avoided a worst-case scenario, but urged residents who had evacuated not to return yet.

  • Latoya Cantrell:

    We did not have another Katrina. And that's something, again, we should all be grateful for. However, the impact is absolutely significant. While we held the line, no doubt about that, now is not the time for reentry.

  • John Yang:

    The storm tested a $14.5 billion levee system that had been overhauled in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

    Many New Orleans residents like Stephen Timphony said they felt lucky.

  • Stephen Timphony, New Orleans Resident:

    This was a lot of wind damage, and Katrina was more flood. Like, Katrina, we got about two feet of water in here that just stayed for about a week or two. But this was just a lot of wind damage and no power.

  • John Yang:

    But officials worry that the power outage in New Orleans could make the city, which relies on pumps to clear stormwater from streets, more susceptible to flooding in coming days. In addition, hundreds of thousands of residents remain without air conditioning or refrigeration.

    In nearby Jefferson Parish, residents crawled into attics to escape rising waters. Some even took to social media, pleading for help for themselves and their families as calls to rescue crews went unanswered.

    On Facebook today, the Louisiana State Police warned: "Communication is very limited in these areas. If you're stranded, it may be difficult to get help to you for quite some time."

    Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng spoke this morning about the desperate effort to reach trapped residents.

    Cynthia Lee Sheng, President of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana: Our water system is down. Our electricity is down. We have roads that are impassable because of water. We have roads that poles, electrical poles are down, covering it, trees are down.

    So the first level of business is trying to get through to communications, so we can work as efficiently as possible.

  • John Yang:

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the storm surge was so powerful, it temporarily reversed the flow of the Mississippi River.

    Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards told NBC's "Today" this morning that the human toll may not be clear for a while.

  • Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-LA):

    I'm certain that, as the day goes on, we will have more deaths. So, we were getting calls for help. We know that, for example, some apartment buildings collapsed partially in certain areas. This happened during the height of the storm. And there was no way to go out and respond to those calls.

  • John Yang:

    President Biden met with FEMA officials this afternoon. He said more than 5,000 members of the National Guard had been activated for search and recovery efforts.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: We know Hurricane Ida had the potential to cause massive, massive damage. And that's exactly what we saw. We are going to stand with you and the people of the Gulf as long as it takes for you to recover.

  • John Yang:

    Hurricane Ida hit as Louisiana hospitals are already stressed from a resurgence of COVID-19 because of low vaccination rates and the highly contagious Delta variant.

    After spending 16 hours as a hurricane over land, Ida was downgraded to a tropical storm as it churned toward Mississippi. Flood watches have been posted along the storm's projected path from the Northern Gulf Coast to the Tennessee Valley.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The storm grew in strength and intensity beyond what had been projected just a couple of days ago.

    Scientists say greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are contributing and fueling hurricanes like Ida, in part by warming the waters that feed and fuel the storm.

    Let's go to one of the hardest-hit areas in Hurricane Ida's path, Louisiana's Lafourche Parish, west of New Orleans, where reports of damage are significant.

    Archie Chaisson is the president of Lafourche Parish.

    Mr. Chaisson, thank you very much for joining us.

    First of all, tell us, how badly was Lafourche Parish hit?

    Archie Chaisson, President of Lafourche Parish, Louisiana: Yes.

    You know, We got hit by a Mack truck over the last 16 hours with this one. It was every bit the strong Category 4 that they told us it was going to be. We have major roof damage across probably the bottom two-thirds of our parish. The top third has probably some moderate damage to homes and businesses.

    Two of our local hospitals, both of those facilities are compromised, and we're working on getting patients out of there. Our water system to the bottom third of our parish is compromised. And as we work to clean roads, we will try to figure out why that system is leaking, whether we lost a water tower somewhere along the way or we have a mainline breach somewhere.

    So, it's picking up the pieces right now. Communications are tough. Most of the cell phone towers and stuff were hard-hit. So, trying to compete on radios, dispatch with our sheriff's office, and all the partners here with us in the UFC is a little difficult at the moment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It sounds like just about everything was affected.

    What about people? Injuries?

  • Archie Chaisson:

    So, luckily, no reported fatalities.

    We had some minor injuries that we were able to deal with, with our first responders. There are still some search-and-rescue operations happening as we try to get to people, as we can clear roads, clear power lines, and clear trees. And those will continue throughout the day and night, until we can get to all the calls for service that we received during the storm that we were unable to get to due to the high winds.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Give us a sense of how people are surviving at this moment, if they can't get — go anywhere, if they need water, if they don't have electricity? What are they doing? How are they getting by?

  • Archie Chaisson:

    It's tough for them right now, especially in the most southern part of our parish.

    We are working very diligently to get trucks in. We do have some staged bottled water. The main problem at this point is clearing the roads of all the debris. Lafourche Parish is a very narrow parish and long parish. So we have two major roads that parallel Bayou Lafourche. We don't have a whole lot of entrances in and out get to people.

    So we have to work and are working very hard to clear those roads of power lines and trees, so we can start to be able to get supplies to the people in the most southern part of our parish.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you have, Mr. Chaisson, what you need? Do you have the equipment, the supplies that you need at this point?

  • Archie Chaisson:

    Yes, we have chain saw crews and trustees crews, in partnership with our sheriff's office, cutting up those trees and those power lines.

    A lot of our employees were here because they were essential and rode it out in different parts of the parish. So, as they come in, we're opening up our regional field offices and getting excavators and backhoes and things like that to start pushing this stuff off the road.

    The big part, into tonight, into tomorrow, we will be getting bigger amounts of supplies into the parish, tarps for people who lost roofs, food, MREs, ice and water, to be able to open up those points of distribution so we can enable to help people survive just a little bit better.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned the hospitals.

    Tell us what the situation there is.

  • Archie Chaisson:

    Yes, so both of — two of our hospitals, the one in the central part of our parish and the one down south, had roof damage, caused some significant water damage to the facilities.

    All of the patients themselves are safe and have by this point been taken out of the facilities to other regional hospitals that were not affected. So we are working with our partners, with the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, as well as the National Guard, to stand up some temporary hospitals, so that we have some ability to treat people and triage them should something happen like a heart attack or a broken bone or something like that, the ability to stabilize them, to get them airlifted somehow or by road to a different facility.

    But this is going to be a tough battle. We have a long road ahead of us. But our community is resilient. We put our faith in God. And we're going to get through this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You say a long road. It just sounds like such a massive undertaking.

    Do you have any idea how long it's going to take to put your parish back together?

  • Archie Chaisson:

    I don't at this point. I'm still trying to get some images from the bottom part of our parish to figure out exactly what's left down there.

    We're getting some stuff through intermittent interconnectivity with the Internet, through Facebook, of all things. Social media works out to be a great thing sometimes. It's going to take us months, if not longer, to put together all of this stuff. We're going to be without power for several weeks, if not months, as we work to rebuild the transmission grid that feeds us here, as well as the thousands of power poles that are now across Lafourche Parish.

    So, we definitely have a long road to go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Archie Chaisson, president of Lafourche Parish, we certainly wish you the very best.

    We're so glad there wasn't — the casualties weren't worse, but you clearly have your work cut out.

    Thank you for joining us. And all the best.

  • Archie Chaisson:

    Thank you so much.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Congressman Troy Carter represents Louisiana's Second District, which includes some of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Ida, including portions of Jefferson Parish and most of New Orleans.

    And he joins us now on the phone.

    So, Congressman Carter, we just heard the parish president of Lafourche Parish say it's like they have been hit by a Mack truck. What would you say is your impression of what this hurricane did?

  • Rep. Troy Carter (D-LA):

    I think I'd double down on that.

    He's probably quite right. Throughout the state, it's been pretty hard hit, some places not as hard as others. Some have incredibly been devastated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what are you seeing? I know your district, we said, is the Second District. How are people doing? What is the situation there?

  • Rep. Troy Carter:

    It's dire.

    You have got people that are — some have been significantly damaged, with property damage to their homes and their businesses. Nearly everyone has been impacted by being out of power, not having access to electricity, access to the Internet, and, in many cases, access to cell phones, which makes it very difficult to keep people apprised of what is going on and to find out where they are, so we can get to them to provide services.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so how would you describe the efforts to get to them? Are you able to — do you even have access to the people who are most in need?

  • Rep. Troy Carter:

    Well, I think that the efforts have been as good as you can possibly hope for.

    The federal government stepped in immediately. The president signed off on a declaration of emergency right away, which released and freed lots of money and resources. The National Guard is on the ground as we speak, going into those areas where people were able to reach us by 911, and as well as those areas we suspect people did not get a chance to get out, to evacuate in time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Congressman Carter, of the things that are needed now, what would you say are the priorities?

  • Rep. Troy Carter:

    I would say, right now, search-and-rescue, obviously, is number one, saving lives. Saving lives is number one. Quality of life comes next, making sure that we have secured everyone who is in a dangerous position and gotten them to higher ground, where they are safe and secure and stabilized.

    And then second, of course, is making sure that we get power back on the grid, make sure that people that are sheltering in place have the comforts of air conditioning. It is very hot in August in Louisiana. It is a sweltering heat and very dangerous for senior citizens, as well as children.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Congressman Carter, I know a lot of people are asking — are trying to compare this to Hurricane Katrina.

    I assume you were in the area back then. Why would you say the destruction has so far not been worse, and certainly loss of life, thankfully?

  • Rep. Troy Carter:

    I have experienced both. I lived through Katrina and now Ida.

    And I will tell you, the most significant difference is, 16 years ago, we did not have the built-up levee system that we have today. The federal government investing the money into building our levees up to prevent and protect us from a storm like this looks like it has really paid dividends, having the ability to have our communities not as ravaged as they can be.

    And they're pretty bad now, but certainly a lot better than they were 16 years ago, because we did, in fact, invest in stronger levee protection. And we will continue to build on that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Representative Troy Carter of Louisiana's Second Congressional District, we certainly wish you and all of your contingents the very best as you work your way through this.

    Thank you for joining us.

  • Rep. Troy Carter:

    Thank you.

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