Ida’s Heavy Rains Send Louisiana Residents on a Hunt for Clean Water

Nearly everyone in Jefferson Parish, next to New Orleans, was experiencing problems with their water service after the power went out. Lines for bottled water were growing.,

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KENNER, La. — In one of the many lines snaking into gas stations, out of groceries and around hardware stores in Jefferson Parish, La., on Wednesday sat Jeanne DiLeo, in her car, waiting. The simplest of necessities required hours of effort in the world that Hurricane Ida left behind. She had driven to Mississippi to buy fuel to keep her car running and her generator going, and was now sitting in a caravan of vehicles in front of a church to get food and — most important — water.

“The water is a trickle,” Ms. DiLeo, 45, said of what was happening when she turned on her faucet in Kenner. “Sometimes, it’s not even a trickle.”

The storm that ripped through southeastern Louisiana on Sunday left a still-untold number of people without homes and nearly a million facing an indefinite stretch with no electricity, but it also wreaked havoc on another essential service. Hundreds of thousands of people found themselves in places where water infrastructure was badly damaged by the storm and pumps and treatment plants were left without power.

In Jefferson Parish, more populous than the city of New Orleans and right next door, virtually all residents were either experiencing water outages or under advisories to boil their water. Even as the heat was suffocating and air-conditioning almost nonexistent, drinking water in most of the parish was limited to whatever one had stocked before the storm or could get after waiting in lines for hours.

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Volunteers handed out food and water to residents in Kenner.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times
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A Costco parking lot in New Orleans.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

“This has become basic-level subsistence,” said Steve Robinson, the senior pastor of Church of the King, which has a site in Kenner, where a line of cars rolled through as volunteers from his congregation handed out pallets of water and buckets packed with toiletries, flashlights, first-aid kits and nonperishable foods. They eventually ran out of warm meals.

This was life, upended, in much of the region — an oil state in dire need of fuel, with places devastated by flooding left desperate for water. More than a dozen hospitals have been evacuated and people with serious medical conditions were still waiting for help in homes without power and down roads blocked by fallen trees.

Carbon monoxide poisoning, from the misuse of generators, sent a dozen people to hospitals in New Orleans and left one person dead, the authorities said, raising the death toll from the storm and its aftermath to at least eight. President Biden was expected to visit Louisiana on Friday.

A sliver of good news came on Wednesday, when Entergy, Louisiana’s largest utility, announced that it had restored power to about 11,500 customers in New Orleans, turning on the lights in some of the city’s eastern neighborhoods. But officials cautioned that restoring power to the entire city would take longer given the scale of the damage. It could be weeks, they said, before the hardest-hit parts of the state emerge from darkness.

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National Guard members distributed supplies in New Orleans.Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times
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Entergy announced it had restored power to about 11,500 customers in New Orleans.Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

And still, Ida was not finished. As the remnants of the storm angrily slogged toward the northeast, it filled a dam to perilous capacity in central Pennsylvania, prompting the evacuation of thousands, and spawned tornadoes in Maryland. Flash flood watches were issued around New England, and Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York ordered state agencies to prepare emergency response plans.

Jefferson Parish, which is home to about 430,000 people and stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the subdivisions and shopping malls of suburban New Orleans, offered bleak testimony about what a storm of Ida’s magnitude can do to a place. Ida left a trail of devastation through the southern end of the parish, deluging little communities in the wetlands and washing houses away completely on the beaches of Grand Isle, which parish officials deemed “uninhabitable.”

By midweek, water remained 10 to 12 feet deep in spots in small towns where flooding wrecked so many homes that it is hard, even days later, to give an accounting. “There are so many of them,” said Tim Kerner Jr., the mayor of Jean Lafitte, where water overtopped the levees and swallowed the town on Sunday. “A lot of houses floated away the water got so high.”

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The storm’s destruction in Galliano.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times
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Bruce Westley in his home in Crozier, just outside of Houma.Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

The problem at the northern end of the parish was different. There, the area was mostly protected from floodwaters by the massive complex of levees and flood walls that encircle New Orleans. But the hurricane’s winds caused chaos, uprooting trees and slapping down power lines. Buildings mostly remained standing, but the services needed to go about daily life had collapsed.

“We’re a broken community right now,” Cynthia Lee Sheng, the president of Jefferson Parish, said at a news conference. “We don’t have electricity. We don’t have communication. We don’t have gas. Our water and sewer systems are very fragile.”

There is no firm timeline of when electricity will return to the parish. Without power to drive the pumping stations, tanker trucks have to fill up with sewage and take it to treatment plants, one trip at a time. Nowhere in Jefferson Parish is the water drinkable straight from the tap.

Mark Drewes, who leads the parish’s Department of Public Works, said that after the storm roared through, little water pressure remained in the system; water was spilling out through dozens of broken pipes and mains.

Without water pressure, it was nearly impossible to put out fires, as firefighters discovered when an apartment complex near the New Orleans airport went up in flames on Sunday night. With water pouring limply out of hydrants, firefighters resorted to pumping up water pooled at a shopping center across the street and ferrying it to the fire all night long.

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Boxed water and ready-to-eat meals from a New Orleans distribution hub.Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times
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Water tanks outside of Ochsner Medical Center.Credit…Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

Through a time-consuming process of searching for breaks and shutting valves, the pressure has steadily risen. Still, it was not yet enough, officials said, to render the water drinkable under state health standards. The parish’s largest hospital, Ochsner Medical Center, has been relying on its own well, drilled on the campus after Hurricane Katrina, in addition to deliveries of bottled water and potable water from water trucks.

For most residents of Jefferson Parish, though, there were the grocery stores, distribution centers and churches — and the long, long lines outside them.

Given all this, officials were sounding the same note they had for days: If you left, do not come back yet. If you are here, you may want to leave.

In Marrero, on the western bank of the Mississippi River, buses lined up outside of a playground to carry people to shelter elsewhere in the state — those who had endured the hurricane but were beaten down by the misery that followed.

One man said he was exhausted from days without electricity and water, the unrelenting humidity that had him sweating “consistently and profusely” and a house that was starting to reek of mildew. The man, who declined to give his name, said he did not really care, exactly, where the bus would take him.

“Wherever I end up,” he said, “is better than where I was.”

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