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Restoring power to thousands of homes in New Orleans and surrounding parishes could take days or even weeks, after Hurricane Ida slammed into southeast Louisiana and knocked out all eight electricity transmission lines powering the region, including a critical tower that collapsed near the Mississippi River.
More than 1.1 million homes and businesses are without power in Louisiana and Mississippi, according to governor John Bel Edwards, after the storm’s “catastrophic damage” broke down more than 2,000 miles of power lines and 216 substations, according to Entergy, the company that powers much of the state.
Entergy New Orleans, which provides the city with electrical and gas power, announced 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”.
More than 20,000 lineman from 22 states have been dispatched across the state, although it remains unclear how long it will take to restore service, potentially leaving thousands of homes in the dark and in the late-summer heat and humidity.
Gas stations are unable to pump fuel, cellular service is limited, and the city’s sewage-pumping stations have limited capacity to pull wastewater.
New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell urged residents who evacuated to stay where they are, stressing that “now is not the time for re-entry”. Roughly 200,000 New Orleans residents remained in their homes, she said.
“Again, if you evacuated, stay where you are,” she said during a briefing on Monday. “We will notify you when it is safe to go home.”
Jefferson Parish president Cynthia Lee Sheng, whose suburban parish wraps around New Orleans and extends to the coast, told Joe Biden on Monday that residents have “no electricity, no communication”.
“Our water systems are down. We’re losing pressure,” she said. “It’s going to be a difficult life for quite some time.”
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 Greco’s parents.
Water reached a foot up the first-floor windows, then filled the first floor to 1.2m (4ft) deep once the back door was opened. They retreated to the second floor, but then screaming winds collapsed the roof as waves broke in the front yard.
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.
At least 18 water system outages across the state have impacted more than 300,000 homes, with 329,000 people under advisories to boil their water, according to the governor’s office. The state’s health department reports more 440,000 homes without any water service.
Jefferson Parish is weighing whether to evacuate residents in buses.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent 200 generators to Louisiana, and more are coming, the president said.
As power returns, the state will prioritise hospitals, dialysis centers and other critical medical centres, the governor said. Four hospitals have been evacuated, and other health systems in southeast Louisiana have relied on generator power, though that may diminish.
Early post-storm assessments of damage to New Orleans neighbourhoods reported downed trees, scattered debris and some roof damage, along with some collapsed structures, though the city was spared from the mass flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when federal levees failed and inundated the city as the storm passed. A $14.5bn flood protection system constructed in the years after Katrina held against Ida’s brute force.
“If there’s a silver lining, and today it’s kind of hard to see one, our levee systems performed extremely well,” Mr Edwards said on Monday.
But widespread power outages exposed lingering Entergy issues that residents and regulators have criticised in the aftermath of other storms, including lack of upgrades to strengthen its power grid and lines for more severe storms. Members of the New Orleans City Council, which regulates Entergy New Orleans, have vowed to investigate power failures following Ida’s aftermath.
Entergy’s controversial gas-fired power plant in New Orleans East – built in the face of opposition from members of the community, environmental concerns and the objection of some members of city government – had pledged that the facility would be vital for circumstances exactly like the destruction seen during Ida, when the transmission system that feeds the region with power generated from outside the city is offline. That didn’t happen.
The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, which also relies on Entergy power as well as its own power-generating turbines, is using generators to keep critical stormwater pumps operational.
“I can’t tell you when power is going to be restored,” Mr Edwards said on Monday. “But I can tell you we’re going to work hard every single day to provide as much assistance as we can … and push Entergy and other electric companies to restore power as fast as they can.”
Over the weekend, Ida gathered deadly strength across a warm Gulf of Mexico, rapidly strengthening to a category 4 hurricane with wind speeds reaching 150mph, and barreling into a Louisiana coastline decimated by eroding wetlands that once provided the state with a natural storm barrier.
As floods receded and daylight returned on Monday, emergency crews performed search-and-rescue operations in low-lying areas in Jefferson and St John the Baptist parishes, where officials reported dozens of rescue calls, including families trapped in their attics as the storm’s eyewall lashed vulnerable areas outside New Orleans and its storm protection system.
Local, state and federal rescuers combined to save at least 671 people by Monday afternoon, Mr Edwards said, and roughly 2,000 people were moved into 36 emergency shelters.
“It may not seem like it, but every single day will be another step forward,” the governor said.