Louisiana's Hurricane Ida recovery inches forward with thousands displaced, structures wiped out

Greg Hilburn
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Louisiana's recovery from Hurricane Ida is inching forward at an achingly slow pace with at least 700,000 people without power, tens of thousands of survivors displaced without a clear path home and fall elections postponed.

Though electricity has largely been restored to the state's signature city of New Orleans, which was spared the brunt of the storm's damage, five southeastern Louisiana parishes are weeks away from power restoration with many homes and businesses destroyed.

Among the region hit particularly hard is what's known as bayou country, where the population hub is Houma in Terrebonne Parish.

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"I don't think any structure was untouched and many are beyond repair," said Houma state Rep. Tanner Magee, who's traveling into his broken city every day on a four-hour round-trip commute from Baton Rouge.

People begin clearing debris Monday in Houma in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

Magee, his wife Kristen and their 12-year-old triplet daughters are staying with Kristen's parents. The couple is enrolling their triplets in a Baton Rouge school this week because schools in Terrebonne and the other hardest hit areas are closed indefinitely.

Federal Emergency Management Agency regional director Tony Robinson said about 25,000 displaced survivors — 8,800 families — are being housed in hotel rooms.

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More than 3,000 survivors are staying in 23 state and local shelters, Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Walters said. "Those numbers are moving constantly as people are moving in and out of shelters," she said.

And tens of thousands more, like Magee, are staying with family and friends or have secured lodging on their own.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has also signed an executive order preserving hotel rooms for emergency personnel. "Our top priority is recovery and we can't do that if first-responders don't have a place to stay," he said Tuesday.

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More than 340,000 homes and businesses remained without power Wednesday, according to the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which translates to at least double the amount of people who don't have electricity.

In five parishes — Lafourche, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist and Terrebonne — virtually no electricity has been restored and won't be until as late as Sept. 29.

Edwards has traveled to 13 parishes to survey the damage.

"While we've seen a lot of good work, there's an awful lot of work to be done," he said. "I can tell you we obviously have a lot of work to do to get people right-side up again."

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said Edwards has agreed with his request to postpone the Oct. 9 election to Nov. 13 and the Nov. 13 election to Dec. 11, saying circumstances make holding them "virtually impossible without impairing the integrity of the election(s)."

Meanwhile nearly 9,000 National Guard soldiers from Louisiana and 14 other states have boots on the ground assisting in the recovery.

All Louisiana National Guard soldiers who are in state are activated — 2,400 are stationed overseas — while another 3,100 soldiers have come from states as far away as Alaska.

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Louisiana National Guard Gen. Keith Waddell said the soldiers are focused on commodity distribution (71 sites), engineering, COVID-19 response and other missions.

"You can be very proud of these men and women," Waddell said.

Louisiana Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson said it could take six months or more to remove all of the debris from Hurricane Ida. Wilson said his agency removed 15,000 cubic yards of debris in just two days.

Magee said miles-long caravans of people in vehicles are waiting in daily distribution lines to secure life-sustaining supplies in Terrebonne Parish.

"We're still in survival mode," he said.

Magee said the scope of the destruction is crushing.

"I'm an optimistic person, but I have to be realistic," he said. "I'm not sure some of these communities will ever be back to what they were before."

Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1