In Ida's aftermath, small signs of progress amid a calamitous mess

Across Louisiana and parts of Mississippi battered by Hurricane Ida, lights came back on for a fortunate few, some corner stores opened their doors and crews cleared fallen trees and debris from a growing number of roadways Wednesday — small signs of progress amid the monumental task of repairing the damage inflicted by the storm.

At least 6 confirmed dead in wake of Hurricane Ida as cleanup continues across Louisiana, Mississippi

A man rests while helping neighbours Wednesday at a home in Jean Lafitte, La., that was damaged by Hurricane Ida. As the staggering scope of the disaster began to come into focus, one private firm estimated the total cost of damages could exceed $50 billion US. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

Lights came back on for a fortunate few, some corner stores opened their doors and crews cleared fallen trees and debris from a growing number of roadways Wednesday — small signs of progress amid the monumental task of repairing the damage inflicted by Hurricane Ida.

Still, suffering remained widespread three days after Ida battered Louisiana and parts of Mississippi as the fifth-most-powerful hurricane to strike the U.S. Some low-lying communities remained largely underwater. Roughly a million homes and businesses still had no electricity, and health officials said more than 600,000 lacked running water.

The death toll rose to at least six after a coroner confirmed a 65-year-old woman had drowned in her Louisiana home and police in Maryland said a 19-year-old man was found dead in an apartment complex flooded by heavy rain from Ida's remnants.

And the staggering scope of the disaster began to come into focus, with a private firm estimating total damage from Ida could exceed $50 billion US.

In the wake of Hurricane Ida, Donnie Pearson adjusts a light at his home after power was restored to his New Orleans neighbourhood on Wednesday. Officials said roughly a million homes and businesses still had no electricity and more than 600,000 lacked running water. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

'All right! We got power!'

With all of New Orleans blacked out except for those running generators, Byron Lambert woke up startled at about 1:30 a.m. when a light suddenly came on down the hall from where he slept. He first thought it was a burglar, then realized his home had electricity.

Lambert's house in eastern New Orleans was among more than 11,000 homes and businesses that had power restored early Wednesday, according to the electric company Entergy.

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"When it came on it startled me. I'm like 'All right! We got power!' " Lambert said, his enthusiasm tempered by the knowledge of what others were going through.

"I'm fortunate, but they have a lot of people that aren't as fortunate as me, and I pray for them because it's rough."

There were still 989,000 homes and businesses without power, or 44 per cent of all state utility customers in southeast Louisiana, from the New Orleans area to Baton Rouge, according to the state Public Service Commission.

Phillip May, president and CEO of Entergy Louisiana, told reporters Wednesday he predicts "a lot more progress" in coming days. Still, he said full recovery will be slow, with thousands of power poles and transformers knocked out by the storm.

In neighbouring Mississippi, 32,000 customers had no electricity.

Residents line up for fuel as they try to recover from the effects of Hurricane Ida Wednesday in Belle Chasse, La. Ida ravaged the region’s power grid, leaving all of New Orleans and hundreds of thousands of other Louisiana residents in the dark. (Steve Helber/The Associated Press)

People swelter with no water or electricity

Hard-hit areas in southeast Louisiana were under a heat advisory Wednesday, with forecasters warning combined heat and humidity could make some areas feel like 42 C. Officials scrambled to offer food, water and places to cool off.

National Guard troops had handed out more than 141,000 meals, 143,000 litres of water and more than 500 tarps in Louisiana as of Wednesday morning, according to Gov. John Bel Edwards' office.

In New Orleans, officials opened seven places where people could get a meal and sit in air conditioning. The city was also using 70 transit buses as cooling sites, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said.

In New Orleans, some residents gathered at a basketball gym with large fans running to cool off and charge their phones. People took random boxes holding chicken salad or tuna salad, and a man outside offered granola bars, applesauce and chips.

More than 1,200 people were walking through some of Ida's hardest-hit communities to look for people needing help, according to the Louisiana Fire Marshal's office.

In coastal Jefferson Parish, where Ida brought severe flooding, authorities were waiting for floodwaters to recede enough for trucks carrying food, water and repair supplies to begin moving into Lafitte and other low-lying communities.

People paddle a boat up a flooded street in Jean Lafitte, La., Wednesday. Residents are scrambling for food, gas, water and relief from the oppressive heat. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

"We are pretty confident that those that wanted to get out have now been able to get out," said Capt. Jason Rivarde of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, who said more than 100 people had been rescued in the area.

Search and rescue missions were tapering off, but continued in four parishes that still had floodwaters, Brig. Gen. Lee W. Hopkins of the Louisiana National Guard said on a Zoom call. That's compared to 31 parishes in the hours immediately after the storm.

Biden to visit Friday

U.S. President Joe Biden was to visit Louisiana Friday to survey the damage, the White House said.

In New Orleans, where the mayor estimated roughly half the population had evacuated, there were growing signs of recovery. Flags hung from dangling power lines to help drivers avoid them, and in one neighbourhood, someone decorated the downed lines with strands of tinsel in an echo of Mardi Gras.

City crews removing debris from roads and cutting up fallen trees had some streets almost completely cleared, while others remained cluttered with obstacles.

Louisiana's transportation department announced that all interstate systems across the state had reopened and been cleared of debris. AT&T, which faced widespread cellphone outages after Ida, said it's currently operating at more than 90 per cent of normal capacity.

As a clearer picture of Ida's devastation emerged, the hurricane likely caused $50 billion to $60 billion US in total damage, estimated Karen Clark, who has calculated catastrophic risk since 1987.

Her risk modelling company, Karen Clark and Company, figured just $18 billion of those losses would be insured.

Those estimates would rank Ida anywhere from the fifth- to seventh-costliest U.S. hurricane based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Katrina, Harvey, Maria and Sandy were well over that amount. NOAA says 2017's Irma incurred about $55 billion US in damage and 1992's Andrew about $53 billion US in 2019 dollars.