In the aftermath of Ida, Louisiana faces daunting challenges

An aerial view of the damage caused by Hurricane Ida in southeast Louisiana, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. Photo: The Associated Press
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

An aerial view of the damage caused by Hurricane Ida in southeast Louisiana, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. Photo: The Associated Press

In the aftermath of Ida, Louisiana faces daunting challenges

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Massive flooding, hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, and a crippled power grid will test the state as it tries to rebound from Hurricane Ida, University of Miami experts say.

Now begins the recovery process.

Days after Hurricane Ida pummeled Louisiana as one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the U.S., storm-weary residents are now picking up the pieces, trying to recover and, in some cases, rebuild their lives after yet another devastating cyclone destroyed homes, flooded neighborhoods, and left hundreds of thousands without power in the state.

It could take weeks, if not months, for residents to bounce back from the devastation wrought by the storm, emergency management officials have warned. And in the ensuing days, the state will face a multitude of challenges, from flooded areas that could become breeding grounds for disease to a health care system—already pushed to the limits by a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections—suddenly having to treat storm victims. 

As is the case after most disasters, it is a recovery operation that has started with ensuring that the most essential needs—food and shelter—are met, according to Matthew Shpiner, executive director of emergency management for the University of Miami.

“One of the critical services that we tend to take for granted and one that we use every day is our cellphones,” he said. “While carriers have improved networks, communications still can be dramatically impacted. So, reestablishing at least a basic level of communication is critical for survivors and most certainly for responders as the recovery process continues.”

Universities and colleges in the state are dealing with their own unique set of problems brought on by the storm, according to Shpiner, who said that some of the hardest hit schools have temporarily suspended classes as they assess damage and begin repairs. “These institutions are facing challenges that are well beyond their control, especially as it relates to critical infrastructure such as power, water, sewer, and communications,” he explained. “These types of infrastructure issues have a direct effect on their ability to initiate repairs, resume essential operations, and then resume classes and regular campus operations.”

Ida made landfall near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, on Aug. 29, battering the state with a barrage of wind and water. The cyclone struck on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The storm’s torrential rains turned roads into rivers. And now, those floodwaters, which could take days to recede in some areas, could pose potential health risks and lead to injury.

“Wading through murky water filled with debris can lead to mild skin abrasions or more serious lacerations and other injuries,” said Justin Stoler, associate professor of geography and regional studies in the College of Arts Sciences, who holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Miller School of Medicine. “If it becomes contaminated with sewage, then contact with that water can lead to gastrointestinal and skin infections. There is also a heightened risk of more serious bacterial infections, such as the flesh-eating Vibrio vulnificus, due to contact with tropical waters from the Gulf,” he said. 

Even when those floodwaters retreat, the risk of illness can remain, Stoler pointed out. “There is the potential for respiratory diseases due to mold growth and things like Legionella in disrupted water distribution systems,” he said. “A week or two later, we could see spikes in mosquitos, particularly those that spread West Nile Virus, dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever, and Zika,” Stoler added.

Any illnesses that do result could linger for years, said professor of public health sciences Naresh Kumar. Most notably, he pointed out, people who return to water-damaged homes and buildings could be exposing themselves to sprouting mold spores that could cause or exacerbate allergies and pulmonary diseases.

“Other factors—such as a lack of access to vegetables, fruits, and other fresh foods; a reliance on calorie-dense canned foods; psychosocial stress; and heat stress due to the loss of electricity—can exacerbate preexisting health conditions like diabetes,” Kumar said.

As such, it would not be surprising if some Louisiana hospitals begin to experience an influx in patients who suffered injuries during the storm or in the cleanup efforts that ensued, according to Vincent Torres, emergency management director for the University of Miami Health System.

And those hospitals, some of which were damaged in the storm and are operating on emergency backup generators, are already overwhelmed by a surge in COVID-19 cases due to the more transmissible delta variant. According to Health and Human Services data, Louisiana has the seventh highest COVID-19 hospitalization rate in the nation. “In the coming weeks, Louisiana may see another wave of COVID-19 infections due to people sheltering with family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors as well as in community evacuation centers,” Torres said. “In such sheltering situations, some people are unlikely to be wearing masks or physical distancing. So, that could lead to potential spreader events in a state known to have low vaccination rates.”

It is a double onslaught that could be further complicated by people evacuating from their homes and leaving critical medications behind or going days or even weeks without regular treatments, Torres said. “Normally well-managed illnesses become unmanaged, and patients will end up in the hospital again, adding to the number of hospitalized,” he said.

Then, there is the issue of massive power outages. Ida devastated Louisiana’s power grid, leaving more than a million customers without electricity. Even now, days after the storm hit, nearly a million customers are still without power, according to PowerOutage.us. And it could take weeks to fully restore electricity as 90-degree heat envelopes the state.

The massive failure of the state’s power grid has renewed calls for upgrades to the system, such putting as many transmission lines underground as possible. But that comes at exorbitant costs. “Placing power lines underground may reduce the damage from high winds, and it may help sustain economic activity,” said Nurcin Celik, an associate professor of industrial engineering in the College of Engineering, who is an expert on microgrids and distributed sustainable energy sources. “However, underground lines take longer to repair, can come into contact with other lines like gas lines, and can cost at least five times as much, which will be reflected in customers’ energy bills,” she explained. 

Ida also caused torrential flooding in other states. In Mississippi, the storm's heavy rains may have led to the collapse of a rural highway, killing two people and injuring at least 10 others. And as Ida moved north, the remnants of the storm created havoc in New York and New Jersey, killing more than 20 people, bringing the subway system to a halt, and even grounding airline flights.

“Based on the initial assessments after the storm, it’s clear that there is a long road to recovery,” said Shpiner.