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Three Weeks After Hurricane Ida, Parts of Southeast Louisiana Are Still Dark

NEW ORLEANS — For Tiffany Brown, the drive home from New Orleans begins as usual: She can see the lights on in the city’s central business district and people gathering in bars and restaurants. But as she drives west along Interstate 10, signs of Hurricane Ida’s destruction emerge. Trees with missing limbs fill the swamp on either side of the highway. With each passing mile, more blue tarps appear on rooftops, and more electric poles lay fallen by the road, some snapped in half.

By the time Ms. Brown gets to her exit in Destrehan 30 minutes later, the lights illuminating the highway have disappeared, and another night of total darkness has fallen on her suburban subdivision.

For Ms. Brown, who works as an office manager at a pediatric clinic, life at work can feel nearly normal. But at home, with no electricity, it is anything but. “I keep hoping every day that I’m going to go home and it’ll be on,” she said. “But everyday it’s not.”

Three weeks have passed since Hurricane Ida knocked down electric wires, poles and transmission towers serving more than one million people in southeast Louisiana. In New Orleans, power was almost entirely restored by Sept. 10, and businesses and schools have reopened. But outside the city, more than 100,000 customers were without lights through Sept. 13. As of Friday evening there were still about 38,000 customers without power, and many people remained displaced from damaged homes.

As intensifying storms driven by climate change reveal the weakness of electric grids across the United States, severe power outages are becoming an increasingly regular long-term aftershock.

“It so quickly pivots from the disaster itself — the hurricane, the wildfire, the floods,” said Julie McNamara, an energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “So much of the consequences of these extreme weather events are because of those long-lasting power outages.”

For many, like Ms. Brown, getting the lights back on could still be more than a week away: Entergy, the state’s largest utility, estimates that power will be fully restored in the state by Sept. 29, a full month after Ida made landfall. Linemen are scattered across the coast replacing downed wires and poles, but in some areas hit by sustained winds as high as 150 miles per hour, electrical systems will need to be completely rebuilt.

The challenges of weeks without power are wearing on residents. Kelly Walker, who lives in Luling, La., went almost three weeks with no electricity before the lights were finally restored on Friday. Her mother’s small three-bedroom house became a crowded home base to eight people, where a generator tempered the sweltering heat at a cost of often $80 per day in gasoline. With no hot water to take a shower, the grocery stores still poorly stocked, her 14-year-old son’s school closed indefinitely, and little to do for entertainment, the family saw tensions run high.

“It seems in the big picture things are coming together,” said Ms. Walker. “But it feels like the outskirts, little towns and communities, are getting left behind.”

Everywhere from St. Charles Parish, where Ms. Walker lives, to Thibodaux over 30 miles west, and 50 miles south to Grand Isle — an expanse that includes bedroom communities, fishing towns and small cities of oil and gas workers — power outages have led to a cascade of challenges.

Jobs, schools and daily routines remain on hold across the region. Workers on cherry pickers string new power lines along roads, as drivers wait their turn at dead traffic lights. On some residential streets, power lines hang so low that cars just barely scrape under them.

The Terrebonne Parish school district, where just over a dozen of 34 schools had power as of Friday, has been closed for weeks. The district is “not even contemplating” reopening school buildings until they have electricity, said Philip Martin, the school superintendent. Schools farther north with power and less damage will temporarily house students from the southern reaches of the parish starting on Sept. 27. But without the lights on, it’s been challenging to even assess the wind damage to school buildings to determine how long that fix will be necessary.

Medical facilities are struggling, too. The urgent care clinic that Alicia Doucet manages in Cut Off, a small fishing town along the bayou southwest of New Orleans, reopened a week after the storm hit, when the staff finally secured a generator. But a week later, the gasoline costs to run it were adding up. Supplies including medications and crutches were slow to arrive as delivery trucks struggled to make it through the debris to reach the clinic.

“We’re just praying that each one that comes in we’re able to treat,” Ms. Doucet said. The local hospital will be shut down for months after losing its roof in the storm, according to Archie Chaisson III, the Lafourche Parish president, forcing the clinic to send those in need of more acute care to the hospital in Thibodaux, an hour away.

The enduring blackout has stalled the rebuilding process in communities like Pointe-Aux-Chenes, a small community of homes, many raised on stilts, across the marsh from Ms. Doucet’s clinic that is home to the Pointe-Au-Chien tribe.

“No water, no electricity, so you can’t do nothing,” Charles Verdin, the tribal chairman, said. Most residents have yet to return to the community, where the intense winds rendered most homes uninhabitable.

And with every passing day, the already immense task of rebuilding becomes more daunting, as rain falls through holes in rooftops and mold spreads.

Mr. Verdin said it wasn’t until Sept. 13, more than two weeks after the storm, that he first saw workers make their way down the bayou to start repairing the power lines. He understands the obstacles they face: Piles of debris and downed wires make the already lengthy drive from the community to any population center far longer. Many downed poles were planted in soft, swampy soil, making them difficult to fix.

But he also believes that restoring power to his community was low on the list of priorities of the utility company.

“We don’t like it, but we’re used to it — they’ll take care of where the most population is,” said Mr. Verdin.

Entergy spokesman Jerry Nappi confirmed that the company prioritizes getting the greatest number of customers’ power back the fastest, with lines that serve fewer people restored later.

The immense challenge of repairing more than 30,000 poles, 36,000 spans of wire and nearly 6,000 transformers brought down by the storm has left many wondering whether Entergy should have invested more in strengthening this infrastructure to be able to withstand the heavy winds that wallop the Gulf Coast with increasing regularity.

State regulators asked that question in 2019, when the Louisiana Public Utilities Commission opened an inquiry into grid reliability. But the proceeding remains open, and regulators have done little to compel Entergy to answer for outages, even as long-term blackouts become more frequent.

After Hurricane Laura tore through the southwest part of the state last August, causing over 400,000 outages in Louisiana, it took over a month for the utility to restore power to all customers, at an estimated cost of up to $1.4 billion. A month later, it took two weeks for Entergy to fully restore power after Hurricane Zeta knocked out power to nearly half a million customers in the state.

For many, getting power back after Hurricane Ida is just the beginning.

Last weekend, Anthony Griffith and Brittany Dufrene surveyed their house in LaPlace after a demolition crew had gutted it, two weeks after Hurricane Ida brought a surge of floodwater from nearby Lake Pontchartrain into their subdivision.

Their plan “for now” is to rebuild, Ms. Dufrene said, and she expects that many of her neighbors will, too. But with storms hitting the area more often, the longer-term solution is less clear. “How many times can you do that?” she asked.

From down the driveway, a neighbor called out that he had gotten power. Mr. Griffith flicked a switch on the fuse box and sure enough, for the first time in nearly two weeks, it turned on.

Maybe now they could stay at home, Mr. Griffith suggested, instead of bouncing between relatives’ houses over an hour apart.

Ms. Dufrene laughed, looking at the mattresses stacked in the garage and at the walls with the bottom few feet removed.

“Where are we going to stay?” Ms. Dufrene asked. “Where are we going to sleep?

Katy Reckdahl contributed reporting from New Orleans.

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