Louisiana’s Highway 1 winds along the west banks of two of Louisiana’s major rivers, beginning in Shreveport and following loosely along the Red River, then following the Mississippi for a while before plunging into the south-central bayou country. At the highway’s bottom end, you’ll find a rather tenuous complex of industrial facilities and fishing camps sitting side by side.
You’ll reach the industrial complex first as you travel down Highway 1 more or less into the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, the highway’s official nickname as it becomes a causeway from dry land to the flimsy salient of civilization where it terminates is “Gateway To The Gulf Expressway.”
The road reaches a place called Port Fourchon. Turn left, and it will take you over another bridge to Grand Isle.
Grand Isle is known for its fishing. Long ago, it was more known for its beach, though no one ever really considered Grand Isle to be much of a beach resort. The Gulf spends a great deal of time clawing away at the sand on Grand Isle’s narrow shore, and intermittently humans will truck in replacement land to keep the fight going. The owners of the fishing camps on Grand Isle are toughened by decades of exposure to monster storms which brew up in the waters to the south. The fishing camps are increasingly crosses between small hotels and above-ground bunkers made of steel and concrete on high stilts. The words “fishing camp” tend to conjure up images of a weatherboard cabin on the water with a wood stove and a simple dock lined with old tires, but not much in Grand Isle anymore.
And at Port Fourchon, while there are a few of those concrete monuments to the primacy of recreational angling, the focus isn’t fish but oil, Louisiana’s long-time economic driver. Fourchon is a hub of activity for the offshore oilfield service industry; crew boats from its port shuttle back and forth to the massive oil platforms in the Gulf which deliver a not-insignificant amount of America’s domestic petroleum supply. Fourchon is also the site of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, or LOOP, a terminal through which as much as 20 percent of the country’s crude traverses.
On Sunday at 11:55 a.m., Port Fourchon became known for something else. It took a direct hit from Hurricane Ida, one of the most powerful storms to ever hit Louisiana. Ida’s barometric pressure at landfall, 930 millibars, didn’t set the record. Its 150 mph winds, with gusts recorded as high as 172 mph, might not quite have been the worst of all.
But the damage Ida did on its way through southern Louisiana might well have topped anything the state has ever seen.
Through a combination of strength, timing and cruel geography, Ida sneaked into history as perhaps the perfect storm — at least the perfect storm of Louisiana’s nightmares.
It came on like a night-train. Five days before landfall, nobody even knew about Ida. It originated in the Caribbean Sea, skipped across the west side of Cuba, then churned quickly through the roiling-hot waters of the Gulf toward the Louisiana coast at 16 mph, gathering strength as it built to a Category 4 storm.
And then once it plowed past Port Fourchon, delivering almost implausible, Hollywood special effects-style hell to the beleaguered coast, Ida slammed on the brakes.
It took its time, slowing to a mere nine miles per hour as it toured Bayou Country. Ida lingered long enough to lay waste to a series of low-lying towns in its path.
The larger city of Houma, just west of the storm’s path, was turned into something from World War II France or Germany. Roofs and walls of buildings were turned into splinters and planks. To the north, hardly a business in the town of Thibodaux survived without damage.
All the while, the storm’s most violent northeast quadrant was pummeling New Orleans with 90 and 100 mph winds and monstrous rainfall.
Barges and ships moored in waterways along the Mississippi River and parts south were blown from their berths, ramming each other, capsizing and becoming derelict in the fast-moving currents. The roof came off of a building of Ochsner Hospital’s campus in Kenner, west of New Orleans. In Metairie, immediately west of the city, the roof of a high-rise assisted living facility was blown off, allowing rain to pour in to soak the defenseless senior citizens. In Avondale, across the Mississippi from Metairie, the storm blew down a transmission tower belonging to Entergy, the electric utility servicing most of southeastern Louisiana. In all, eight major transmission lines carrying power into New Orleans were cut, plunging the entire metro area into darkness.
Trees uprooted throughout southeast Louisiana. In Jefferson Parish, next-door to the city of New Orleans, there were so many trees pulled up by their roots that water lines running alongside them were severed in the storm. Jefferson’s water system lost pressure and won’t be functional for five days to a week at best. The town of Lafitte, due south of New Orleans, saw its levee overtopped by storm surge and was flooded with six feet of water. A renegade barge crashed into the bridge leading into town and destroyed it, cutting Lafitte off and making it only reachable by boat.
The New Orleans area was battered by hurricane winds for at least 16 hours without respite. On Canal Street downtown, a dilapidated building which had once been the Karnofsky Tailor Shop, where famed jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong worked before finding fame and fortune, was blown down into a pile of bricks. Cell service collapsed. Even 911 lines went down. Trees and bent or snapped light poles blocked streets across the area. A man drowned in his car driving into floodwaters which were deeper than he estimated.
Across Louisiana, local officials are telling people who evacuated not to return anytime soon. In Jefferson, Parish Emergency Management Director Joe Valiente said it could be six weeks before power is back on.
Ida wasn’t finished. As she made her way north, she dropped a foot of rain on the town of LaPlace west of New Orleans, where I-10 and I-55 intersect. LaPlace, one of the few New Orleans-area communities not fortified by a flood protection levee, saw an additional six feet or more of storm surge as Ida’s northeast quadrant winds pushed Lake Ponchartrain across the swamps into the little town. People were cutting holes in their roofs from their attics to escape drowning, and waterborne rescues courtesy of state and local first responders and the Cajun Navy were the order of the day on Monday. I-10 was blocked by the flood.
I-55 was blocked by trees the hurricane felled and threw over the road. That happened 80 miles north of LaPlace.
Ida moved north and pummeled St. James Parish. Then Ascension Parish. A 60-year-old man was killed when the storm snapped a tree in his front yard and tossed it through his roof into his living room, where it landed on him and crushed him to death. It kept moving, but slowly. The leisurely 9 mph pace made for more damage, more torture for southeast Louisiana as it crept north.
All the while, unlike most hurricanes, Ida wasn’t losing strength. Some 100 miles inland it was still a Category 2 hurricane. Its winds trashed power lines, annihilated roofs, turned trees into projectiles.
And drove storm surge into places no one would expect it.
Southeast Louisiana’s geography isn’t really driven by the Mississippi River as much as you’d expect. Yes, much of the land was built as the river’s delta, but other rivers — the Amite, the Tickfaw, the Tchefuncte — flow from the piney woods of south Mississippi through Louisiana’s Florida Parishes into Lake Ponchartrain and Lake Maurepas. Those two lakes and their swampy environs make up much of the southeastern part of the state.
Ida’s storm track allowed it to feed off those lakes and swamps. It lost little strength as most storms do.
It plowed into Livingston Parish, east of Baton Rouge, and Tangipahoa Parish, just to the east of Livingston. It showered St. Tammany Parish, New Orleans’ tony northshore bedroom communities, with rain and wind. Ida created inshore storm surge, driving Lake Ponchartrain and Lake Maurepas into towns like Killian, Springfield, Ponchatoula and Madisonville. Baton Rouge largely escaped the worst of Ida’s wrath, but scenes from the capital city would challenge that assumption.
When it was finally, unmercifully over in the wee hours of Monday morning and the storm had finished abusing Louisiana, one million households were out of power, including all of New Orleans and two-thirds of Baton Rouge. Entergy and the other power companies cautioned their customers it could take weeks before service would be restored, not just in New Orleans but everywhere else as well. Some 25,000 linemen are being brought into southeast Louisiana to rebuild the power grid.
A year ago, it was southwestern Louisiana, and the Lake Charles area specifically, which had been hit by Hurricane Laura. Lake Charles isn’t remotely close to recovery from that storm, something many in the southwest part of the state grumble is due in part to the ineffectual leadership in the governor’s mansion and a lack of commitment on the part of the new president in the White House.
Well, those same actors now have a new play to star in. Because Louisiana’s largest population centers, including the state’s two largest cities and Jefferson, its most populous parish, are largely in ruins. Baton Rouge and New Orleans are run by female Democrat mayors whose work product to date is much more Bill de Blasio than Rudy Giuliani; no one believes either will be rising to this occasion.
Many on Monday expressed the sentiment that this was the wrong storm at the wrong time with the wrong leaders left to helm the recovery.
People think of Katrina when they think of a true disaster. But Katrina the storm was much more a catastrophe for the Mississippi Gulf Coast. What it did to New Orleans largely came on its way out, when a levee failed and flooded the city.
Ida, which landed 16 years to the day after Katrina did, didn’t need to breach any levees. Ida destroyed southeast Louisiana honestly.
It was as if someone was manually directing the storm for maximum damage to a maximum area. As though that someone was punishing the people for grievous past sins.
Louisianans are a tough, resilient people. But a blow like this one will test the toughest and most resilient.
Say a prayer for those folks in Lafitte, Houma, LaPlace and Grand Isle, and all those other communities crushed by the storm. They’ll need it.