The City of New Orleans remained in recovery mode on Friday, two days after Hurricane Zeta quickly and ferociously tore through southeastern Louisiana. There are still a lot of open questions about the hurricane’s impact, some of which the city will have to answer by the end of the weekend, including whether in-person schooling will resume and whether the city will have to make any last-minute changes to polling places ahead of Tuesday’s presidential election.
Hurricane Zeta made landfall on Louisiana’s coast as a Category 2 hurricane with registered wind speeds of 110 miles per hour, only 1 mile per hour under the threshold of a Category 3. But the storm didn’t last long, quickly moving out of the city only hours after New Orleans felt the first storm-force winds.
In part because it moved so fast in and out of the city, the hurricane didn’t cause much flood damage. At a Friday press conference, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said the biggest issues continue to be the widespread power outages and debris caused by the intense winds.
“Our priorities continue to be power restoration, debris removal and human services,” she said.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, 475,000 households and businesses were left without power across Louisiana, Governor John Bel Edwards said at a Thursday press conference. That number had dropped to 457,000 by 2 p.m. Thursday, according to Edwards, and dropped even further down to 336,205 on Friday, according to an update from Entergy at 8 a.m. Friday morning.
There were 175,000 New Orleans customers out of power at the peak of the outages. By noon on Thursday that number was down to 125,000. Cantrell said on Friday that 95,500 customers in New Orleans were still without power. Cantrell said that the outages were spread throughout the city, and pushed back on any idea that the outages were concentrated in any particular neighborhood or in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Entergy said in the Friday morning release that it was 70 percent complete with its damage assessment, and that it would be able to provide estimated restoration times to customers by Friday evening. Entergy is focusing on restoring power to critical infrastructure, including hospitals, schools and election polling places.
Cantrell said on Friday that 54 out of the city’s 124 polling places were still without power. She said that in order to change polling places, the Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal District Court, who serves as the chief elections officer for the city, would need roughly 48 hours advance notice. Cantrell said that if any changes ultimately have to be made, that decision will come sometime on Sunday.
Ramsey Green, the Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Infrastructure, said on Friday that 75 percent of Orleans Parish public schools did not have power, and that roughly 30 percent of them had minor infrastructure damage such as broken windows. The district cancelled in-person and remote classes on Thursday and Friday.
“Parents will know more on late Sunday,” Green said.
There were some areas of the city that didn’t see many sustained power outages, including the French Quarter and certain parts of eastern New Orleans. Those places correlated with areas that have underground electric distribution systems, as opposed to traditional, above-ground poles and wires, Cantrell said.
“Underground utilities, we’ve seen that it works,” Cantrell said. “Some areas of New Orleans East that have underground utilities, they’re up and running. … Where you see that utilities are underground, absolutely they’re able to sustain higher winds and weather.”
She noted that the city does have a resilience plan, but that “at the end of the day you have to have the money to do it.”
Cantrell said that there were currently 12 two-member units of National Guard troops helping with police and traffic services in areas of the city that still have no power. She said that they didn’t have arrest powers and that they were mainly there to help direct traffic at intersections without power and to protect commercial buildings including pharmacies.
“Interaction with the public is very minimal,” Cantrell said.
Cantrell said that the city would not be moving into phase 3.3 of the city’s coronavirus restriction easement plan as originally scheduled. She said that the city didn’t have adequate testing data from this week due to the hurricane, but that she would be looking to get the city back and track and would make an announcement next week.
One of the big unknowns right now is how much the recovery effort will cost the city of New Orleans, which is currently reeling from the coronavirus crisis and related recession. Cantrell recently released her draft budget for 2021, featuring double digit percentage cuts to virtually every department and agency in city government.
It’s still unclear how much damage the storm caused. Cantrell said the city was still completing its assessment.
“What we’re talking about with debris alone is probably going to be $4 million or $5 million,” Collin Arnold, the director of the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said at the Friday Press conference. “That’s just right off the bat. That’s not counting, I think we have six residences at this point that aren’t habitable. We’re going to deal with that as far as short-term housing. And this is just the beginning. We’re literally 36 hours in.”
The other part of the equation is how much reimbursement and assistance the city will get from FEMA. Arnold said that one way residents can help is to log damage to their homes and businesses at damage.la.gov.
“We have to paint a picture for the federal government about where we’re at as far as damage,” Arnold said. “The better Rembrandt that we can do, indicates to the government, to FEMA, how much assistance we are eligible for and what we can get.”
FEMA hasn’t approved a major disaster declaration for Hurricane Zeta yet, according to The Times Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, and is awaiting more complete damage assessments.
Cantrell said that the National Hurricane Center would also be reviewing data as to whether the storm was indeed a Category 2 or if it had slipped over the Category 3 threshold. That would have reimbursement implications, she said. Green said the city was also looking into federal assistance for individual residents, including for lost food.
“We’re also asking for individual assistance to residents because of things like spoiled food, which is a lot of money to a lot of people if the entire contents of your refrigerator and freezer are thrown out.”
The city is setting up distribution sites throughout the city on Saturday to pass out blue tarps to residents and property owners who sustained roof damage. In addition, the city has set up a crisis assistance hotline for residents who need help cleaning up debris and other damage that will connect them to volunteer organizations at 504-350-0788.