After Hurricane Ida, power outage highlights heat disparities in New Orleans
Andrew Johnson put his mattress on his balcony Tuesday night and slept outside, searching for a breeze that refused to come through his bedroom window.
It had been three days since he and other New Orleans residents braced for Hurricane Ida’s Category 4 driving rains and howling winds. But a citywide power outage and soaring heat index had him hoping for rain clouds Wednesday.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s miserable. People are staying outside, sleeping outside, trying to find any piece of shade,” Johnson said. “If you have a shadow, I’ll try to stand in that shadow. I’ll use that shadow to try to cool off."
Multiple heat advisories have been issued by the National Weather Service this week due to the high humidity and temperatures in the region. The heat index, or ‘feels like’ temperature, is expected to climb to 106 on Thursday, according to the agency.
For those without generators, exposure to extreme heat levels can cause weakness, dizziness and fatigue. In severe cases, prolonged exposure to high temperatures can result in heat exhaustion, heatstroke or even death. The elderly and individuals with chronic health conditions can be at more risk for heat-related illnesses, said Dr. Brett Marlin assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at University of Mississippi Medical Center.
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“These are all conditions associated with high temperatures and obviously made worse in areas of high humidity where your sweat is less effective at trying to reduce your body temperature,” Marlin said.
But the sweltering heat levels can be more dangerous for some of New Orleans' most vulnerable neighborhoods, according to heat mapping models developed by the New Orleans Health Department and ISeeChange, a local community climate technology platform.
They found that neighborhood temperatures in areas such as Central City and Holly Grove can experience temperatures on average up to six degrees higher than what’s recorded at the airport in Kenner, 10 miles from downtown New Orleans.
Central City and Holly Grove also have higher rates of poverty than the rest of the city. Central City is home to some of the city's larger low-income housing projects and residents of the area have lower rates of car ownership, according to U.S. Census data.
Johnson said most of his neighborhood didn't evacuate before the hurricane.
ISeeChange heat mapping models also found that unsafe housing conditions and specific types of multifamily housing units were often hotter inside than outside, said Julia Kumari Drapkin, the CEO and founder of ISee Change.
“Right now in New Orleans without access to electricity and cooling, that scenario could be happening citywide. Heat risk overlaps with unsafe housing conditions," she said. "It is the most vulnerable people in our community who are really stressed right now. These are the places where we should be doing neighbor checks."
The heat disparity is primarily due to a lack of trees and green spaces in addition to large amounts of asphalt infrastructure that trap the heat, something Johnson has experienced firsthand in Central City.
“There’s no trees so if it’s 100 degrees outside it feels like 200 degrees inside,” Johnson said. “It’s the poor Black neighborhoods...Trying to survive the heat in a neighborhood like mine, it’s just something we go through.”
On Wednesday, the city opened up eight cooling centers across New Orleans to offer residents water and a place to charge their phones away from the blistering heat.
Forehead beading with sweat, Johnson's face broke into visible relief when he stepped into the air-conditioned lobby of Rosenwald Recreation Center near Central City.
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"This feels so good," Johnson said. "This is a blessing."
Throughout New Orleans “heat island” neighborhoods, those who couldn’t travel to cooling centers searched for other ways to escape the soaring temperatures. The city was also using 70 transit buses as cooling sites and will have drive-thru food, water and ice distribution locations, according to the Associated Press.
Some sat in their cars, windows down or using their last dregs of gasoline to cool off. In Guste Homes, a low-income housing project in Central City, children ran through sprinklers, thankful that the water was still running.
On Simon Bolivar Avenue in the same neighborhood, John Grant walked the street searching through debris for errant window screens. He and his brother were keeping their windows open throughout the day, and he hoped some screens would keep bugs from infiltrating the house.
“There’s no shade around at all,” Grant said. “We have to sleep with the door open. It’s real rough.”
In Holly Grove, most front doors were open. Families crowded the steps beneath porch roofs. On Belfast Street, Lesdy Thomas had pushed her couch near the open entrance to her shotgun home and hung a red curtain across the doorway to block the light.
Thomas said nights have been most difficult. Her 1-year-old son will wake up crying and her four other children will get out of bed to ask for ice or water.
“I’m not sleeping,” Thomas said. “It’s so hot.”
Entergy began restoring power Wednesday with 11,500 of the city's 390,000 residents regaining electricity in the city by mid-day. In Orleans Parish, more than 174,000 people remained without power on Wednesday, according to the utility company. Entergy New Orleans officials could not estimate how long it will take to restore power citywide, since it has not finished its examination of the distribution network that carries electricity to homes and businesses.
"Hopefully not weeks," said Mayor LaToya Cantrell. "We can and we have seen demonstrated progress."
Entergy officials said they were about halfway through assessing the power distribution system and would not be able to provide an estimate on power restoration until they were about 90% done.
Hurricane Ida devastated the power system in southeast Louisiana. Entergy officials said on Wednesday that across the state nearly 5,000 poles, 5,200 transformers and 750 feeders were out due to the storm.
But for many, power and relief from the heat can’t come soon enough. This is especially true for the medically vulnerable, people dependent on electricity to charge medical devices and people with chronic health issues.
The city has a registry for medically vulnerable people who need additional help during major emergencies. Since the storm they've been fielding calls from residents needing help charging their medical devices and obtaining oxygen, said New Orleans health director Dr. Jennifer Avegno.
“The longer folks go without power in high temperatures, the increase in danger of heat-related illnesses (goes up),” Avegno said.
Maria Clark is a general assignment reporter with The American South. Story ideas, tips, questions? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @MariaPClark1. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.