On August 29, 2021, Hurricane Ida made landfall at Port Fourchon, LA as a Category 4 storm.
Ida made landfall just 40 miles away from where Katrina hit exactly 16 years earlier. The city’s levees held this time, but, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), the significant rainfall and storm surge caused $78.7 billion in damage residents are still recovering from. Reports show that Ida tied with 2020’s Hurricane Laura and the 1856 Hurricane for strongest storms to ever hit Louisiana.
Typically, traveling over land causes a hurricane to decay quickly, but Ida raged on over the flat, swampy lands of Louisiana. Warm, moist air meant it barely slowed as it battered the homes and buildings along the Gulf Coast. The storm entered Mississippi by the next morning, by which point it had been reclassified as a tropical storm.
The impact that this weather event had on Louisiana and Mississippi was staggering. Now, two years later, we return to see how the communities have fared in the aftermath.
Side Effects of Hurricane Ida
Hurricane Ida dumped so much water over Louisiana that it temporarily reversed the Mississippi River. While not unheard of, it’s exceedingly rare; only Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Isaac in 2012 had this effect before Ida.
Tornadoes were another side effect of the storm. Two tornadoes ripped through Louisiana, while Mississippi suffered from 13 total twisters. This “tornado outbreak” traversed the course of the hurricane, with reports throughout the Southeastern, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeastern United States.
Louisiana’s agriculture industry suffered nearly $600 million in damage, according to LSU’s AgCenter. Approximately half of this was due to timber damage, with another 35% attributed to infrastructure loss. Timber is the top agricultural commodity in Louisiana, and trees felled by hurricanes are notoriously difficult to salvage. A quarter of Louisiana’s sugarcane crop had lower yields thanks to storm damage; fortunately, 58% of the sugarcane crop was spared. The rest of the country has reason to celebrate that; Louisiana is responsible for just under 50% of the nation’s sugarcane production by value.
Imports and exports were also impacted. In preparation for the storm, the U.S. Coast Guard ceased freight movement on the Mississippi River on August 28th, affecting over 60% of U.S. grain exports. Storm-damaged infrastructure also played a role in slowing the movement of goods.
Widespread Power Outages in New Orleans
Since Katrina, New Orleans has continuously looked for new storm mitigation solutions. Entergy, the power company serving the city, proposed building a new natural gas power plant. The company promised a new plant would supply the city with uninterrupted power in the event of a hurricane.
The plant started operating in 2020 over objections from residents. Despite Entergy’s promises that the new power plant would save the day come another storm, Ida knocked out all 8 transmission lines into the city, and the natural gas power plant offered no relief. Many parts of New Orleans were left without power for a month or longer.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Caused By Generator Use
The massive loss of power led to widespread gasoline generator usage among residents and businesses. Due to storm conditions, generator use had an unforeseen consequence: carbon monoxide. At one point during Hurricane Ida, the Jefferson Parish Fire Department received 4-5 carbon monoxide poisoning calls hourly.
One River Ridge resident recalled that, even though his standby generator was installed properly and further away from the house than code demanded, he and his family were exposed to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide during the storm: “…The generator is 20 inches from the side of the house and by code you’re supposed to be 18 so I exceed that and I don’t remember the exact measurements but I think it’s 5 feet from the soffit, I exceed that. It’s 5 feet from the windows, I exceed that, I got enough room from the property line, I’ve got enough room from the vent.”
New Law Passes Requiring Carbon Monoxide Detectors
Carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless, and otherwise undetectable except by safety sensors, and exposure is extremely lethal. Even exposure for short periods can lead to hypoxia and catastrophic brain damage. Repeated exposure has been linked to dementia symptoms late in life.
Although the standby generator was properly installed according to the manufacturer’s manual and safety codes, the unique conditions presented by Hurricane Ida increased the danger of the generator’s proximity to the house. 2021 saw state legislators proposing requiring permits to install standby generators, and in 2022 officials urged residents to call generator manufacturers to inspect their installations to verify their safety.
Jefferson Parish conducted studies on generators, standby generators, and their placement around homes. These studies resulted in HR 293, a bill that would require all home generator installations to come with a ten-year battery-powered carbon monoxide detector. HR 293 was signed into law in June 2022. The regulations governing where and how a generator must be installed have not changed.
Ida & the Infrastructure Bill of 2021
Although New Orleans and its infrastructure were relatively prepared for the Category 4 storm, the rest of Louisiana didn’t fare as well. Millions were left without power or clean water; many were left with boiling water notices for weeks. The storm pushed the state’s aging water supply systems and wastewater plants to the limit, bringing to mind the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that was working its way through the Senate and the House at the time Ida hit. The bill proposed $550 billion in new spending over the next 5 years, which included $55 billion to upgrade water and wastewater systems as well as $46 billion to help protect against floods, wildfires, and drought.
The damage caused by Hurricane Ida became a selling point for the bill, which eventually passed in November 2021. Approximately $7 billion of the bill’s spending was allocated to Louisiana.
Who Was Impacted By Hurricane Ida?
107 deaths were attributed to Hurricane Ida: 87 in the United States and 20 in Venezuela. 55 of those U.S. deaths could be directly attributed to the storm. 30 of those deaths were in Louisiana.
To this day, approximately 3,800 people are awaiting housing through FEMA’s housing program, while another 4,600 households still rely on Louisiana’s sheltering system after the storm.
Several of those households are from low-lying Houma, Louisiana, which took a direct hit from Ida. Many of its 30,000 residents are either depending on the state’s public housing assistance or have had to abandon their hometown altogether. “Houma is like a ghost town,” one resident said to NBC News. That continues to be true: a report in 2023 found that Houma was the fastest-shrinking metro area in the nation, with a 3% drop from 2021 to 2022.
Small communities like Houma are among the most vulnerable when storms like Hurricane Ida roll through. The town’s historic downtown area is still in shambles, and nearly every single public housing unit in the town–of which there were 517–was condemned by the Houma-Terrebonne Housing Authority. Meanwhile, homeowners are left to battle their insurance companies for sufficient coverage. Some insurance companies have either refused to cover damages caused by Ida or have pulled out of Louisiana altogether.
In Mississippi, the storm hit the small towns of Brookhaven and McComb the hardest. Major roads were closed and extensive power outages were reported throughout the state, some lasting for weeks on end. Nearly six months had passed before storm debris had been completely cleaned up in McComb.
The Flight of the Insurance Companies
As of February 2023, over two dozen home insurance companies have left Louisiana citing insolvency or costliness of serving the insurance market. While Louisiana lawmakers are trying to pass legislation to attract insurers to the Pelican State, homeowners face even more obstacles to remaining safe and insured for hurricane season. Flood insurance is only available through the federal flood insurance program; current trends suggest the same might be true of all homeowner insurance policies in Louisiana.
Insurance companies or no, Louisiana residents need a way to insure their property if they’re going to remain on the Gulf Coast. Otherwise, all Louisiana cities—with their history, culture, and people—will go the way of Houma.
Long-Term Storm Mitigation Might Be the Answer
Increasing urbanization and use of concrete has contributed to flood vulnerability in Louisiana cities. The secret to battling flooding and hurricane damage could mean building more climate-resilient infrastructure in these cities, which includes high-tech flood mitigation systems as well as replacing concrete with soil and green space, which helps prevent the drainage issues that lead to urban flooding.
Recovering From & Preparing For Hurricanes
Based on the 72-year period from 1950 to 2021, the most active month for hurricanes in the Atlantic is September, although the season officially extends from the beginning of June until the end of November. The following year saw fewer “named” hurricanes but caused even more infrastructure and property damage.
With El Niño and warmer temperatures on the horizon, 2023 is expected to be a potentially active season, leaving residents of Louisiana and Mississippi alike bracing for impact. NOAA predicts a 40% chance of a ‘normal’ season, but a 30% chance of an above-normal season. Warmer temperatures have increased the frequency of larger and stronger hurricanes in general, but El Niño conditions might increase the odds even further.
Even the effects of Hurricane Katrina are still being felt throughout the area 18 years later; Hurricane Ida’s impact will undoubtedly also continue for years to come.