‘Like a monster tried to get in’: New Orleans, scarred by Katrina, surveys Ida’s wreckage

As the sun rose over the city of New Orleans, the streets quiet but for the crunch of detritus under foot, residents in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward awoke to assess the damage.

This neighbourhood bore some of the worst scars of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when New Orleans’s levee system failed and submerged the Lower Ninth in a storey of water, sweeping away lives and livelihoods.

That was 16 years ago. But it played heavily on many people’s minds as they hunkered down on Sunday, the anniversary of Katrina’s impact in Louisiana, and braced for another storm.

Wesley Foster, a 74 year-old retiree and lifelong Ninth Ward resident, remembered that time vividly as he watched Ida pound the walls of the home he had rebuilt after Katrina.

He had seen news reports as the storm picked up intensity over the Gulf, eventually making landfall as a category 4 hurricane, one of the most powerful ever to hit the US. “It went from one to two to three, to four so quickly,” he said. “I knew it was going to be bad – but 10 hours of pounding wind …”

He paused.

“It looked like a monster was trying to get inside.”

Foster was not alone in pointing to the storm’s rapidly increasing ferocity, a growing trend in the Atlantic hurricane season that scientists link to the climate crisis.

Ida formed just four days ago out in the Caribbean Sea, intensifying so quickly that officials in New Orleans said they simply did not have the time to order the evacuation of the city.

It came ashore with 150mph winds before trudging slowly through New Orleans and into the state’s capital, Baton Rouge. Quite simply, a storm path born of nightmares.

But Foster felt a sense of relief on Monday. After a multibillion-dollar investment in the city’s levee protection system and mercifully lower storm surge than 16 years ago, there had been no destructive flooding in the lower ninth this time.

Yet major problems still lay ahead for Foster and others in the storm’s aftermath: Ida knocked out power for the entire city of New Orleans after a crucial transponder was toppled into the Mississippi River. Authorities estimate that more than a million homes and businesses across Louisiana are currently without power, and have warned it could be weeks before the power grid is repaired.

“I’ve got enough fuel to keep my generator going for another day,” said Foster. “But that’s it.”

The storm, which has been blamed for at least two deaths, has been downgraded to a tropical depression but continued to unleash torrential rain and flooding across Louisiana and southern Mississippi on Monday.

And with some roads impassable, cellphone services down in places, and many gas stations out of operation, the full extent of its fury was still coming into focus.

As another day of intense 32C heat began, thick with humidity, many New Orleanians began to wonder what to do next with no firm timeframe in place for full restoration.

The road to Jefferson parish, through the city’s west side, is a marker of Ida’s destruction. Downed power pylons lie at the roadside, felled trees – split in half – block the way forward, and cables hang precariously overhead.

In Bridge City, across the Mississippi River, residents relived their trauma from Sunday night as they picked through the rubble. Ida hit harder here than the other side of the river, and some people were getting ready to pack up and leave.

“We weren’t prepared to be without power,” said Karen Brown, reminded that her home here had kept power after Katrina. “We have no idea how long it will be out for or how we’re going to eat.”

The Brown family only had supplies for the next day and with no generator were planning to sit out on the porch, in the humidity, and pray for a quick resolution.

Their house stood a few feet from the levees on this side of the Mississippi, and they remained thankful there had been no breach.

Their neighbour Karen Plaisance was also thankful. Despite severe damage to her roof, Ida’s winds had not taken it clean off.

But, said the unemployed 59 year-old, she had no plans for what happened next. “I’ve got no food to cook. No water,” she said. She was also caring for a stepfather with mobility issues, who sat inside.

“I wish I’d left for this one, like Katrina. I’m never staying again.”

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