COVID-19 looms over rescue efforts amid storm’s devastation


Demetrice Joseph rushed to the door when she spotted a boat sailing through her subdivision toward her brick home in LaPlace, La.

The 47-year-old general manager of a truck stop had spent a long Sunday night searching for higher ground, from her bed to her kitchen counter, as flood waters from Hurricane Ida rushed through her front door. She had lifted her mother, with asthma and chronic obstructive lung disease, onto the washing line as the water rose above their hips. She woke up in a wet bed and worried about the washing machine, but she was unable to sleep.

But after rescuers transported her through streets littered with downed power lines and trees to the New Wine Christian Fellowship church — a staging ground for evacuees in this small city about 25 miles northwest of New Orleans — she worried about another, more invisible danger: COVID-19.

Demetrice Joseph, 47, left, waits with her family at a makeshift drop-off center in LaPlace, La

Demetrie Joseph, left, waits for her family at a temporary drop-off centre at New Wine Christian Fellowship Church, LaPlace, La after a boat saved them from their flood-damaged home.

(Jennie Jarvie/Los Angeles Times)

” We don’t want it to catch it,” she said, sitting in the sun with her mother and daughter, while keeping their distance from the growing crowd of people evacuees. Many of them were not wearing masks.

Joseph, who is vaccinated against COVID-19, had not had time to grab a mask as she left her home and did not see any when she lined up at a desk to register and hand her ID to volunteers.

” “My mom shouldn’t be around so many people,” she stated.

Residents struggled to find refuge Monday after Ida, a Category 4 hurricane, pounded this fragile, low-lying stretch of southeast Louisiana with water and wind — flooding homes, tearing roofs off buildings and leaving hundreds of thousands without power — in a region already overwhelmed by a surge of COVID-19 cases.

Jeremy Hodges stands on a destroyed storage unit in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida

Jeremy Hodges takes a light out of a family’s damaged storage unit Monday in Houma (La).

(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Hospitals in New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana were already at capacity due to the spread of the highly infectious Delta virus among a population that has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. Coronavirus-positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths soared in this Southern state throughout much of August, with average new daily cases surpassing 5,000 midmonth. The state has made some progress as cases have dropped over the last week, but they remain high, at about 4,000 per day.

As Ida wreaked havoc and destruction across Louisiana, the pandemic loomed over the disaster relief effort: Hospitals brimming with COVID-19 patients operated on generators, and some were forced to evacuate; shelters without power and water struggled to enforce social distancing, masking and sanitary conditions.

Still, in the immediate aftermath, Ida did not appear to take many lives. Monday saw the deaths of a New Orleans motorist who drowned and another victim to a storm-related accident outside Baton Rouge, La. According to Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, local coroners are likely to report additional deaths due to the severe damage to homes in the coming days. John Bel Edwards stated during Monday’s briefing.

Officials were trying to get hospitals and dialysis centres back online in the midst of power outages for more than 1.1million homes and businesses in southeast Louisiana, Bel Edwards stated. He said that at least three hospitals were forced to evacuate patients because of storm damage and that a fourth was still evacuating late Monday.

” We need our hospitals to be able to provide the lifesaving care that they need, he stated. This includes COVID patients who are on ventilators. It’s too early to know when this power will be restored. An awful lot of hospitals are on generator power.”

Bel Edwards said technicians were deployed to hospitals that were relying on generator power to ensure that backups were available in case of failure.

Almost 2,000 people were at three dozen shelters statewide, and many parishes were enforcing curfews Monday, Bel Edwards said, urging people to take precautions to guard against COVID-19.

“Whether we like it or not, we are still in a COVID environment; it is a very difficult COVID environment, where 100% of our cases are attributable to this Delta variant,” he said. “Everything we do must be done with COVID. It’s crucial that we use masks, wash our hands and take as much care as possible

LaPlace was a place where many officials and volunteers didn’t wear masks while they attempted to coordinate disaster relief efforts for residents. “It’s life over limb. We really didn’t take too much COVID protocols,” Cain Dufrene of St. John the Baptist Parish Fire Services said Monday during an interview at the command center.

Dufrene had worked through Sunday night, pulling a 30-hour shift as calls came in from people worried about loved ones trapped in waterlogged homes. He was not wearing a mask, unlike many other emergency workers and local officials huddled in the St. John command centre.

“We’re going to save the life rather than trying to worry too much about the COVID stuff,” he said.

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By mid-afternoon, Dufrene’s team of 35 firemen had worked with law enforcement officers, the National Guard, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and local groups to rescue more than 500 people in subdivisions and trailer parks across St. John Parish. But local officials were quick to process them. They moved to New Wine Christian Fellowship after water sawped through the doors at the local shelter. This was an elementary school.

Rather than wait inside the dark church, many evacuees milled about in the parking lot as organizers tried to find chartered buses to transport them north.

“I just hope we stay safe and don’t catch COVID,” said Dontrell Riley, 25, who lives in the nearby town of Reserve, as she sat on the sidewalk with her four children, including a 2-month old.

“She said that she had seen many people in this area and knew it was dangerous. She then moved her blue surgical mask over her nose.

Inside the church, the use of masks was not enforced. Two sheriff’s deputy officers sat behind counters; one was covered with a mask.

“A middle-aged man asked the monitor at the shelter if he was supposed to wear a mask.

” We have masks in there if you require,” the deputy stated as the man entered the building barefaced.

For many residents, COVID-19 was the least of their concerns.

It’s gone completely. We’ve lost everything,” said Everett Marshall, 60, a retired lieutenant from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, as he stood in the parking lot with his sick English mastiff, Queen, while his wife, Tomeka, registered his son and daughter. As the water reached their homes, the family fled to the attic.

He said he was not worried about contracting COVID-19, as he and his family are vaccinated. He was most concerned about where his family would be taken and when he would get his cellphone service back so that he could reach his sister-in law. He also wanted to return to his home to salvage their belongings.

” “It’s like moving from one place to another.” he said, sighing.

Pandemic-related efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi had already been stymied by Ida. The Louisiana Department of Health shut down its community-based testing sites and vaccine stations early Friday. It has not yet announced when they will reopen.

All Mississippi state health departments closed their testing and vaccination centers Monday. The sites in the central and southern counties that were most affected by the storm will continue to be closed Tuesday.

Traffic diverts around downed power lines and sideways power poles

Traffic diverts to downed power lines Monday, Metairie (La).

(Steve Helber / Associated Press)

COVID-19 infections across Louisiana fell 20% in the past two weeks from their most recent peak, according to State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter. The governor’s mandate for masks was partly responsible for the decline in infections across Louisiana. Kanter stated that it gave them some breathing room before the storm. But, he added, “with hospital capacity so tight, even with that 20% reduction, we’re still higher than at any point prior to this surge.”

Absorbing patients after the storm was difficult for the state’s hospitals, which are treating more than 2,400 COVID patients, he said.

” We are confident they will be fine,” Kanter stated. “They’re all at or near patient capacity, but that was the case before the storm, just due to COVID.”

After waiting a few hours Monday morning outside New Wine Christian Fellowship with a growing crowd of evacuees, Joseph grew increasingly concerned about her mother, who was having trouble breathing and had low oxygen levels.

Joseph called a sheriff who dispatched an ambulance to transport her mother to the nearest emergency hospital.

“She’s got a better chance there than she does here,” Joseph said as she waited for a bus to whisk her, her daughter and her niece to an unknown location up north.

Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report from Houston.

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