August 29, 2021, the entire state of Louisiana seemed to be experiencing some form of PTSD as they prepared to brave the impact ahead of Hurricane Ida. For those who do not know, 16 years ago precisely on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans as a Category 5 Atlantic hurricane that caused 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage (Wikipedia). Hurricane Ida made landfall in the gulf coast of Louisiana as a Category 4 storm on the exact data, 16 years later, and is the sixth costliest tropical cyclone ever recorded (Wikipedia). The storm force winds knocked out Entergy’s biggest tower that supplies power to entire New Orleans and part of the Jefferson Parish. With its transmission lines ending up in the Mississippi River, the fallen tower caused a wide-spread complete black out in the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas. A black out in this day and age is testament to the ferocity of the hurricane, the first one I have ever witnessed in my life. Since the hurricane traveled by land all the way to New York causing historically rare weather conditions in the east, this has all become international news. So why am I writing about it?
The primary purpose for which I intended to write this article was to illustrate the manner and discipline with which my university and the city government handled the situation pre-crisis, during and post-crisis. Belonging to a developing country, I firmly believe that documenting how different segments of a society, both private and public, come together to collectively safeguard the entire populace regardless of race, cast, and religion, in a developed country, is important. It is important because part of a developing country’s aspirations can and should be built around examples such as these, where infrastructure works together with public/private institutions like clockwork.
Let us start with two days before the storm/hurricane was expected to hit the city. There is an Instagram page, #NOLAready, which provides consistent updates regarding weather, safety, resources and pretty much everything else about the city that residents may need to know. Through that page residents can also signup for updates via text messages which are super helpful especially in the unforeseen circumstance of losing internet service. Two days before the storm was supposed to hit, #NOLAready was relaying messages advising on how to protect life and property from the storm, where to park cars, what supplies to gather for emergencies along with regular updates on the weather. The city announced that residents can pick up free sandbags from select locations to stop rain water from flooding homes and entering through the doors etc. Given that the storm turned into a CAT 3 hurricane swiftly, the mayor ordered a mandatory evacuation in areas that were not under the levee protection and thus could be severely affected by the storm. In addition to that, the city mayor announced that the rest of New Orleans is under voluntary evacuation making it clear that there is a greater possibility that the storm would be horrific and those who fear their homes might flood should evacuate immediately, the sooner the better. They also alerted residents to the possibility that roads might get blocked by traffic as several people try to leave the city ahead of the storm and they should plan accordingly. This was on Friday, two days before Ida was expected to make landfall. The city government also announced that neutral ground parking is allowed as long as parking does not block the roadways, streetcar tracks or intersections.
Because there were strong expectations of power outages, what really touched my heart was the fact that the city informed the residents about a “special needs registry” and encouraged them to sign up if they are themselves dependent on a constant source of power for medical needs. The special needs registry enabled the government to help move people who signed-up for help, to secure locations. A helpline by the name of LAShelter aided people who not only needed to evacuate but also needed shelter after evacuation and had no other option. Similarly, a free parent-infant helpline was also set up to aid (medical or otherwise) parents of infants. Isn’t that incredible!
At the same time, while #NOLAready was making people aware of all the resources that they could avail, the city government was keeping the residents updated about what the city is doing to ensure smooth functioning of the city during the hurricane. To that effect, they informed that the Sewage and Water Board is pumping water out of the city’s canals to prepare for heavy rainfall and expected flooding from Ida. Similarly, the flood protection authority closed the flood gates of the federal levee system to prevent storm surge in NOLA (New Orleans Louisiana) ahead of the storm.
On Saturday, a day before the storm, shelter-in-place mandates were issued for all of NOLA and emergency communication specialists were live at 3-1-1 for assisting residents through any trauma and suffering as the storm blew through the state. Public safety, infrastructure and human services gathered at the emergency operations center in NOLA to work together as the hurricane, which was now a CAT 4, made landfall in New Orleans at around 11 AM on Sunday morning, way closer than originally anticipated. Wide-spread power outage warnings were issued as the storm ravaged through the city causing the sewage and water board to issue “limited use” warnings to avoid the sewage from choking.
Soon after midday, all of NOLA was under a complete black out – all Entergy power was lost as the transmitter lines fell into the Mississippi river. The city issued notices that their teams are working quickly to make up for this loss of power and are currently relying on turbines and backup generators. As the hurricane teared through the land, cell phone carriers lost network and thus made 911 inaccessible. Given that the emergency number was inactive, the city government launched a new emergency number. Since 911 was experiencing technical difficulties, all fire stations were put on alert to respond while a new helpline was made available for emergencies. Residents were able to dial this number from their phones even without cell service. The residents were informed that the Sewerage and Water board continues to operate on self-generated power to drain storm water from the city and pump in drinking water. Towards the end of the hurricane, despite there being no power whatsoever, the city government started assessing roads for debris and updated a map so that residents can be aware of which roads are blocked, in case they were planning to evacuate.
Sheets of rain continued to fall the entire night all the way to the morning. And in all my years of living, I have never witnessed a night so dark. I am up on the eighth floor of my building, and it was eerie to look down and see only a couple of car lights but nothing else. No building in sight had even a single lit window, truly apocalyptic. Then came Monday, one day post hurricane, and as shocking as it might be to believe, the city was still without power. Despite that, here are the measures the city government took to transition back to sanity:
- Oxygen exchange sites opened where oxygen dependent residents could pick up oxygen for free.
- Online-access-forms were launched so that the residents can report damage to the government for financial relief.
- National guard was deployed on ground for vital post hurricane assistance.
- There were 197 flight cancellations the day after the storm and the airport was practically shut down.
- Departments of sanitation, parks and parkways started work on clearing debris from the roads.
- Free meals were available for NOLA residents at more than 10 locations
- Device charging stations were set up around the city.
- Cooling shelters were set up around the city in abundance to provide cold water, charging stations and ACs on generators.
- In collaboration with national guard, MREs (ready to eat meals) were made available for free in several locations within the city.
- As residents started to rely on generators, the LA state fire marshal provided generator safety tips via all public service access links including #NOLAready.
- First aid stations were setup around the city.
- Tarps were made available for city residents for roof damage from Ida.
- FEMA confirmed a transitional sheltering assistance program.
- Expected power and gas restoration times were made available to residents of the city. Entergy was working hard even though many had evacuated.
- City of NOLA started providing transportation assistance for NOLA residents who wanted to leave New Orleans to shelter in Northern Louisiana.
- Free rides were provided by Uber and Lyft for people who were trying to get to a shelter.
- As cellular networks regained service, several carriers provided free minutes and free data to those who were in the disaster zone.
- Lastly, LAPSCA (Louisiana society for the prevention of cruelty to animals) ensured that pet owners have access to pet food and places for animals to cool down as well.
The actions I have listen above form a small part of the work that the government was doing to ensure that the city and its people are back on their feet again. It was no small task to recover from a hurricane of this magnitude and the city government would not have been able to do it if volunteers, the residents themselves, had not participated. It was an all-out effort where literally every segment of the society was playing its role be it people, public/private institutions or the city government.
It would be unfair for me to not mention how Tulane, my university, played its role, the primary aim of which was to ensure the safety of its student population, faculty, general administrative body, staff, medical workers, and other professionals. From the day the hurricane was announced up until today, as I write this, Tulane has been one step ahead. It is incredible but I can say with one hundred percent confidence that as devastating as this hurricane was, there wasn’t one single moment where I felt alone, abandoned, helpless or unsafe. The credit for this goes to the brilliant leadership of the university under President Fitts, and the constant outreach via email by not just my department chair Dr. Douglas, my advisor Dr. Edwards, but also the President, the dean of graduate studies, the office of international students, the president of the graduate studies student association (GSSA, of which I am a representing member) amongst others (the school of public health and the school of medicine predominantly).
So, what did Tulane do precisely? Here is a comprehensive list which still does not cover everything:
As I mentioned, the news about the severity of the storm was communicated through support emails from advisors, department chairs, GSSA, OISS, Dean and the President. All students were being instructed from at least three days prior to the landfall of Ida to stock up on supplies for a minimum of three days, charge all devices, fill up water containers, account for perishable food enough to last some days, and keep battery run lights handy.
- Knowing that there is mandatory evacuation for some parts and voluntary evacuation for others, Tulane started its shuttle service for airport starting Saturday, a day before the storm
- For those who were not planning to leave and would be riding out the storm in Tulane’s uptown campus within residence halls, in an “overabundance of caution”, the management shifted all students to LBC (Lavin-Bernick Center) which is the student center. The President himself went around in person to inquire about the overall well-being and comfort of the students.
- Off-campus students who did not feel safe in their residences were encouraged to reach LBC for shelter, food, company and obviously safety.
- To protect data, the supercomputers and other IT equipment, Tulane’s data center was shutdown at 6 am hurricane morning on Sunday, and this is when we realized the storm is serious as this had never happened during any hurricane season since the two years I have been here.
- The data center shutdown meant we will have no Wifi in our residential building (and across Tulane campuses) and will have to rely on our cellular network for internet.
- Shelter in place instructions came in as well, around the same time, and those who had not gone to the LBC were instructed to strictly shelter in place.
- Soon after, a survey link was sent via text messages to know where every student was and if they needed any health-related assistance while they were at their shelter-in-place residence.
- Knowing that the storm would last all of Sunday and would likely result in street flooding and power outage if nothing else, the university announced closure tentatively for two days, cancelling all academic deadlines so at least that pressure would be off for the student populace.
- Regular emails continued from the school’s administration as and when there was any new development. However, when the storm changed paths and hit closer to New Orleans, things changed rapidly.
- Given the severity of the storm and the devastation it had caused by Sunday night, we received a Campus closure notification announcing that all classes have been cancelled for the next two weeks and that the school will remain closed.
- Come Monday morning, the entire city of New Orleans had lost power and that included Tulane’s uptown campus as well as the Downtown campus. Soon after, a university wide evacuation notice was issued, and Tulane announced that they will be evacuating all residence halls, transporting the student population to Houston via buses.
- This came as quite the shock to be honest because it was initially believed that graduate housing (which is my building) will be evacuated as well. That did not end up happening and I stayed, safely.
- Out of immense concern for the student safety, given the destruction and power outage, the school’s administration planned to arrange buses that will take all those who remained on Tulane’s on-campus and off-campus residences, to Houston from where they can fly to a place of their choice. The university ensured its students, especially international students, that those who cannot evacuate or find shelter elsewhere will continue to stay in the lodging in Houston at the university’s expense for as long as it was necessary.
And so it began:
- With the pickup schedule clearly announced in advance, a whole caravan of buses was found lined outside Brown’s field at Tulane’s uptown campus. The field itself was filled with students, their significant others, their pets and two luggage pieces each.
- Despite there being no power in the city, university’s internet down, and patchy, unstable cellphone service, everyone knew where to be and at what time. Discipline was key!
- President Fitts oversaw the evacuation himself and was in the field to bid a temporary farewell.
- I believe around 65 buses left on Tuesday morning from Tulane’s uptown campus and 30 buses on Wednesday morning from the downtown campus evacuating close to 2000 students. The ginormous caravan moved as a convoy with a police escort that was provided by Tulane University’s police department (TUPD) all the way to Houston.
- It was a sight to behold!!! How this marvelous venture was managed in the span of one day in a disaster ridden town with no power and internet, I would never know!
- Tulane had insured that boarding and lodging facilities were provided for those who reached Houston.
- Four hotels were filled as students started arriving.
- There were teams present in hotel lobbies to ensure a smooth check-in procedure and food was provided to the tired students.
- Several people left to go to their friends or family in the next couple of days and thus at the end just two hotels had Tulane students who are staying there to this day on the expense of the university.
- Regular meals are being provided to those students and often days, buses are arranged to take them to school games, malls, and other tourist locations.
Those who did not evacuate to Houston:
- Tulane did not forget those who did not evacuate, like me.
- I am residing in Tulane’s downtown graduate housing and this building was not under mandatory evacuation.
- Initially when the power went out, the entire building, all 148 rooms or so, were on a generator.
- We lost power for a maximum of 10 hours on Wednesday morning during which one, Entergy was working to fix our power, and two, the administration was looking for a replacement generator that can withstand the load of this huge apartment building.
- Not to mention, my residence building is next to Tulane University Hospital and since restoring power to the hospital was a top priority for the city government, we became “collateral beneficiaries”.
- The university also ensured that all personnel working in the hospital, all those who had not evacuated, are fully provided for. This meant so much more than what I anticipated:
- Since there was a shortage of fuel, Tulane ensured that gas was brought to Tulane’s facilities so that its personnel, medical residents, and remaining student population could use it to fill up their vehicles.
- TUPD worked around the clock and the university hired extra security to ensure that while everything was dark, their facilities were completely secured.
- Mobile laundry trucks were parked outside the hospital for those in the Tulane family who did not have power in their houses and who doesn’t need to wash clothes right? Incredible!
- Tulane’s kitchen staff cooked food for all the remaining Tulane family and the buffet was open at breakfast, lunch, and diner, with bottomless coffees and bottomless drinks and options that catered to all dominant dietary preferences.
- Campus health made sure all necessary medication is refilled for the people belonging to Tulane.
- All the while, outreach efforts through Tulane’s Center for Public Service continue for greater New Orleans and affected parishes.
- A week before classes, the school administration has people on campuses to assess damage to the buildings and ensure that the school is safe to return to. The academic calendar has been reformatted to reflect this dynamic situation and exam period has been cancelled.
We go back to school from September 13th, 2021, online for the following ten days as repairs continue on campus and power is restored city wide. But I must say this has been an experience of a lifetime, and not just in terms of riding out a hurricane.
This hurricane has been devastating for a lot of people and families especially those for whom entire lives have been washed away through loss of life and property. But it could have been a lot worse, as it is in unequipped developing countries which are crippled by natural disasters. And so, in writing this I hope that my brief account of what happened and more importantly, how it was handled, provokes some thought where it matters.