New Orleans officials said Wednesday they are determined to keep vulnerable residents safe during the 2023 hurricane season, even as they acknowledged that some independent living facilities aren't yet in compliance with new rules aimed at preventing the misery that followed Hurricane Ida.

The disaster-planning requirements were adopted in 2021 after at least seven people died after Ida while stranded in privately owned apartment complexes for the elderly and disabled. Those deaths were tied to the citywide blackout that followed the hurricane and left many without power for a week or longer.

The city identified 67 facilities that must obtain a new type of operating license by submitting evacuation plans, resident rosters and a point of contact, among other requirements. The facilities cater to seniors and those with disabilities who generally live independently but may use oxygen tanks or need other accommodations during an emergency.

During a news conference Wednesday to discuss hurricane preparedness, the city's health director, Dr. Jennifer Avegno, said only 44 of the identified facilities are fully compliant. Another 11 have submitted plans for review, while a dozen have not applied for the new license, Avegno said. Applications, including annual renewals, are due June 1, and Avegno warned that non-compliant facilities are subject to code violations.

The new rules are intended to improve coordination with city officials but are not designed to substitute for residents’ personal plans, Avegno said.

“You should understand what your building has presented to us. You should have that conversation with them. But it's really important to make your own plans and be prepared individually to decide whether you're going to stay or evacuate,” Avegno said. 

'It only takes one storm'

Avegno was one of several City Hall officials who spoke during the annual briefing ahead of the hurricane season, which officially begins June 1. Forecasters anticipate a “near-normal” hurricane season, but Mayor LaToya Cantrell cautioned that “it only takes one storm to make it an active season.”

“A key lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina is that risk is inherent and cannot be eliminated,” Cantrell said, while offering assurances the city is “definitely prepared.” 

Hurricane planning has evolved in recent years, with more rapidly intensifying hurricanes leaving little time to call mandatory evacuations across large parts of the New Orleans metro area. Mandatory evacuations typically require 72 hours to orchestrate one-way traffic flow on major highways out of the city, a process known as contraflow, along with public available transportation and other operations.

That time window, however, is increasingly unavailable because of how quickly storms are moving across the Gulf of Mexico or intensifying into powerful storms before landfall. 

Officials have begun to focus on ensuring the availability of cooling centers, transportation and medical shelter during electrical failures after storms pass. In New Orleans, that means opening 12 generator-powered recreation centers with food, water and air conditioning, and possibly making the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center available for people with acute medical needs. 

If needed, plans call for the state to provide bus transportation out of the city, departing from the Smoothie King Center. Regional Transportation Authority buses would be available to take residents to the Smoothie King Center. 

The mayor might still call for a mandatory evacuation in advance of a major hurricane if forecasts leave enough time, officials said. The city has also devised plans for limited evacuations with 48 hours before landfall, primarily for those most in need, according to Collin Arnold, the city’s emergency planning director. 

“That would be the minimum time that we would have to put something together that could realistically make an impact, particularly on those vulnerable populations,” Arnold said. 

Hard lessons

The need for post-storm planning was a hard lesson of Ida, which quickly blew up from a Category 1 to a Category 4 storm within the 24 hours leading up to landfall. Evacuations of the sweltering senior living facilities did not start until four days after the storm passed. 

The citywide blackout resulted from the failure of all eight of Entergy’s transmission lines into the city. They included an electricity tower in Avondale that collapsed into the Mississippi River.

Entergy officials said Wednesday the tower has been rebuilt to withstand 150 mph winds.

Other city infrastructure held up reasonably well during Ida, which made landfall at Port Fourchon and devastated coastal communities and areas west of New Orleans.

Sewerage and Water Board pumps kept stormwater off the streets, thanks in part to the last-minute return of a major power generator that had been out of service for months leading up to the storm. 

That generator, known as Turbine 4, is again on the fritz, leaving an uncomfortably thin margin of error for having enough power to run the drainage system at full capacity. Officials had hoped Turbine 4 would be back in time for the start of hurricane season, but S&WB Executive Director Ghassan Korban said Wednesday that it will be out for another month or so.

The $15 billion flood-protection system built around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina also held up well during Ida, though officials later said Ida’s storm surge would have overtopped the West Bank portions if the storm had tracked just 15 miles east. 

Officials cautioned that the system of levees, walls and pumps was designed to reduce risk, not to provide failsafe protection. 

“There is going to be a hurricane someday that will overtop that system,” said Heath Jones, local emergency manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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