Slowly and carefully, Louisiana contractors are making their way back to jobsites in the path of Hurricane Ida to assess damage and get sites up and running again—working around staggering shortages of workers, fuel and equipment, along with still widespread outages of power, water and communications.
After tearing through Louisiana and Mississippi, the storm continued to cause chaos as it battered the East Coast, bringing heavy rainfall, tornados and flash floods to parts of New Jersey, New York Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, D.C. and West Virginia. As of Sept. 3, those states had counted about 80 deaths attributed to the storm.
In Louisiana, firms are waiting until at least Sept. 7 before restarting work, says Ken Naquin, CEO of the Louisiana Associated General Contractors. A lot will depend on how power and water pressure and other services are restored by then, he says.
“Our contractors are ready to go back to work," says Naquin. "The remaining question is how—when basic services are not available.”
"Right now, contractors cannot get into New Orleans to work."
Ken Naquin, CEO, Louisiana Associated General Contractors
He says, “Right now, contractors cannot get into New Orleans to work and restart projects that were ongoing," adding that “Baton Rouge is a little better, but again, construction workers and project management staff are spread across the south due to evacuations and are reluctant to return with no services.”
As of Sept. 4, Entergy said there were about 600,000 customers without power in Louisiana, posting on its website a schedule of when areas of the state would have be restored.
Housing and hotels are scarce for out-of-town workers, with local workers tending to personal challenges related to the storm.
“People have their own properties that need attention, and getting people around is challenging when gasoline is such a concern,” says Anne Teague Landis, CEO of Landis Construction Co. in New Orleans.
The firm's active jobsites in the New Orleans area sustained some damage, but nothing that appears extensive, Landis says. “First, we are ensuring that our employees are safe and helping them as we can. Next priority is our clients. We are fortunate to have a very committed group of employees and trade contractors who are ready to get back to work as soon as possible,” she says.
Lemoine, a Louisiana construction manager and contractor, made extensive preparations before the storm and deployed its recently acquired disaster services company and its building construction teams to survey its job sites within 24 hours after Ida had passed. Teams have successfully restored data and communications services .
“Through extensive trade partner coordination, we expect to have all jobsites assume the normal progression of scheduled construction activities by next week,” says Bryan O’Connor, the company's vice president of building construction.
Power Slowly Returning
As its damage assessments and restoration work continue, utiilty Entergy said in a Sept. 4 update that it has restored power to nearly 200,000 customers out of about 950,000 affected by Hurricane Ida in Louisiana, with work also completed for Mississippi customers. The company said it has about 23,000 restoration workers on the ground across the affected states.
The company posted anticipated dates to complete power restoration for affected areas of Louisiana
But in Louisiana, only about 58% of impacted infrastructure has been assessed so far. Reports indicate that the municipalities of Terrebonne and Lafourche sustained heavy damages. As roads continue to be cleared, Entergy is moving teams in place to continue assessments. However, the hardest-hit areas could experience power outages for weeks, the utility warned.
Small businesses hit by Hurricane Ida, like these in Houma, La., face a slow and daunting recovery as they grapple with storm damage, a lack of power, water and internet service and limited ability to communicate with clients or customers. AP Photo/Steve Helber
Meanwhile, Entergy has restored power to the Brusly Sewer Treatment Facility and installed backup generators at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center for displaced residents and the Louisiana National Guard.
In its latest tally on Sept. 1, Entergy reported that distribution system damage in Louisiana and Mississippi included 5,850 poles, 7,090 spans of wire and 1,400 transformers damaged or destroyed. In addition, about 80 of 220 affected substations and 44 of 210 affected transmission lines have returned to service as of Sept. 1, but more than 1,490 miles of transmission lines remain out of service.
While damage to the eight high-voltage transmission lines that power the region has yet to be repaired, on Sept. 1, electricity from the New Orleans Power Station allowed Entergy to begin powering critical infrastructure in the area.
Ida’s Wrath Felt in the Northeast
Among affected Northeast states, Pennsylvania reported that its rivers and waterways remained high on Sept. 2, particularly in its southeastern portion, according to the state Dept. of Transportation, which also noted that several waterways broke previous crest records, including points along the East Branch of the Brandywine, and the Perkiomen and Schuylkill rivers.
PennDOT further reported that 16 major state interstates or expressways are closed, as are 389 roads, 243 of which are a result of flooding, and others due to downed trees and utilities.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency Sept. 1, with most rail service and many flights suspended, and a flash flood warning that went into effect statewide, with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf also declaring an emergency. Record rainfall was recorded at Newark Airport, forcing closure of Terminal B through most of Sept. 2. At least nine Weather Service-confirmed tornadoes caused varying amounts of residential and other damage in the two states and Maryland, one with peak winds of 150 miles per hour.
Aqua America Pennsylvania, a Pennsylvania water and wastewater utility company, was forced to shut two water treatment plants in Chester County, Pa., when the Schuylkill River overtopped floodwalls of one 40-mgd faciity and impaired water intakes at a nearby 15-mgd plant. The latter faciiity was restarted. but utility President Marc Lucca said pumping of the larger plant was not set to start until after the river subsided, expected late on Sept. 3.
The plants had been upgraded in 2010, with 18 in. added to the larger Pickering West plant's floodwalls, but river flooding was the highest since 1860, according to Lucca. Customers are being served by other company plants.
President Joe Biden pledged financial aid to the two states, but business groups in Pennsylvania said damage assessments would be ongoing for the next several days.
Parts of New York also remain in a state of emergency Sept. 2, after Ida brought historic rainfall to the downstate area, causing flash floods and power outages. Affected counties are Bronx, Dutchess, Kings, Nassau, New York, Orange, Putnam, Queens, Richmond, Rockland, Suffolk, Sullivan, Ulster and Westchester.
Multiple roadways across New York City, Long Island and the lower Mid-Hudson were flooded, as were rail lines and subways in several locations across the city overnight, according to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office. Rainfall rates of more than three inches per hour, the highest ever recorded by the state Mesonet, were experienced across multiple locations, with rainfall totals ultimately exceeding eight inches in Manhattan's Central Park and more than six inches at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, the governor’s office reported.
Louisiana Seeking Federal Aid
Meanwhile, ahead of President Biden’s scheduled Sept. 3 visit to affected portions of Louisiana, the state’s congressional delegation, led by Sen. John Kennedy, wrote a letter to the President seeking “substantial and robust” disaster relief funds to help the state recover from “historic storm damage” caused by Hurricane Ida and other major storms over the last year.
“The full extent of Louisiana’s damages have not yet been determined and will likely not be fully known until after immediate matters of public safety are addressed," said the letter. It noted that a record-breaking five named storms—Cristóbal, Marco, Laura, Delta, and Zeta—had hit Louisiana within the past year, inflicting billions of dollars in damages and dozens of fatalities.
A specific dollar amount was not included in the letter, but legislators emphasized that the first emergency aid bill after Hurricane Katrina—which totaled $10.4 billion—passed in four days. They also noted that many communities across southwest and central Louisiana still await disaster funding from the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program. Without such funding, "Louisiana families will continue to languish as a result of these devastating storms,” the letter states.
Hurricane Ida Obstructs Progress
In Kenner, La., Ida affected some progress on the $126 million Interstate-10 flyover ramp project, which was on track for completion by late 2022. Initial assessments by general contractor Gilchrist Construction are that crews will have substantial work to restore the project to its pre-storm condition, says project manager J.J. Hickey.
Managers who visited the site Aug. 31 determined that portions of ramps where crews poured bridge decks are stable, but some temporary metal forms in place to allow for deck construction will require repair or replacement, with debris clearing also needed. “It’s not an extensive amount of damage, but there’s a lot of cleanup to do,” Hickey says.
Traffic has been another issue, with many signals out around the site.
“We’re on the interstate, and the interstate is open to traffic. So we still have to maintain the jobsite and safe traffic control,” Hickey says.
And like other firms, workforce has been a top concern. Noting workers' personal impacts, "we don’t know ... how effectively we can get our workforce back in place,” Hickey says.
Army Corps Surveys Projects
In the town of LaPlace, one of the hardest hit areas of the state, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had just started work in July on the $760 million West Shore Lake Pontchartrain levee project that, ironically, would provide 100-year levels of storm-surge protection across the east bank of St. Charles, St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes.
The system follows the same design standard as the $14.6 billion federal protection system built around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that protected the city during the more recent storm.
The Corps is assessing the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain site after Ida, but the project is still in its early stages, says Rene Poche, spokesperson for its New Orleans district.
“It’s too early to tell until they get out there and look at what went on. But there’s no major levee construction taking place yet because none of those contracts have been awarded,” he says.
"They've requested us to help with surveys of the [Mississippi River] so they can determine the extent of what's up with [fallen] power lines."
Rene Poche, Corps' of Engineers' New Orleans district spokesperson
Closer to New Orleans, the Corps has been working with the U.S. Coast Guard, while the Mississippi River is closed to traffic because of power lines that fell into the river when a major transmission tower blew over. “They’ve requested us to help with surveys of the area so they can determine the extent of what’s up with the power lines,” Poche says.
The Corps is also surveying its other projects around the state, including the Comite River Diversion near Baton Rouge and improvements to the Florida Avenue Canal in New Orleans for the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control project.
Even with Ida’s interruptions, hurricane preparation and response is a key component of Corps contracts, Poche explains. “When a contractor bids on a contract, a hurricane response plan has to be part of the bid that tells the Corps, ‘This is what I’m going to do if a storm approaches.’ It talks about how they’re going to secure the site, wind down work and determine when it’s safe to start working again."