Lights Out

Source: Story by Arelis R. Hernández, Photos by Sarah L. Voisin, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, September 26, 2021

Living without power in the wake of Hurricane Ida

LAPLACE, LA - SEPTEMBER 11: A canal runs behind the 1300 block of Yorktowne Drive. In the lower section of the neighborhood the houses were completely flooded and destroyed for the second time in recent history. Electricity on the 1300 block of Yorktowne Drive in LaPlace, LA has not been restored since Hurricane Ida ripped through this suburb of 42,000 located 30 miles to the west of New Orleans. To make matters worse much of the time they were living without water and food has been scarce. Residents are entering the third week in this situation. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

LAPLACE, La. — Hurricane Ida lashed the 1300 block of Yorktowne Drive, leaving some without homes and all without power and water.

The next three weeks were a struggle to survive. There was no air conditioning for 100-degree heat. There was no drinking or bathing with clean, running water. Without electricity, cooking had to be done on a grill, if at all.

Leaders, including President Biden, promised help. But government officials struggled to provide some goods and services, such as cooling centers to help residents manage the deadly temperatures.

This is a story of a community in crisis — but also of a community that had each other’s backs.

Part I: Going without

Hurricane Ida was one of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit Louisiana. More than 1 million electricity customers lost power after the storm’s 150-mph winds demolished power lines and severed connections to the grid.

Turning the lights back on proved achingly slow, especially outside of the state’s major population centers. In the days after Ida, the residents of Yorktowne Drive spent long, suffocating hours without the essentials. For many, it felt like life was on excruciating pause until the power returned.

For Sandra Ross, the lack of water was maddening. The drinking water LaPlace residents rely on is pumped through an aging pipeline sourced from a groundwater well 14 miles away. The system has long been a target of planned infrastructure upgrades, but it did not happen before Mother Nature beat them to the punch. So Ross, 59, was stuck collecting rain water in buckets for her beloved plants, rinsing off with bottles of water and bathing with wet wipes. She drank bottled water provided by the parish, watching her supply carefully.

Then there was the life-threatening swelter. Temperatures during daylight hours soar to the mid-nineties, but the strangling humidity can make it feel like 102 degrees.

In a house nearby, LaKeisha Crouch faced similar struggles. Her home was unbearable without air conditioning or gas for a generator. Her plumbing was nonfunctioning. And then there were the other fears. Her 13-year-old son was in Texas riding out the storm; Crouch didn’t want him home until the block was electrified. As the days dragged on, she wished she had gone with him.

Crouch’s signature swagger melted at the mention of her baby boy. “I miss him. I miss him so much,” Crouch said. “I rather him there than living through this.”

Over at Sandy Watkins’s house, two doors down from Crouch, problems were mounting. The number of dwellers in her small brick home doubled after her daughter’s apartment was destroyed by Ida. Her daughter and grandson filled the corners of her dark home with more love but also more stress.

Watkins knew from experience never to ride out a storm. Though she was strapped for cash, she booked two nights in a hotel in Pasadena, Tex., while Ida bore down. Then, she needed an $899 generator for her home. Next, she needed a few gas canisters at $16 to $30 a pop to fuel the machine. A grill and charcoal were must-haves for supper to be possible. By the time Watkins, who is disabled, reached her powerless home, she had dipped into her savings.

Her youngest daughter, Jasmine Watkins, watched her sobbing mother gesticulating noiselessly as she spoke to bill collectors on the phone with the air conditioning blasting inside the car. “It’s affecting everyone,” said Jasmine, 25, who couldn’t work while the gas station where she is employed was underwater. “It’s the heat, it’s the money, it’s the gas … everyone is cooped up.”

Jasmine started helping neighbors to beat the hot monotony: “We look after each other here.”

Nearby, Emmett Tillery III, 58, and Evone Tillery, 59, surveyed the damage wrought by Ida. “I don’t have a place to live!” Evone cried, breaking into sobs on her driveway.

For many families on the block, generators offered a bit of relief — if they could get them working. Over at the Crouch home, LaKeisha Crouch’s father, Ronald “Sweetie” Crouch, pulled the rusted generator from underneath the shredded wood planks of his flattened backyard shed and began to tinker.

When it was clear the old machine was not going to give, Crouch grabbed his keys. He arrived home an hour later with a generator from Home Depot. Crouch spent the day pulling out extension cords and moving a window A/C unit from the destroyed backroom to his bedroom. He connected the deep freezer and his daughter’s unit. “Oh, I’m a sleep like a newborn baby,” LaKeisha Crouch said.

For other families on the block, a generator was the difference between life and death. The machine ensured Kristin Magee, 59, could continue her at-home dialysis treatments every other day. Her husband, Richard, bought a 55-gallon drum to hold gasoline and had a backup generator to stave off anxiety. If supply got low, he was prepared to siphon fuel from his trucks.

Richard, 55, was supposed to upload the data his wife’s blood-cleaning machines generate for physicians. But without reliable cellular or Internet signal for miles, Richard was hoping nothing had changed in Kristin’s body chemistry to cause alarm until he could find a way. “We have to do what is necessary to survive,” Richard said. We will survive.”

Part II: Waiting for help

A week after Ida, the block was still without power, and no one seemed to know when that would change. The neighborhood was languishing. Suppressed irritation had crept to the surface. Biden promised this community he would have people go door-to-door to help, but the only people knocking were insurance adjusters, pricey handymen and neighbors.

Local officials didn’t have the resources to open cooling centers. “We’re not New Orleans. We don’t have resources or facilities,” said Parish President Jaclyn Hotard. “We are attempting to hurry up and mitigate and remediate some damages that we have to our parish building. Every large parish building that we own has had damage.”

As the block waited for power to return, LaKeisha Crouch had been checking in on people. She inquired after the infirm in their homes. She offered help when needed. And she swapped gossip.

The information she supplied was a resource. “If one person says something, it could be a lie,” Crouch said. “But if 10 people tell you the same thing, it’s probably true.” That is how Crouch learned that power could arrive by Sept. 12 — the same day the Saints football team were expected to play their season opener.

As days without power turned into weeks, the basics still felt out of reach. The Watkins family spent an entire day trying to figure out how to get their laundry done. “I was down to my last set of drawers, and I think they had a hole in them,” said Sandy Watkins. “I found it all the way at the bottom. It’s an old one.” The family had tried a local Walmart offering washing services but was turned away for having too many bags. So they set off one day at 6:30 a.m., driving 30 miles west to Gonzales, La. The town’s lone laundromat already had a line of people waiting outside in the baking sun.

Anytime someone headed out in the days after the storm, they were swarmed with requests for fuel, food or water. Any leftovers were thrown into the canal for the alligators. No one wanted maggots in their trash bins. There was no telling when their St. John the Baptist parish government would begin collecting waste again. Neighborhood kids played until curfew with no way to do school, virtually or otherwise.

Neighbors kept each other company with stories. Sandy Watkins and LaKeisha Crouch cackled remembering Crouch’s late mother and how she would have cooked as if she were feeding a small army. Kiana Gautreaux, 40, reminisced about the old days growing up as children with Crouch. They joked about eating barbecue for the 10th time and the funky smells wafting up the street.

On the block, some families were grappling with damage that would persist even after power is restored. At Evone Tillery’s house, black mold was crawling up the walls of her kitchen. The sky was visible from her bedroom after a giant sycamore split her home in two. The day-care business she ran from her home had to be closed indefinitely. She had to find other arrangements for the children she cared for and other means of income. Her husband and daughter picked through the things that weren’t completely lost, but the smell of rot was stomach-turning.

Life here was hard, making the victories sweeter. An hour before curfew one night, an old white sedan barreled down Yorktowne Drive with a surprise inside. “Who is that?” Ross said, sitting under a green umbrella on the sidewalk. “That’s my neighbor!” Dan Dolezal honked twice and bounded out the squeaky driver door ready to present his gift: Two 5-gallon cans of gasoline.

Ross hopped up and down while clapping. “I kept driving until I found me some cans and gas,” said Dolezal, who drove out to Alabama to resupply his block. “I went to more than 10 places and was on empty when I saw a guy with some cans and asked him where he got ‘em. Good ol’ AutoZone.”

By the beginning of the second week without power, the heat was getting to everyone. Nights of restless sleep, catching two or four hours of shut-eye, was fraying wills. Most couldn’t maintain an appetite. “I don’t know how much longer I can take this,” Sandy Watkins said.

Others, like Richard Magee, weren’t frustrated so much as perplexed by why his family had to do endure this again and again. Is it denial of climate change by political leaders? Corporate greed? Lack of preparedness? It’s a mess of things, he concluded, compounded by all the other messes — a health-care system that encourages ER visits instead of facilitating primary care, under-regulated industries seeping toxins into the air and ground, congressional stagnation as fetid as the canal waters behind his block.

“My wife is sick,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to live like this. This is not America.”

Part III: The kindness of neighbors

As the days without power blended together interminably, the neighbors of Yorktowne Drive pulled together. People helped get generators working and shared gasoline. Neighbors checked in on each other and carpooled to the store: “We are beyond neighbors. … This is family,” said LaKeisha Crouch.

Neighbors occasionally cooked together, using up the food rapidly defrosting in their powerless refrigerators. One night, Crouch held an impromptu BBQ, and others came by with chicken, fish and other food that had defrosted. “I can’t wait until this is over,” said Crouch. “Then we can laugh about it, instead of cry.”

Ross worried ceaselessly about her cats, one of the few sources of consistent comfort during the weeks without electricity. By the bulb of a flashlight, she brushed the fur one of them, named Ma Moo.

Meal-distribution centers had sprung up, though they brought their own complications. Driving to a nearby community with power for a cooked breakfast meant using ever-more expensive gas. But sometimes, it was the best option.

Whenever they saw the car lines at a church or school close by, the Watkinses joined the throngs inching past the “hot meals” signs. “I’m afraid I’m going to get used to this,” Jasmine Watkins said, speaking beneath the surviving carport of her home. It’s a miracle it was still standing: Her mother had built it to protect her car and never imagined it would deliver the shelter their house could no longer offer.

Sandy Watkins said the sense of community helped her feel like herself again. She went from having her hands tremble incessantly to serenity one week after Ida. The 58-year-old has not had it easy since her husband died young in their marriage and she was left to raise their children alone.

Watkins worked two jobs and parented by phone, she said, but found her way through it with faith and help of her community. She was lost for a while in the wake of this storm but found herself again — with the help of a window A/C unit to replace her nonfunctioning central air-conditioning system. “I finally just started crying and started fighting,” said Watkins.

Jasmine Watkins wasn’t feeling the same sense of positivity. She was anxious to wash her hair but didn’t trust the water. She needed the growing mound of trash on the curb to be collected. She was scared to touch it after seeing plump white maggots feasting on the rot. Jasmine used a spray bottle of bleach water to keep flies away from their carport sanctuary, lest it also become too uncomfortable. The grass was growing tall around them, providing perfect obscurity for the black snakes she hates.

“Ida, Ida, Ida, what have you done?” goes the first lines of a rap Jasmine has been writing. “You done came through, and everything done sunk.”

As the days without power melted into a numbing sameness, neighbors here kept each other company. The fatigue was briefly alleviated by moments of levity. The nights were so dark that once-dim stars shined brightly. LaKeisha Crouch marveled and thought of her late mother: “Hi, mom!” she said, whispering to the sky.

Dolezal and Crouch tried to smoke away their stress on the hood of Dolezal’s car, worn with miles. The back seat was filled with blankets and pillows. A plastic container of fruit loops and loaves of bread were pinched in between clothes and bags Dolezal lugged around like a hurricane vagabond.

He had been doing regular runs to nearby states to find gasoline to power the block’s generators.

Ronald “Sweetie” Crouch’s years of working on tugboat engines prepared him for a time such as this. When the Watkinses’ generator stopped working late one night, Crouch examined the inner machinery and diagnosed the cause to be an overworked engine.

He spent an hour draining blackened liquid from their generator before Emmett Tillery III walked over to help. “You need engine oil,” he advised, before instructing his daughter to retrieve the same oil he had bought for himself that morning, to use it instead in the Watkinses’ generator.

“Sweetie is a lifesaver,” Watkins said. The motor coughed gray smoke, sputtered and shrieked before it was made the sound Jasmine Watkins knew was the right one.

“This is a neighborhood that takes care of each other,” said Kiana Gautreaux, who grew up on the street.

Part IV: Lights on

The power returned to Yorktowne Drive on Sept. 19, more than three weeks after Hurricane Ida made landfall. But before that, there were signs of recovery. Gas and food were easier to find. The water was working again, though intermittently. Even so, there was a sense of uneasiness among the neighbors. No one thought this was the last time they would have to pull together like this.

As the weeks without power wore on, the neighborhood eased back into its old routine. Neighbors cleaned out their waterlogged homes in anticipation of debris pickup. Grandmothers walked their grandbabies down the street. Kids played games outside.

But anxiety lingered. Southeast Louisiana is home, but you can’t build anything here, Jasmine Watkins worried. At 25, she had goals, wants and things to do, but she also had a mother who needs her. She wanted to continue her collegiate studies in health-care management, taking after Sandy Watkins, who worked in a hospital for 18 years before an injury ended her working life.

But can she do it in LaPlace?

Watkins has kept a journal of verses she composes when life gets overwhelming. The idea came from one of her college instructors, who assigned the class to write songs about everyday life.

Writing sanctifies the ugly feelings that threaten to incapacitate her. She locks those thoughts in her heart, for fear of upsetting the rest of her family, and puts it on paper. Watkins rereads her entries after the suffering has passed. She wondered when she would be ready to read the Ida chronicles.

That feeling echoed across the 1300 block of Yorktowne Drive. The families here are borne up by their community. Breakdowns are repelled by a neighborly chat. The people on this block can turn to each other to improvise as best they know how. They are not without because they have within.

But that collective experience does not change reality: Their southeastern Louisiana parish, like so many other areas across the country, requires more to face a changing climate of ever-more-violent weather. Their infrastructure is too old. Their local government is too under-resourced. And this will not the be the last American neighborhood block to endure the disruption, displacement and chaos of powerlessness.

But whatever happens next: “We know we all got each other,” said LaKeisha Crouch.