Unexpectedly Off-Grid: Dispatches from a Louisiana Hurricane Survivor

New Orleans resident Charles P. found himself without power during Hurricane Ida’s 2021 landfall in the French Quarter. His journal recounts the devastation and will to recover.

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by Unsplash/ Brian McGowan

Hunkered down in a 131-year-old house in the historic French Quarter neighborhood, Charles P., a native of New Orleans, rode out Hurricane Ida with his dog, Gator. He had made a calculation to stay home rather than evacuate based on the storm’s forecasted track, but a fateful last-minute shift to the east brought stronger winds and darkness to the region.

Charles unexpectedly faced life off the grid for about 72 hours. Though he was somewhat prepared, he was caught off guard because the longest power outage anyone in his neighborhood could recall lasted only a few hours. In the French Quarter, home to myriad hotels and restaurants, utilities are buried underground and resume service faster when pitted against hurricane-force winds. But, an accident upriver affected his neighborhood for the worse.

Ironically, Hurricane Ida made landfall on August 29, exactly 16 years to the day that Hurricane Katrina had lashed the city and flooded nearly 80 percent of homes. What follows are excerpts from Charles’ journal, including one from 2005

Dispatches from the Storm

August 27, 2:10 pm. As of now, subject to change, I am planning to stay. The feds built a mega multi-billion-dollar levee ring around New Orleans. This will be its first serious test. My current neighborhood did not flood in Hurricane Katrina and, to the best of my knowledge, this old house built in 1890 has stood the test of time. Crossing fingers and toes. Stocked up on food and water.

Friend responds, “Well, okay, but we’ll be worried the whole time. I’m hearing reports about how this is different than Katrina on a number of levels.” With the storm’s forward speed slowing down and the intensity increasing, Ida’s surge may overtop some levees that protect parts of New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi River, said Heath Jones, emergency manager at the Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans District.

August 28, 6:26 pm. Been keeping an eye on the local updates all day. They differ from the national news and weather channels, which tend to paint with a broader brush. They are more specific in breaking down the threat to different parishes (counties). Orleans Parish has a levee-protection system that other parishes do not. The situation includes uncertainty, though they are forecasting the worst impacts west of the city.

August 29, 7:00 pm. Lost power about 30 minutes ago. Appreciate the calls & texts but now need to conserve battery. Have a back-up battery pack fully charged and candles. Flashlight and extra batteries. Plenty food and water. So far, so good. No water in the street. House is old construction (130 years). Not shaking or anything. Dog is glued to me. Fingers crossed. Set an intention that house, Gator, and I will come out of this okay. If I don’t respond, it’s for battery conservation.

August 29, 9:58 pm. Channel 8 News: “…says a transmission tower that provides power for New Orleans and the east bank of the parish has collapsed into the river near Bridge City. …cables strung across the Mississippi River are now in the water… All eight major transmission lines are down, according to Entergy.”

August 29, 11:30 pm. Gator and I are okay. The wind has died down. Have door open for air. Dog ran outside, a good sign. Power is out. See my last post: tower collapsed into river. Very bad news. Still raining. That will be a problem in low lying areas if the pumps can’t handle it. Made “Tacos del Hurricane Ida” by flashlight. For real! Dinner by candlelight. Not aware of any damage to the house (a good sign). Will take a look in daylight. Feeling fortunate and blessed. Thanks for caring.

On Monday, Charles awoke to no power, and no cell service. An AT&T tower was also knocked offline. A neighbor let him use her cell phone (Verizon) to call a friend who posted on social media that Charles, his dog, and home were safe. Later, on August 30, he was able to receive and send text messages. Internet service, at 3G speeds, not LTE/5G, was established in the early evening. Cell service for calls was restored the next day, Tuesday.

August 30, 6:58 pm. No power, no cell. Just starting to get texts and data. House, Gator and I are okay. Did not flood here, but power could be out for a long time. Car was locked in a communal garage down the street, but with help of neighbor “McGuyver,” got the gate off its electric hinges and removed the car. More options to stay or leave now. Large tree across the street fell down, plus one down the block. Fridge still cold. Lots of water. Hanging in there. Again, I need to conserve battery. May not reply.

August 30, 11:20 pm. Due to power, cell, and data outages, I haven’t seen much news. In fact, this morning, I had no information–which was quite unnerving. I finally got a connection. This article from the Wall Street Journal seems like a good summary.

High Heat Complicates Recovery

One of the most crippling aspects of the power outage was the heat and humidity in New Orleans in late August. The heat index was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for several days in a row.

Charles says he was aware of this danger, adding, “I basically stayed outdoors quite a bit after Hurricane Ida, sitting outside on the stoop in the shade for extended periods at all hours. There was often a gentle breeze coming off the Mississippi River. One night, I took a joy ride with my neighbor while she charged her phone with the car’s A/C on full blast. I kept hydrated and took a lot of showers to cool down too.” During this time, staying cool literally meant survival.

August 31, Tuesday 9 pm. Gator and I are doing fine. Might actually be sweating off a few pounds in the heat. The power situation in New Orleans remains an unknown. Estimates for repairs vary wildly. Power will be allocated to hospitals, nursing homes, police and fire stations first. Makes sense. I still have food and water, but that’s unsustainable if this lasts much longer. Maddeningly, cell and data drift in and out of service. Text messages fail.

Thanks to some gracious offers from the Houston area, my current plan is to head that way unless the power snaps back on. My thought is to move between hosts in two- to three-day increments so as not to wear out my welcome. A former Couchsurfer from San Antonio also contacted me. This plan is a work in progress. Message me if you have any ideas. My little rescue miniature poodle will be with me. Fully vaccinated and the dog is up to date on shots.

While preparing to evacuate, Charles knew better than to leave perishable food behind in the refrigerator, especially if the power was going to be off for weeks as initially forecast. In Hurricane Katrina, food left in freezers turned to toxic sludge. Appliances had to be scrapped because they were considered a bio-hazard. Alas, when he opened his freezer for the first time on day three, everything had already defrosted. The bottom of the freezer was a sickening soup. Everything had to be tossed except for fruits and vegetables.

Power Restores and Taking in a New Friend

September 1, 9:11pm. OMG! Let there be light. (Lower French Quarter; no info on other neighborhoods.

September 2nd Thursday 9 p.m. Power is on and stable (water in fridge stayed cold overnight). Air conditioning worked all day. Tap water never cut off; sewage working. Still have food and water (plenty dog food too!). I’m extremely humbled by the outpouring of offers for shelter and help. Considering that things in my specific location are calm, I’ve decided to stay (subject to change if things deteriorate). That said, I was really looking forward to seeing all my friends in Texas. Hugs all around.

To payback your generosity, I took in a senior dog temporarily. Sky is 16, deaf, partially blind, and has arthritis. Her human is a nurse at Ochsner Hospital who got called into work for several days (they will house her on campus while she works). Her place does not have power, thus she could not leave Sky alone inside in the heat.

Of course I said yes immediately. Gator seems to like his new friend. By helping each other out, we make this world a much better place. Thanks for being such wonderful people. I love you all.

Sunday, September 5th. Gator and I took a drive today. Lots of trees down (the roads have pretty much all been cleared near here). New Orleans is a ghost town. Grocery was reasonably well-stocked considering the situation. Currently at a bar visiting friends. To keep hydrated, only drinking water (I barely drink alcohol anyway).

Sunday September 5th ???? Gator ???? and I took a drive today. Lots of trees down (the roads have pretty much all been cleared near here). New Orleans is a ghost town. Grocery was reasonably well-stocked considering the situation. Currently at a bar visiting friends. To keep hydrated, only drinking water (I barely drink alcohol anyway).

Friday September 10th

A fleet of power trucks rolling through New Orleans. Quite a beautiful sight. I hope they’re headed to some of the harder hit  communities southwest of here now.

Charles was lucky to get back on the grid after only 72 hours. He says friends in New Orleans endured nine to 14 days without power. The heat killed nearly a dozen people as a result of heat exhaustion.

The Greatest Killer in New Orleans Wasn’t the Hurricane. It Was the Heat.

Lessons Learned from a Hurricane Survivor

Before Hurricane Ida hit, Charles charged up his power brick — normally used only to jump his hybrid car — as it had USB outputs from which he was able to charge his phone four times. He never thought of charging his phone in the car until a neighbor mentioned taking a cruise in air conditioning while charging her phone. He said that ride was a great relief from the heat! He also figured out that his car charger was outdated and has already ordered a more modern one.

Charles reports that he learned some lessons in Hurricane Ida, though he’s frustrated by current regulations in the city. Because he lives in a historic district, solar panels are forbidden. Staunch preservationists fear they would change the character of the 303-year-old neighborhood. He’s also wary of gas-powered generators, because of reports of carbon monoxide poisoning. They are supposed to be kept at least 20 feet from the house, but Charles says his back alley is only 8 feet wide at most.

Living in the French Quarter has its charms, but his location can be considered a liability in the modern world when forced off the grid with insufficient preparation and rules that prohibit residents from having backup solar power.

A past entry from 16 years ago, reflecting on 2005

Katrina: There was no turning back, no going home. Simply put, there was no home to go back to. It was a stark, sobering reality. By Tuesday, August 30, 2005, we had seen enough television footage and heard enough reports on WWL Radio to know that our fate was sealed. Now, we were facing uncharted waters. We chose Dallas because we had family there, and I figured the grandkids would be of comfort to Mom.

With all of this going on, I also had a commitment to Ragan Communications to deliver a Webinar on Wednesday (the show must go on!). It was time to leave Texarkana and trek to a big city where there would be better resources for evacuees, and better phone and Internet service so I could work (my New Orleans-based cell was all but dead save for text messages).

I’m very grateful to the many people and places who aided us in our time of need. Extended StayAmerica (Arlington, Texas), Jason’s Deli, Ragan Communications, International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Tom, Ayelet, Shel, Michele, Steve, Cindy, Michael, Jennifer W. and much of IABC/Canada, Russell G., BBC News, IABC Europe, Middle East, North Africa, and countless individuals. If I missed your name, please know that I love you and accept my apologies.

A little-known fact after the storm was the fact our bank cards failed. They were issued by a New Orleans bank which maintained a back-up in New Orleans. With the mandatory evacuation, our bank cards ceased to work when the emergency generators ran out of fuel. The bank managed to get a physical copy of the back-up and said they were taking it to Monroe, La., to bring the system back up. But that was about a 10-day ordeal and outage. Luckily, we had packed travelers checks in our emergency getaway box “just in case.”

Aur Beck has lived completely off-grid for over 35 years and he works as Chief Tech for AES Solar. He can be reached at tech@AESsolar.com . He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International  and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!? and Facebook.

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