The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
Sep. 5—Six days after Hurricane Ida severed New Orleans from the electric grid, a smattering of residents on Saturday took the city up on its offer for bus transportation to state-run shelters, while officials began offering limited bed space for those with medical needs at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
Around 600 people showed up at the Convention Center for rides out of town, many arriving on Regional Transit Authority buses departing from a dozen locations throughout the city. Shelter seekers toting backpacks and duffel bags registered with city staff, who handed out identification wristbands. The state-contracted coach buses departed throughout the day with 40 to 50 passengers aboard, destined for shelters outside of the metro area.
Entergy had restored power to about 32% of the city as of Saturday evening, and utility officials said the “vast majority” should be online by Sept. 8. While a clear timeline for the return of power was welcome news, it had also become evident that some elderly and vulnerable people were suffering amid daily triple-digit heat indexes.
“Some of them are going to have difficulty moving through the weekend into next week, even if power is restored,” said Collin Arnold, the city’s emergency preparedness director, who was supervising departures at the Convention Center on Saturday.
In the storm’s immediate aftermath, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said she did not believe a post-storm evacuation would be necessary, but on Thursday, after days of sweltering heat, she announced that the city was working with state and federal agencies to set up transportation to shelters across the state.
The effort began Friday with direct pickups from certain senior housing complexes where officials had become aware of residents needing help. A wider effort got underway Saturday, when RTA buses began the process of ferrying people to the Convention Center from designated pick-up spots in city neighborhoods.
After arriving at the Convention Center, shelter seekers registered with city staff and waited their turn to board a coach bus. They were not told of their destination until after boarding.
“That would be helpful, so I can let my folks know,” said Courtney Davenport, 40, as he waited to board.
Arnold said he understood how the uncertainty could induce anxiety, but he said drivers receive their final instructions from state officials with the Department of Children and Family Services after the last person boards and there is a concrete head count. Only then can dispatchers match the bus with a shelter with guaranteed space.
“The biggest question we get, particularly from the person that is leaving, is ‘Where am I going?’ Unfortunately it’s not a simple answer. We just don’t know,” Arnold said. “What we don’t want is showing up somewhere that’s full, and a five to six hour trip becomes potentially a significantly longer trip. We want people to get there, immediately get off the bus and be welcomed.”
Bus departures are running from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with room for 2,300 people per day; 565 had registered within a few minutes of closing time. The number of people seeking rides out of New Orleans on the first day that buses became available is about equal to those who departed Jefferson Parish — which, unlike New Orleans, lost water service as well as power — since it started offering rides on Monday.
Arnold said the timing of the decision to offer bus access was based on a number of factors, including the completion of Entergy’s damage assessments.
“We had to decide, and make a trigger point where we were substantially assured that we were going to go through maybe another several days without power, and that was Thursday,” Arnold said.
Since the day after Ida struck, Entergy has consistently said it would take at least a week — if not far longer — to get power back to the bulk of the city’s residents and businesses.
There were 3,246 people in 28 shelters across the state on Saturday, according to state officials, but aside from large drive-up, general population shelters that the Red Cross is running Alexandria and Baton Rouge, the shelter locations were not clear.
“Where and which shelters are open is fluid,” said Department of Children and Family services spokesperson Sean Ellis, when asked for their locations.
Apart from the makeshift bus depot, the Convention Center is also the venue for the city’s limited-capacity emergency shelter for people with special medical needs. As of Saturday there were beds for 50 people needing support along with their caregivers. The city’s medical director, Dr. Jennifer Avegno, said she expects the capacity to quadruple soon.
Avegno said there were nearly 3,500 people signed up on the special needs registry, and the Convention Center shelter would accommodate Jefferson Parish residents as well.
“We have a good sense of who the most fragile are, who would be appropriate, so we have been really drilling down on them,” Avegno said.
William Lewis, 65, hoped to get to the shelter on Saturday via an RTA bus leaving from the Rosenwald Center on South Broad Street. But he suffered a medical emergency while waiting for the bus to depart and was taken away by ambulance.
Before the emergency, Lewis, who is blind, said he had resorted to multiple overnight stays at University Medical Center after suffering heat-induced seizures at his Chef Menteur Highway apartment.
Lewis returned home after his first hospital stay on Sept. 1, he said, but he went back when the seizures started up again. Hospital staff sent Lewis to Rosenwald Center in a taxi on Saturday morning, he said.
“They said you are already on the list for special needs, but they said ain’t nobody going out of town,” Lewis said. “I went to the hospital, and they were talking about all they could do is keep me overnight.”
Staff writers Faimon Roberts and Jeff Adelson contributed to this report
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