After weathering Hurricane Ida in a Hammond Red Cross shelter Sunday night, Dianna Shell had just one thing on her mind: going home to rescue her dog.

The two were separated during the storm because Shell had no idea the hurricane was approaching her doorstep, she said. Living in the woods near Ponchatoula without cable television, she learned about Ida when she went to get gas Sunday afternoon and was stopped by police, who brought her to the shelter in Hammond. 

Four days later, Shell hitched a ride back home and swam through floodwater to reach the door, she said. The house was destroyed but the journey was worth it. Her best friend, a former stray named Brandywine, survived the storm.

Shell threw the roughly 50-pound dog over her shoulders, waded down the driveway and started plotting their next move.

For many in Hammond and surrounding communities, the road to recovery looks long and arduous after hurricane-force winds uprooted trees and left the electric grid in chaos, with downed power lines and broken utility poles tangled alongside rural roads and highways. Nearly all of Hammond's 21,000-plus residents remained without power Saturday, and Entergy officials said Tangipahoa Parish would likely have to endure some outages until Sept. 17. 

BR.hammondpower.090421 09 mw.JPG

Several of the last remaining cots in the shelter at Greenville Leadership Academy hold evacuee’s belongings in Hammond, La., on Saturday, September 4, 2021. The shelter is scheduled to close at 8 a.m. today.

But the city planned to close its Red Cross shelter at Greenville Park Leadership Academy early Sunday morning, offering displaced residents a shuttle to the River Center in downtown Baton Rouge, according to Red Cross volunteers. 

For Shell and others, that was simply too far. Shell wants to stay close to Brandywine, who found temporary housing in the parish animal shelter. Another family said they had little gas and almost no money for the trip. They weighed their options, including a shelter in Kentwood that will remain open longer.

Parish President Robby Miller said Saturday evening officials are closing some shelters that were without proper air conditioning, trying to get people into better accommodations. He said the shelter at Kentwood High School, which is air conditioned, will remain open as long as needed. He said displaced pets will also be kept safe.

"These facilities were a last resort to get you through the first few days, but we need longer-term, better solutions to take care of our citizens," Miller said. "There's nothing ideal about being out of your house."

The parish is also reeling after the emergency evacuation Thursday of about 800 nursing home residents, who had been relocated to an overcrowded Independence warehouse before Ida made landfall, then subjected to inhumane conditions after the air conditioning failed and other problems arose. Seven patients have died and various state agencies are investigating. 

After taking care of her dog, Shell hoped her flooded car was drivable. Her first stop would be waiting in line for gas amid dire shortages still plaguing most of southeast Louisiana. Then she needed to replace her cell phone, which died when the car flooded, and call FEMA for housing assistance. 

But all she wanted to talk about was Brandywine, a pit bull and Catahoula hound mix who had been abandoned several months earlier, then adopted by Shell.

"She cried like a baby when I got home, and so did I," Shell said, sitting on her cot inside the Red Cross shelter Saturday afternoon. She held up her yellow wristband bearing the name of the local pet evacuation shelter, pledging to find a new home soon — for her and Brandywine.

While Shell was destitute because her house flooded, she was in the minority. Most Tangipahoa residents escaped rising waters but faced extended power outages during the sweltering summer heat. After days of being literally in the dark, some residents said a Saturday morning projection from Entergy — indicating the Sept. 17 restoration date — gave them some hope.

"I'm just praying it won't take longer," said Teresa Ragusa, staring mournfully at a tangled mess of power lines outside her downtown Hammond house. "I keep trying to pretend we're camping."

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

Ragusa had two granddaughters staying with her because their house had no running water. The girls, ages 9 and 11, had just gone back to school before the storm hit, and now even virtual classes are impossible for the foreseeable future, let alone extracurricular activities.

They were bored. Bored with picking up fallen branches, washing laundry in the utility sink and eating canned food.

BR.hammondpower.090421 05 mw.JPG

Clothes dry on the fence at Teresa Ragusa’s home during the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Hammond, La., on Saturday, September 4, 2021. Ragusa has washed her clothes in a utility sink under her carport since losing power due to the storm.

At least they could shower. Their mom and stepdad, meanwhile, were lugging water from their pool to flush the toilet. Their house north of Hammond has well water, but the pump stopped working when the power went out. Tara Lightner described how she and her husband would pass buckets of pool water through the bathroom window.

They have a small gas generator, which is powerful enough to run two fans and charge their phones but not enough to run the pump. Late Saturday morning, the fans were aimed at their 15-month-old son, Asher, who was rolling around in his playpen, sometimes screaming and intermittently throwing stuffed animals onto the floor. 

"Everyone is hot," Tara Lightner said. She had hardly slept the night before between the heat and a toothache, which recently started bothering her.

Her husband, Howard Daniel Lightner, is a truckdriver — a blessing because he can bring home gas from faraway places, but a curse because he has to leave his family for days on end under dire conditions. 

A few miles away at the Courtyard Apartments, Charles Rapp and Shirley Montgomery were keeping each other company Saturday afternoon, sitting in the sliver of shade produced by an overhang. 

BR.hammondpower.090421 06 mw.JPG

Shirley Montgomery (right) and Charles Rapp try to keep cool in the shade in front of their damaged apartment buildings during the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Hammond, La., on Saturday, September 4, 2021.

"We're too old and too hot, just sitting out here looking at the birds and the mess," Rapp said with a resigned smile.

Downed trees and power lines littered their complex, though the buildings received miraculously little damage. The two neighbors drank warm water and commiserated, hoping someone would come bring ice, which is almost as elusive as gas these days.

Rapp said he feels resources are lacking for some residents, especially those without reliable transportation. He gets around on a bike, which makes things even more difficult because most shelters and food distribution locations are accessible only by car, Rapp said.

Montgomery, who does drive, got into an accident Tuesday while trying to run errands after the storm. She swerved to avoid a fallen tree and wound up striking another, causing significant damage to the frontend of her car, she said. She was hoping for a rental, which would allow her to return to work as a home health aide.

Miller, the parish president, said if people are desperate for supplies and lacking transportation, they can call the Tangipahoa Parish government for assistance at (985) 748-3211.

Meanwhile in downtown Hammond, the owners and regulars at The Red, White & Brew — a bar and liquor store on East Thomas Street — were making the most of a sticky situation Saturday afternoon. Owner Todd Delaune said he reopened earlier in the week after customers donated a generator and some gas to keep the business up and running. That was enough to power some industrial fans and an ice machine. 

BR.hammondpower.090421 10 mw.JPG

Todd Delaune, owner of Red, White & Brew, points out the signs of storm damage in downtown Hammond during the aftermath of Hurricane Ida on Saturday, September 4, 2021. Red, White & Brew is one of the few stores in downtown Hammond, La., open and providing beverages and wifi to the many residents without power.

"You bring me gas, I give you booze," Delaune said, smiling widely. "We're kind of reverting to a barter system. Here in Hammond, people come together."

The mood was jovial and Delaune was hopeful electricity would return to downtown soon. In the meantime, he said, everyone is welcome to come have a drink. 


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.