With nearly 600,000 Louisiana residents without access to clean water, and hundreds of thousands still without power, the federal government granted disaster approvals for several more parishes Tuesday, extending access to emergency aid to thousands whose homes were wrecked from Hurricane Laura.
Still, residents of 14 more parishes were awaiting the same disaster declaration granted to nine parishes so far. The state and utility companies were racing to fix immense damage to infrastructure – particularly water and electricity systems – that are contributing to a slowly-growing number of people being sheltered by the state.
As of Tuesday, the number of people in state-provided hotels or mega shelters inched up to 11,106, Gov. John Bel Edwards told reporters Tuesday. Far more were staying in hotels or with family on their own after their homes took on damage.
The governor said the state is making “considerable progress” getting generators to water stations to restart pumps. Several utilities didn’t have generators to begin with – violating state rules – while others saw their generators fail after the storm.
And perhaps most concerning, several water systems, including the one providing water to 85,000 in Lake Charles, took on severe damage and could take weeks to fix, officials have said.
More than 167,000 people may not have access to water because of outages related to Laura, according to Louisiana Department of Health records. Another 416,000 people across a wide swath of the state were under a boil advisory, meaning 583,464 people might not be getting any water or have to boil it before using safely.
Mike Steele, a spokesperson for the state’s emergency department, said the water issues is one of the main reasons there was still a mandatory evacuation order in place for Calcasieu Parish, which includes Lake Charles. Local officials there have told people to prepare for weeks potentially without access to water or power.
“Obviously what’s driving people to the shelter is some combination of their home not being safe, habitable and secure, not having power and not having water,” Edwards said. “And for many people in our shelter that’s going to be all three.”
More than 250,000 people across Louisiana remained without power Tuesday, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks outages. Entergy officials said severe transmission damage – and in some cases complete destruction of equipment – across Cameron and Calcasieu parishes was preventing power from being restored in southwest Louisiana.
Entergy built a $1 billion power station in Lake Charles that went online in March, but Entergy and the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities declined to discuss damage to the station, citing its impact on national markets for the sale of electricity.
But Brandon Frey, secretary of the Public Service Commission, said the damage to the transmission lines means no power is being manufactured in Lake Charles.
“This is the worst damage to the transmission grid ever,” Frey said.
Transmission lines move high capacities of electricity from the plant where its made to the substations where the power is stepped down for distribution to homes and businesses.
About 1,200 transmission towers were destroyed, according to the PSC, and a shipment of new towers from Florida is expected this weekend to add to backups. It takes four 18-wheelers to cart in a single new tower.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved Edwards’ request for assistance for three additional parishes: Acadia, Ouachita and Vermilion. That brings the total to nine, including Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron, Jefferson Davis and Vernon, though 14 parishes still awaited action from the feds.
The declaration will give residents in the parishes the ability to tap into federal disaster aid, including $500 cash payments for critical needs for those displaced by the storm. The state is urging anyone who suffered damage in the storm to register, even if they aren’t sure they qualify.
Edwards advised people in the remaining 14 parishes to "be patient" and said his administration is advocating to the feds that they be added to the list. He also said the state is delivering food, water, ice, tarps and other equipment to all affected areas.
The governor called the damage from Laura "horrific" and "catastrophic" and said it was worse than Hurricane Rita in 2005. More than 6,100 National Guard troops were responding to the disaster, clearing thousands of miles of roadways and delivering more than 28,000 tarps to serve as temporary roofs.
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy on Tuesday also asked FEMA and the Small Business Administration to reverse its decision to host virtual recovery centers instead of traditional “boots-on-the-ground” recovery centers, saying it could “unnecessarily prolong the recovery process” for people who were affected by the storm.
“Louisianans cannot afford to wait until reliable power and internet are restored to apply for federal relief, disaster loans and other necessary steps virtually,” Kennedy wrote in the letter to FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor and SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza.
“I respectfully ask that you reconsider the decision to make disaster center resources ‘virtual.’ We need boots on the ground, not bureaucrats with iPads on Zoom.”
Mark Ballard of the Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.