As tens of thousands of New Orleans residents remain without power and basic services in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, the situation on the ground has changed rapidly. Reporters who stayed behind for the storm have described surreal scenes and widespread disorder. One journalist still in the city is Emily Woodruff, who, as a health reporter for the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, has had a unique vantage on the chaos the hurricane unleashed on a city already reeling from a sharp spike in COVID cases. We spoke Tuesday night about the deadliest part of the storm, the situation on the ground now, and what people outside the city don’t understand. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Aymann Ismail: Where were you when the hurricane hit the city?
Emily Woodruff: We had set up a mobile newsroom at a hotel that had enough backup generators to power the whole building. A lot of buildings in New Orleans are very old. Certain places are built to withstand certain wind speed. A lot of residences are not built that way. So in order to safely stay, our newsroom managers just felt like that was the safest place for us to be.
What did you see when you looked out the window as the hurricane arrived?
It was extremely windy. All of the trees were—I don’t know if they were bending, but the branches were just being blown in this horizontal line. There’s a very high-pitched sound the wind makes when it gets so fast it whips around buildings. Anyone outside would not have been able to stand up straight.
When did you and other reporters go outside?
The day after, we sent reporters out fanned throughout southeast Louisiana with gas and vehicles that can safely travel. Roads are a limited resource right now. We were just trying to be strategic about where people are sent. I remained in New Orleans. I kept in touch with hospitals and tried to just figure out how they made it through the storm. And now I’m going around the city to places where vulnerable people might be to see how their living conditions are affecting their health.
Older people can’t go without power that long. They’re really susceptible to heat-related illnesses. So I went to a few living facilities, independent living, where there are people who have medical devices who might have an electric wheelchair or a breathing machine or heart monitor, and they don’t have power for those things.
What state are the hospitals in right now?
The hospitals in New Orleans and most of the coastal parishes are on generator power. I was talking to a hospital CEO today, and he said something like, hospital CEOs learn to have a love-hate relationship with generators, because at some point something goes wrong, and one of them fails. So that’s just to say things are a little precarious. When generators overheat, they shut down. If that happens to a backup generator too, then you might have a floor without power for a bit. And I think they know how to respond, but it’s just very, very stressful, and that’s not good for patients either.
Have you seen what the emergency rooms look like? Do you know if a lot of people got hurt in the hurricane?
A lot of hospitals were damaged enough to be evacuated post-storm. There was a lot of roof damage. There are videos you can see. The shingles are just flying off all at once, which, obviously, lets in a lot of water. But even at the evacuated hospitals, the emergency rooms remain open. What I’m hearing now is that a lot of people are coming in with injuries from after the hurricane. After the hurricane, everyone goes out and surveys the damage, and people get hurt because trees and things are still falling. Maybe they went up on the roof to see what happened, and they fall.
It’s also been 36 hours where people can’t even get on the roads. People could have had heart attacks or any kind of medical emergency at home, and they are just starting to show up at ERs now. One hospital in a place that was pretty hard-hit told me they had like 100 people in their emergency room today and still people are waiting for beds. So hospitals were already pretty full. Even before a hurricane, you discharge as many people as you can, but now they’re getting full again.
How does COVID play into all of this?
We reached a COVID peak about two weeks ago now. Hospitals were at more than 3,000 COVID patients, possibly beyond, the highest it’s ever been. If this had all happened at once, that would have been really shocking, but it did drop a little bit by the time the storm came. Hurricane shelters are also not good places in terms of viral transmission. You hope that you won’t see it go back up so high, but a lot of people are going to be in situations that they can’t help but be surrounded by people.
How has the city’s response changed from the devastating failures during Hurricane Katrina?
People are a lot more prepared, both officials and residents. They’ve been through a lot. I think it’s a similar situation, as far as that we don’t really know when we’ll be back. We don’t really know when the city will be functioning again. Parents have been told school is simply not in session right now. So I think it’s a similar feeling for people wondering, “When am I going to be able to get back home? Do I have a home to get back to?” Life was already feeling pretty abnormal. At the beginning of the summer, I hoped COVID cases would keep going down, but then they got higher than ever. And just as that was starting to plateau, this happened. So it’s just been, for a lot of people, a very difficult and abnormal year and a half. It’s definitely a disaster on top of a disaster.
It looks like there’s going to be more rain for three days straight. And on that third day, it’s going to be 90 degrees. What are the biggest challenges in the next couple of days?
I’m the health reporter, so I’m thinking about all the ways that heat makes people sick. It makes medical conditions people already have worse. We have a huge population with diabetes and heart problems. People need to keep their insulin cold. It has to be refrigerated. I don’t know how they do that without assistance. People have special diets they need to stick to, and I don’t know how you do that when the food is what you can get. And I think mental health is a really big issue too. This has just been a hard year for folks, especially for some of the people who had a tree come through their home or had their roof fly off, and maybe they have a loved one in the hospital and they can’t reach some directly. They’re having to email a general email address and say, “Can you please give me an update on this person?” That’s just a lot for people to handle.
What do people outside of New Orleans need to know about to better understand what’s unfolding there now?
I don’t think people really understand what it means to live without power. People keep being like, “Can I send you something?” And I’m like, well, the mail is going to be not functioning for a while. They’re like, “Well, I hope the power comes back on sooner.” And well, it’s probably not. Even giving an interview like this, I’m thinking, “OK, how much phone battery do I have? When can I get back to somewhere I can charge my phone? Where’s my connection going to be good?” I think people just don’t understand the logistics of living without power.
OK, I’m only going to ask you one more question then. Why did you decide to stay to report during a hurricane?
I felt like I had a secure place. I don’t have any medical conditions that I know of that would give me a lot of trouble in heat. And I don’t have children. If those things were different, I would have left. So I felt like the best way that I can help is to be here and to tell people about what’s happening.
Today, when I was in the senior living facility, people kept asking, “Are you with FEMA? Are you with this organization, or are you our management? Did they send you to help us?” And I was like, “No, but I hope that that help will come if we talk about this more.” So I think that’s why I stayed.