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The Death Toll From Ida's Severe Weather Continues To Rise

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The death toll is climbing from severe weather in the United States. In the Northeast, more than 40 people have died from catastrophic floods caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida. In the South, the hurricane has killed at least 13 people. Our reporters are covering the damage up and down the East Coast.

I'm going to begin with NPR's Jasmine Garsd in New York. Jasmine, I know you were out about yesterday. What were you seeing there, and what can you tell us about what the storm has done to other parts in the Northeast?

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Yeah. Yesterday, New York City was slow. Subway services were experiencing a faltering start. It was more crowded than usual. I tried to get around Manhattan. And it was quite an odyssey.

In New Jersey and Philadelphia, there were several tornadoes. So there are dozens of homes that have just been leveled. And communities from Pennsylvania to Upstate New York are still dealing with flooding. And, you know, beyond the physical damage, the loss of life has been astounding - 46 people across several states in the mid-Atlantic.

MARTINEZ: And the thing is, everyone knew the storms were coming. But it just seemed to catch everyone off guard. What are officials in these communities saying about preparedness?

GARSD: Yeah. I think there was a big element of surprise. We knew it was going to storm. But even myself, as I made my way back home Wednesday night in a quickly flooding Brooklyn, I thought, wow, this is a lot worse than I thought it would be.

Yesterday, Governor Kathy Hochul was touring New York City and reviewing the storm damage. And I thought her message was so interesting. This is our new reality is what she was saying. And we need to now focus on preparing for it - fix the drainage system, make sure the subways can handle this. And here she is speaking yesterday from Long Island.

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KATHY HOCHUL: People have been warning for decades that the effect of climate change and what it would do to our communities, it's happening right now. It is not a future threat. It is a current situation. And it is the status quo.

GARSD: I think this marks a pivot point. We're no longer trying to prevent climate change. It's here. So what she's saying is let's adopt.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. And most people who died from the flooding died in their homes. I mean, what questions about housing are now being raised because of Ida?

GARSD: Well, the flooding and the subsequent deaths have raised the issue of illegal housing. About a dozen of the people who died here in New York were living in basement units. And we know one family who drowned in Queens - a toddler and parents - were living in an illegal basement unit that had not been approved for habitation. So housing - affordable housing, this has always been an issue in New York City. But during the pandemic, it's gotten significantly worse. And my sense is that if we're going to talk about infrastructure improvement for future storms and flash floods, there needs to be a conversation about people's living conditions in the city.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Now we're going to turn to our New Orleans. That's where NPR's Liz Baker is.

Liz, you've been reporting from there all week. Southern Louisiana, so vulnerable to big hurricanes and flooding - are people there also starting to wonder if this is the new normal, given climate change?

LIZ BAKER, BYLINE: Yes. So many people I've talked to over the last week have told me this storm is making them rethink their evacuation and hurricane plans for the next time. And even the mayor of New Orleans has said that with these hurricanes strengthening so quickly, the city needs a better game plan before the next one. You know, A, Ida really threw people. And these are people who have a lifetime of experience with hurricanes.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

BAKER: And they're used to three or four days lead time to pack, board up their houses, get through that traffic to higher ground before it makes landfall. And with Ida, there was no time for any of that, and there wasn't even time for a mandatory evacuation order in New Orleans. So people had to decide for themselves what to do based on past hurricane experience. And this was a new kind of storm. And we're still learning some of the repercussions of those decisions to go or stay.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. What you're talking about is the news yesterday that four nursing home patients died and over 800 others were rescued from an evacuation facility. I mean, what more can you tell us about that?

BAKER: Well, right now all 843 survivors have been rescued. And they're safe. But the reports are so disturbing. The Louisiana Department of Health told us they started getting complaints during the storm that patients were packed in head to toe, lying on mattresses on the floor, with water leaking in, generator failures - just really unsafe, really unsanitary conditions. And that continued for days after the storm passed, too.

And when a health inspector tried to get in there to check it out on Tuesday, he was turned away. He was refused entry. So yesterday, public health workers and the National Guard intervened and got this really vulnerable population to safety. And officials say there will be a full investigation into what happened there.

MARTINEZ: I know President Biden will be flying into New Orleans today. What's he going to be seeing and hearing on his tour?

BAKER: Right. He is flying into New Orleans. And he'll meet with some local officials, try to find out what is still needed from the federal response, how things are going so far. And then he'll head over to LaPlace. And LaPlace was really slammed by Hurricane Ida.

People who rode out the storm there had to be rescued by boat and helicopter. And there's still some standing water in LaPlace and just extensive damages to homes from the flooding and the 140-mile-per-hour wind gusts. And so the president will walk around LaPlace. He'll give a statement to the press there. And, you know, yesterday - he's been speaking out about some of the issues that have been coming up.

Yesterday, Biden talked about insurance companies who have been refusing to reimburse hotel room claims from New Orleans evacuees. And that was because of - the evacuation wasn't mandatory. So Biden said this is, quote, "fine print and technicality." And he called for those companies to pay up. So then from LaPlace, he's going to fly over some other hard-hit parts of the coast, like Lafitte, Port Fourchon and Belle Isle. Those are going to be some pretty grim scenes of destruction, A.

Belle Isle was so wrecked that residents who evacuated there are only today able to go back on a really limited basis to see if their properties are still standing. So it's going to be a long time before those areas even begin to recover from this storm. And people are still just struggling to access basic services. And it's hot. It's still really hot. We saw still have another - the forecast for the foreseeable future is with a heat index (inaudible).

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Liz Baker in New Orleans.

BAKER: These are people who have no power. Some of them don't even have water.

MARTINEZ: All right. Thank you. That's Liz Baker in New Orleans. Liz, thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.