How one New Orleans neighborhood weathers nights without power: An ice cream truck and shared charging stations
NEW ORLEANS — The jingle was audible from blocks away, loud enough to drown out the hum of generators that has become the soundtrack of daily life here in the week since Hurricane Ida’s ferocious winds knocked out power across the city. In the blasting sun of the afternoon, it’s been hard to tell who stayed and who left in Algiers Point, a middle-class neighborhood directly across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. The city has weathered heat so unbearable that most retreat inside during the day in search of shade.
But nearly every day since the storm, the arrival of the ice cream man in the early evening – with his beat-up van chirping a variation of “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain” punctuated by a loud “HELLO” – has been like an alarm signaling the last hours of daylight, sending residents onto their porches and into the streets for a kind of twilight social hour before the pitch-black night settles in. On Saturday evening, residents emerged from the protective shadows of their darkened homes for just about the only cool thing you could find in a powerless city with humid air that clings to your skin like cellophane: Bomb Pops and push-ups, Crunch bars and ice cream sandwiches. As they waited patiently for their turn to order, many also acknowledged that the trip to the truck was a break from the tedium.
“We’re just waiting and waiting,” said Jack Niven, an artist who rode out the storm with his wife and daughter at their home in Algiers. “We just didn’t have time to get the pets together,” he said, of his decision not to evacuate. “We had some neighbors who stayed, who are elderly, and we wanted to keep an eye on things.”
The family stockpiled food and gas to feed a small generator, which has kept the refrigerator on and a window air-conditioner running. They had so far avoided the long gas lines that have fueled tension and even gunfire at the pumps in recent days. But their food supply was dwindling, and they were plotting a trip to the grocery store, unsure what to expect.
“We’re lucky. We have it better than a lot of people,” Niven said, as he clutched three ice cream bars to take back home. More than 60% of New Orleans remained without power as of Sunday, sending hundreds of residents across the city into cooling centers as the heat index hit triple digits.
Areas including New Orleans East had been particularly hard hit, with the city evacuating several senior centers where residents were without power and water. The Louisiana Health Department said Sunday a 74-year-old New Orleans man had died of heat exhaustion, bringing the storm’s death toll in the state to 13. “It’s those people I worry about,” Niven said.
In Algiers, the lights briefly flickered on early Saturday morning. And several streets in the neighborhood glowed green on the online map maintained by Entergy New Orleans, the city’s main utility – a site that has been so closely monitored that some in the city have compared it to the maps tracking Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. But soon, the whole neighborhood was dark again.
Entergy has said it expects to restore power across New Orleans by Wednesday. But many residents are skeptical, citing past storms where one block saw power restored, but another waited several more days. On Sunday, the company said it needed special equipment to restore the power in Algiers, potentially extending the outage even longer.
“It’s a crapshoot. One house gets it. Another house doesn’t,” said one woman as she walked back toward her porch, draped in netting to keep the swarms of mosquitoes at bay. “It’s like this giant tease.”
Residents fortunate enough to have generator power had draped thick extension cords across fences to help neighbors in need.
Some placed cords on their front porches to allow strangers to charge their cellphones. Along Villette Street, an old Victorian house running on a natural gas generator has been lit up in Mardi Gras purple as the sun goes down – bright enough to light up the living rooms of the dark houses across the street. Down the block, other residents were passing the time in different ways.
A man and woman sat on their porch drinking beer and listening to a radio, which was broadcasting a Louisiana State University football game. They wore purple and gold – the team’s colors. “We’re OK.
Y’all OK?” the woman called out, as neighbors passed by on their evening walk. Even with the sun going down, sweat was dripping through their clothes. Down near the levee, which stands nearly two stories tall and provides a grassy protection from a river still swollen from Ida’s rains, two young men had rigged a tattoo pen to their generator and were inking reminders of the storm on willing neighbors.
“Hurricane tattoos!” one said. Nearby, Maggie McEleney, a painter and mixed media artist, was lugging a tank of propane up the steps to her home – with all its doors and windows open – where she and her husband have been sheltering since the storm and cooking on a gas stove. McEleney, who has lived in New Orleans for roughly 30 years and rode out storms including Katrina, said she was worried about the future of the city if more federal and state money wasn’t invested into rebuilding the infrastructure to prevent long blackouts like the one people have endured in recent days.
“Every storm, even mild ones, seemed to knock the power out, putting people in danger,” she said.
She worried that people on the outside didn’t understand the dangers from the heat – not just the risk of heat exhaustion but the potential of losing access to refrigerated medicine or accidents occurring as people try to live through the blackout. “More people always die in the aftermath of the storm, and there’s just got to be a better way that this,” McEleney said. “No matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, just please look at what is happening because this is going to cost more money than it will take just to fix it. … And everybody ends up paying for it.”
Down the block, Derin Turner, and his wife, Heather, had packed up their Airstream trailer and evacuated to the Florida Panhandle with their 2-year-old son, Solin, to avoid Ida’s wrath. Heather, who is nearly seven months pregnant, wanted to be near a hospital in case anything went wrong. The couple watched the outer bands of Ida go by before deciding to return to the city on Wednesday to check on their home and neighbors.
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Before leaving Florida, the couple stocked their trailer with bottled water, food and supplies – so that they could cook for people in the neighborhood when they got home.
And they bought generators, numerous cans of fuel and a window air conditioner to partially cool their nearly 130-year-old home, in which many of the windows don’t open. “We came in ready. We got gennys.
We got the gas. We got the water. We got food to prepare for people.
We were like, ‘Let’s do this,’ but it was still eerie,” said Heather, a clothing designer who grew up in Louisiana and has gone through many other storms. “We arrived at 11 p.m., and it was just complete darkness. Just the sound of generators and the stars.” The next day, the couple cooked for about 30 people who live nearby – some of whom they’d never met before.
On Saturday, the couple was sitting on the stoop of their house, giving out waters and Gatorade to people who happened to wander by. “Honestly, we usually go to Burning Man, and this isn’t that different for us,” Derin, a filmmaker, said with laugh. “You are packing a bunch of water. You have to take care of strangers.
There’s never enough AC, and you’re in the sweltering heat. It’s all the same, just less dust.” “I always wanted to go to Burning Man pregnant,” Heather laughed. “There’s some branches.
We could burn a man tonight.”
“Where’s my art car robot?” Derin said.
This story was originally published at washingtonpost.com. Read it here.
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