A crisis down the bayou

A crisis down the bayou

Nine days after Hurricane Ida slammed ashore as a Category 4 storm, parts of South Louisiana are returning to normal, while other areas are only starting to dig out from the wreckage. In Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, every home remains without power and most buildings sustained heavy damage from wind, water or both. The Advocate’s Megan Wyatt and Davide Mamone report

Powerlines and trees remain intertwined on the streets of Houma eight days after Ida swept through the bayou community in Terrebonne Parish. No one in the parish has power, and electricity isn’t expected to return until the end of the month. Running water recently returned to Terrebonne Parish and the neighboring Lafourche Parish, although both remain under boil advisories as pressure remains low and work continues on infrastructure. Cell service is slowly returning to both bayou parishes, but it remains spotty.

Kezia Setyawan of the Houma Courier reports that frustration is building as help is slow to arrive. 

In communities like Chauvin, Montegut, Pointe-aux-Chenes and Dulac, thousands either stayed behind as Ida slammed ashore on Sunday as Category 4 hurricane or came back to survey the damage and begin rebuilding. … Garrett and Courtney Neil of Chauvin waited in line for chicken dinners. They drove from Texas in the middle of the night with their kids and came back to nothing. “We’re just stuck in the car,” Neil said. “We lost everything.” Neil said the biggest needs are access to gasoline and clean water.

The storm has been particularly hard on native communities, as The Advocate’s Halle Parker reports

All four of the state-recognized tribes suffered tremendous loss from Ida, as well as several other tribes without any formal status such as the Grand Bayou Indian Village in Plaquemines Parish. Surveying the coast by airplane, Tammy Greer, a United Houma Nation citizen with family in other tribes, was astounded by the scope of the damage. 

Rebuilding will take a long time and be very costly, as demand for labor and materials far exceeds the supply. The Associated Press

For months now across the economy, businesses have been scrambling to acquire enough supplies, restock their shelves and recall workers they had furloughed during the recession. Construction companies have been particularly affected. Among building executives Zonda surveyed last month, 93% complained of supply shortages. Seventy-four percent said they lacked enough workers. And that was before Ida struck. 

Invest in the power grid
Sixteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina brought an unwelcome spotlight to the inadequacy of Louisiana’s levees and flood-control structures. The result was $14 billion in overdue upgrades and a system that held up well as Hurricane Ida rushed ashore on Aug. 29. The latest storm – along with last year’s Hurricane Laura that slammed Lake Charles – has shown the fragility of the region’s power grid. More than 1.1 million homes lost power during Ida, and more than 432,000 still had no lights as of Tuesday morning. The Advocate’s Mark Ballard reports that utility customers will see higher bills, but that the federal infrastructure bill working its way through Congress includes money for much-needed upgrades: 

Most of Louisiana’s congressional delegation want a separate appropriation to fund infrastructure hardening. But they’ve done little more than talk. What is on the table is Biden’s $1.1 trillion bill. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, H.R. 3684, includes at least $26.5 billion for “enhancing the resilience of the electric grid to extreme weather and natural disasters.” Grants are to be distributed based on the number of federally declared natural disasters a state experienced over the past 10 years. Another $18.5 billion is proposed for transmission buildout to “maintain reliability,” and $3 billion more is included to provide flexibility that would quickly rebalance a damaged electrical system. Then there are corporate tax breaks and money from other pots that can be used on hardening the power system.

Unemployment aid ends for millions
More than 7 million Americans will lose their federal unemployment benefits this week, as a temporary $300 week in jobless aid approved earlier this year expires. The change will not affect Louisiana and about two dozen other states that cut off the federal aid prematurely in response to pressure from corporations that were having trouble finding people willing to take low-paying jobs. Several studies have found that the federal aid was not holding back job growth. But now that it’s gone, consumer spending will shrink and the economy will suffer. The Washington Post reports

Now there is heightened anxiety, even within the White House, that pulling so many people off government support so abruptly could push millions of people into poverty and cut off access to food or nutrition for people caught on the wrong side of this uneven economy. The jobless rate has fallen and the stock market is near record levels, but many Americans have found themselves unable to recover from the pandemic’s devastating blow. … Recent research by academic scholars found that in states that cut benefits early, every dollar lost in benefits was offset by about 7 cents in increased earnings. That means the Labor Day weekend cuts could cause “something like $8 billion in reduced spending during September and October,” said Arindrajit Dube, an economist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and one of the researchers who analyzed the effect of the early benefits cutoffs.

Expanding the safety net
Congressional committees are getting to work this week on writing in the details of President Joe Biden’s ambitious budget proposal, which aims to reduce economic inequality – and expand opportunity – by recalibrating America’s federal safety net. As the New York Times reports, the bill would vastly expand access to child care, paid family leave and educational opportunities – paid for by raising taxes on profitable corporations. 

To grasp the intended measure’s scope, consider a life, from conception to death. Democrats intend to fund paid family and medical leave to allow a parent to take some time off during pregnancy and after a child’s birth. When that parent is ready to return to work, expanded funding for child care would kick in to help cover day care costs. When that child turns 3, another part of the bill, universal prekindergarten, would ensure public education can begin at an earlier age, regardless of where that child lives. Most families with children would continue to receive federal income supplements each month in the form of an expanded child tax credit that was created temporarily by Mr. Biden’s pandemic-rescue law and would be extended by the new social policy bill. School nutrition programs, expanded on an emergency basis during the pandemic, would continue to offer more children free and reduced-price meals long after the coronavirus retreats. And at high school graduation, most students would be guaranteed two years of higher education through expanded federal financial aid, geared toward community colleges.

Number of the Day
432,371 – Number of Louisiana customers without electric power as of Tuesday morning, representing 19.3% of all customers in the state (Source: Louisiana Public Service Commission).