CT woman recounts evacuating New Orleans in wake of Ida's wrath: 'It's been a week'

Emma Cowles said hurricane Ida wasn’t a cause for concern until it strengthened into a category 4 storm. The Ridgefield native was in New Orleans preparing for an admissions test for graduate school days before Ida made landfall on the gulf coast.

Cowles, 21, has lived in New Orleans for the past four years while attending Tulane University as an undergrad. In 2020, the city experienced one of the worst hurricane seasons on record, she said, which was “inconvenient yet manageable,” she said.

“We thought ‘we can handle (Ida) because we had so many (hurricanes) last year,’” she added. But by the time the storm was bumped up to a category 4, it was too late for city officials to order a mandatory evacuation, she said.

“The information didn’t come until 24 hours (before) the storm hit, which complicated things,” she said. “In New Orleans cars aren’t that common, especially in the outer parishes, (so) it was hard to get out for a lot of folks.”

Cowles was set on weathering the storm when she woke up on Aug. 27, but her plans changed by nightfall. The next morning she woke up at 6 a.m. to make a beeline for Alabama, only packing enough clothes for the weekend.

“On the way out, I was stuck in six hours of standstill traffic,” she said. “Mississippi was where the hold up was — people were evacuating in every direction.”

Cowles eventually made it to Tuscaloosa to hole up in a hotel with a friend from school, but contracted COVID in the process. “It’s been a week,” she deadpanned.

The storm ravaged New Orleans on Aug. 29. All of the city’s transmission lines were knocked out in Ida’s wrath, Cowles said. She added that within the first hour of the storm, a major electrical tower — which withstood hurricane Katrina in 2005 — fell into the Mississippi River.

Students at Tulane were evacuated to Houston after the storm, Cowles said. The dorms were inhabitable due to broken windows, leaking pipes and damaged roofs.

The National Guard was deployed to New Orleans to assist with restoration efforts. Cowles’ street served as one of their base camps. A lot of the resources were concentrated in the outer parishes, where flooding was so extreme that people had to use boats to get around, she said.

Tulane Cancer Center, where Cowles works, pivoted to provide primary care services to those who had been injured during the storm. Regular patients, were told to receive chemotherapy elsewhere, she said.

“We were truly convinced that the storm couldn’t have caused this much damage,” she added.

Cowles stayed in Tuscaloosa until Aug. 31 and arrived in Ridgefield on Sept. 3. The remnants of Ida caused major delays as she traveled up the east coast. While she was home, she asked friends on Facebook to consider supporting the mutual aid groups that are helping New Orleans recover.

“People should be more compassionate to (those) who choose not to evacuate. It’s not because … they’re lazy or not listening to the news, it’s because they don’t have the resources to do so,” Cowles explained. “Knowing that you’re fleeing is an incredibly stressful situation to be in — reading about it is easier.”

She added, “People who like jazz or go to Mardi Gras (should) have a stake in this restoration.”

To support mutual aid groups in New Orleans, visit www.cajunnavyrelief.com or www.imaginewaterworks.org.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com