A month after Ida’s landfall, Louisianans decry ‘Third World’ conditions

By Brad Brooks

CROZIER, La. (Reuters) -Bruce Westley stood outside his wrecked mobile home, pointing to a small lime green tent, two patio chairs and a 30-quart aluminum pot atop a single propane burner.

“For more than a month, that’s been our bedroom, our living room and our kitchen,” said the 65-year-old disabled Navy veteran. He and his wife Christina are among thousands of southeast Louisianans struggling more than a month after Hurricane Ida swept through the heart of Cajun country.

Reuters traveled the bayous of hard-hit Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes in recent days, speaking with more than 40 residents. All said they felt abandoned by state and federal officials. A few said they had not received any type of support from any level of government.

“We can’t keep living like this,” Westley said. “We just need any damn thing to get off the ground, man.”

In most areas it looked as if Ida rolled through only a day or two ago. Old timers who say they’ve seen it all swear they have never witnessed a more destructive storm.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokesman said the agency was working as quickly as possible. Louisiana’s Governor John Bel Edwards on Monday announced a temporary sheltering program supported by FEMA that he said would start bringing trailers into the hardest-hit areas to alleviate housing shortages.

The human misery and the piles of debris testify to the massive strain on public and private resources in a hurricane-prone area. The scenes also raise questions about how the United States will cope as climate change creates a new, more destructive normal.

Reuters saw no heavy equipment, trucks or workers helping people clear the rubble and recover their belongings. The only government presence was in the form of law enforcement officers and staff at FEMA mobile centers processing disaster claims. Residents said it has basically been that way since Ida made landfall on Aug. 29 and killed 26 people, though roadways in the area were largely cleared of debris.

Hundreds of people, many of them elderly and children, were in tents. Others were in homes that clearly have severe structural damage and where mold, which can impact respiratory health and cause severe allergic reactions, was spreading.

Grocery stores, most restaurants and other businesses remain closed. Power is still out for thousands of people and many have no water or sewage services.

Despite the difficulties, communities are trying to band together. Outside the Howard Third Zion Travelers Baptist Church just two blocks down from where Westley and his wife are camping, volunteers say they have been handing out meals to 1,000 families daily. Ida destroyed the church’s south-facing wall.

“You want to know what’s been going on to help these people? Pretty much nothing,” said Talisa Clark, a community activist for the historically Black area who has been helping coordinate the food distribution. “There are no state or federal boots on the ground to help. It’s looking like a Third World country’s efforts down here.”

Clark was forced out of her badly damaged home near Houma and has been staying with relatives.

Parish officials for Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson and Plaquemines did not respond to a request for comment.

DIFFICULT CHOICES

John Mills, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokesman at a support site in Golden Meadow, Louisiana, said he understood the frustrations of those who survived Ida.

“Families and communities will have to face difficult choices about how to rebuild – and whether to rebuild here at all,” he said.

FEMA is distributing money so people can rent housing for at least two months. In addition, as of Monday FEMA said it was paying hotel costs for nearly 8,000 families. In total, it estimates it has spent at least $30 million in hotel costs.

“That plan probably works under most circumstances. But the breadth of Ida’s damage is so huge, that there’s no housing stock, there’s no hotel rooms available,” said Tanner Magee, a state representative whose district includes Terrebonne parish.

State and parish governments have contracted out the task of picking up debris, but have struggled with even deciding on where they will put it, Magee said. He said far more workers and trucks were needed in hard-hit areas.

Magee and his family, who live in Houma, are staying in his Ida-damaged home.

“If you see this destruction around you constantly and it’s not going anywhere, it beats down on people,” Magee said. “I’m really worried about the mental health of people.”

Magee and others say they need temporary FEMA trailers. FEMA says that takes several weeks, and is complicated by federal and state regulations that make it difficult to bring in temporary shelters during hurricane season.

FEMA, along with the Small Business Administration, has paid out over $1.1 billion for Ida damage so far, mostly through grants to homeowners, along with FEMA’s national flood insurance program. Uninsured damage estimates are upward of $19 billion, according to the property data and analytics company CoreLogic, with 90% of those losses along Louisiana’s coast, and the rest in Alabama and Mississippi. There could be another $21 billion in damage to insured properties.

STAY RIGHT HERE

In Galliano, Maria Molina hand washed shirts and shorts for her 7-year-old daughter Julia and grown son Leonardo; she then hung them out to dry.

“I’m out of work, I’m out of money and we’re out of food. We don’t have anywhere to go, even though this trailer seems unsafe,” she said of her blue mobile home, which was now akilter with a damaged roof and foundation.

Molina was awaiting word on whether she’ll qualify for any FEMA aid.

Down the road in the town of Golden Meadow, Rosie Verdin, 73, stood on the tilted porch of her home behind the tribal headquarters of her United Houma Nation.

Verdin said Ida’s destruction was the worst she’d seen. Some three-fourths of her tribe’s 19,000 members saw their homes destroyed or left uninhabitable.

“But there is nothing that will drive us off this land,” she said. “With or without help, we’ll rebuild and stay right here.”

(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Donna Bryson and Aurora Ellis)

Biden puts focus on climate change, domestic priorities on flood damage trip

By Nandita Bose

HILLSBOROUGH TOWNSHIP, N.J. (Reuters) – President Joe Biden visited flood-damaged New Jersey on Tuesday to survey the upheaval caused by Hurricane Ida, putting a focus on climate change and domestic priorities after weeks of public attention on the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Biden promised federal aid and urged national unity during a trip to storm-hit Louisiana on Friday after Ida devastated parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast and unleashed even deadlier flooding in the Northeast.

On Tuesday, he will be briefed by local leaders in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey, and tour a neighborhood in Manville that was hit hard by the storm.

Later, he will visit a neighborhood in New York City’s Queens borough and deliver remarks there.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Biden would emphasize that one out of three Americans lives in counties that have been impacted by severe weather events in recent months.

“The average costs of extreme weather are getting bigger, and no one is immune from climate change,” Psaki said, referencing what Biden would address in his remarks.

The president’s flood damage trips revive a familiar role of consoler-in-chief, a shift from the time he has spent staunchly defending his decision to pull U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the deadly aftermath that ensued.

Although the Afghanistan issue is not behind him – the United States is still working to get Americans left in the country out, and resettling tens of thousands of evacuees – Biden is expected to focus in the coming days on a fight to protect women’s reproductive rights in the wake of a new Texas anti-abortion law, the end of extended unemployment benefits for many Americans, and new measures to fight COVID-19.

On Saturday, the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, he will visit the three sites where hijacked U.S. domestic planes crashed, and next week, he plans to visit California to boost Democrat Governor Gavin Newsom’s effort to stay in office amid a recall election.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said on Tuesday it would take “months more likely than weeks” to complete cleanup, repairs and rebuilding after his state was ravaged by flooding and a tornado from the remnants of Storm Ida. He told CNN that Biden, who has issued disaster declarations for six of the state’s counties, had been “pitch perfect” in his response to the storm’s destruction.

Dozens of people have died from the hurricane’s destruction and some states are still grappling with widespread power outages and water-filled homes.

Speaking briefly to reporters on Monday evening after a trip to his home state of Delaware, Biden declared that Tuesday would be a “big day.” The president has used the storm to highlight the need for infrastructure spending in a bill he is working to get through Congress.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose and Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Peter Szekely; Writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by Heather Timmons, Dan Grebler and Bernadette Baum)

Biden to visit Louisiana to see Hurricane Ida damage, New Jersey death toll rises

By Steve Holland and Devika Krishna Kumar

WASHINGTON/NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden travels to Louisiana on Friday to get a first-hand look at the destruction wrought by Hurricane Ida, the monster storm that devastated the southern portion of the state and left 1 million people without power.

Biden is to meet Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and local officials about the hurricane, which is providing the president with a tough test just after the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Hurricane Ida struck the Gulf coast last weekend and carved a northern path through the eastern United States, culminating in torrential rains and widespread flooding in New York, New Jersey and surrounding areas on Wednesday.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Friday said the state had confirmed an additional two deaths overnight, bringing its total to 25. He said at least six people were still missing, meaning the death toll would likely climb higher.

“We’re still not out of the woods,” he told NBC News’ “Today” program, adding that his biggest concern following the wreckage was grappling with remaining high waters and damage. “We’re going to clean up … but it may be a long road.”

The fifth most powerful hurricane to strike the United States came ashore in southern Louisiana on Sunday, knocking out power for more than a million customers and water for another 600,000 people, creating miserable conditions for the afflicted, who were also enduring suffocating heat and humidity.

At least nine deaths were reported in Louisiana, with at least another 46 killed in the Northeast.

“My message to everyone affected is: ‘We’re all in this together. The nation is here to help,'” Biden said on Thursday.

Biden will tour a neighborhood in LaPlace, a small community about 35 miles west of New Orleans that was devastated by flooding, downed trees and other storm damage, and deliver remarks about his administration’s response.

He will take an aerial tour of hard hit communities, including Laffite, Grand Isle, Port Fourchon and Lafourche Parish, before meeting with local leaders in Galliano, Louisiana, the White House said.

Officials who have flown over the storm damage reported astounding scenes of small towns turned into piles of matchsticks and massive vessels hurled about by the wind.

Edwards said he would present Biden with a long list of needs including fuel shipments as most of the area’s refining capacity was knocked offline and mile-long lines have formed at gas stations and emergency supply distribution centers.

At Biden’s direction, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Thursday authorized an exchange of 1.5 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to Exxon Mobil to relieve fuel disruptions in the wake of the hurricane.

Several refineries remained cut off from crude and products supplies from the south via ship and barge after portions of the Mississippi River were closed by several sunken vessels.

“This is the first such exchange from the SPR in four years and demonstrates that the president will use every authority available to him to support effective response and recovery activities in the region,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said late on Thursday.

Biden has also urged private insurance companies to pay homeowners who left in advance of the storm but not necessarily under a mandatory evacuation order.

“Don’t hide behind the fine print and technicality. Do your job. Keep your commitments to your communities that you insure. Do the right thing and pay your policy holders what you owe them to cover the cost of temporary housing in the midst of a natural disaster. Help those in need,” he said.

While Louisiana tried to recover from the storm, the New York area was still dealing with crippling floods from Ida.

People across large swaths of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut spent Thursday coping with water-logged basements, power outages, damaged roofs and calls for help from friends and relatives stranded by flooding.

At least 16 have died in the state of New York, officials said, including 13 in New York City where deaths of people trapped in flooded basements highlighted the risk of increasingly extreme weather events.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told MSNBC on Friday that there would be a need to implement travel bans and evacuations more frequently ahead of storms. He said he was putting together a new task force to tackle the issue.

“We’ve got to change the whole way of thinking” in how to prepare for storms, de Blasio said. “We’re going to need them to do things differently.”

Biden approved an emergency declaration in New Jersey and New York and ordered federal assistance to supplement state and local response efforts, the White House said late on Thursday.

(Reporting By Steve Holland and Devika Krishna Kumar; additional reporting by Andrea Shalal, Kanishka Singh and Susan Heavey, editing by Ross Colvin, Michael Perry and Steve Orlofsky)

Evacuees urged not to return home after devastation from storm Ida

By Devika Krishna Kumar

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) -Evacuees who fled Ida before the storm hammered southern Louisiana are being urged not to return home just yet as the U.S. Gulf Coast begins an arduous recovery from one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the region.

Three days after the Category 4 hurricane came ashore, more than a million homes and businesses remained without electricity. Power was restored to some customers in the eastern part of New Orleans on Wednesday morning, Entergy Corp said. But the utility warned it may take weeks to return service in some areas where transmission towers had crumpled into heaps of metal.

The storm killed at least four people and left many thousands more in misery. Countless homes were destroyed and towns were flooded, evoking memories of Hurricane Katrina, which killed some 1,800 and nearly destroyed New Orleans 16 years ago.

Although weakened, Ida still posed a threat to parts of the United States on Wednesday. The National Weather Service warned that the remnants of the storm could dump up to eight inches of rain across the Mid-Atlantic region into southern New England, triggering “potentially life-threatening” flooding.

Along the Gulf Coast, officials were unable to complete a full damage assessment because fallen trees were blocking many roads, U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Deanne Criswell said.

In one sign of desperation, cars lined up for nearly a mile on Tuesday as volunteers distributed drinking water at Lockport, Louisiana.

The community is near one of the hardest-hit towns, Houma, population 33,000 and about 50 miles (80 km) southwest of New Orleans. The storm ripped off roofs and felled power lines as it hovered over the area for hours, maintaining much of its strength.

Officials of Terrebonne Parish, which includes Houma, issued a statement imploring people not to return, saying there was no electricity, water service was unreliable, emergency shelters were damaged, and none of the hospitals were operating.

“Evacuees: DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT come back to Terrebonne Parish if you evacuated,” officials said in advisory posted on Twitter by a reporter for WWL television.

“There is NO medical care because there are no operating hospitals in Terrebonne Parish right now,” the notice said, adding that previously admitted patients were being moved.

Houma residents Scott and Daria Hebert told WAFB television they regretted not evacuating ahead of time and were attempting to flee on Tuesday.

“It was just so tenacious. It just stayed, probably seven or eight hours of just hammering us,” Scott Hebert said.

“This was our Katrina, basically,” Daria Hebert added.

Compounding the suffering, parts of Louisiana and Mississippi were under heat advisories, with a heat index in much of the area reaching 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) on Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.

Even the power generators were hazardous. Nine people in St. Tammany Parish northeast of New Orleans were taken to hospital overnight for carbon monoxide poisoning from a gas-fueled generator, local media reported.

Power officials have told leaders in Jefferson Parish south of New Orleans that its roughly 440,000 people may have to manage without electricity for a month or longer after utility poles toppled across the county, councilman Deano Bonano said in a telephone interview.

“The damage from this is far worse than Katrina from a wind standpoint,” said Bonano.

Among the four deaths were two people killed in the collapse of a southeastern Mississippi highway that critically injured 10 others. One man died attempting to drive through high water in New Orleans and another when a tree fell on a Baton Rouge home.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in New Orleans; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Maria Caspani in New York; Writing by Daniel Trotta; editing by Richard Pullin and Steve Orlofsky)

In Ida’s wake, Louisiana residents could face a month without power

By Devika Krishna Kumar and Nathan Layne

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – Residents in southern Louisiana braced for weeks without electrical power and disruption to their water systems in the wake of Hurricane Ida, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the U.S. Gulf Coast.

By early Tuesday, about 1.3 million customers in the region were without power about 48 hours after the storm made landfall, most of them in Louisiana, according to PowerOutage, which gathers data from U.S. utility companies.

The storm killed at least two people in the state, officials said, a death toll that may have been much larger if not for a fortified levee system around New Orleans, which had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina 16 years earlier.

Entergy Corp, a major power supplier in the region, said it could take weeks before electricity is restored in the hardest-hit areas.

Damage to eight high-voltage lines shut off electricity in New Orleans and nearby parishes, and parts of a transmission tower toppled into the Mississippi River on Sunday night.

The power outages have brought commerce to a standstill in New Orleans. The Hyatt Regency downtown was operating under a state of emergency and not accepting customers outside of emergency personnel, according to an automated message.

Restaurants, many of which had closed ahead of the storm, also faced an uncertain future due to a lack of electricity and other infrastructure, mirroring – at least for now – the issues that plagued businesses for weeks in the wake of Katrina.

“This is definitely feeling like Katrina,” said Lisa Blount, the public relations director at Antoine’s, a French Quarter landmark and the city’s oldest eatery. “To hear the power is potentially out for two to three weeks, that is devastating.”

Power officials have told leaders in Jefferson Parish that its roughly 440,000 residents may have to manage without electricity for a month or longer after utility poles toppled across the county, Councilman Deano Bonano told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“The damage from this is far worse than Katrina from a wind standpoint,” said Bonano. “We are going to be without with power for four to six weeks.”

Bonano said an elderly woman in the parish was found under her refrigerator on Monday and pronounced dead, and that he expected the death toll to rise, although not dramatically, once the water levels come down and full-fledged recovery efforts can get underway.

‘THEY HAVE NOTHING’

Some communities outside the levee system, including Lafitte and Grand Isle, were hit especially hard and the damage is still being assessed, the official said. More than half of the parish’s residents rode out the storm at home, Bonano said, and many were left with nothing.

“There are no grocery stores open, no gas stations open. So they have nothing,” he said.

Downed trees damaged underground water lines in the parish, and a majority of households were having to boil drinking water or cope with low pressure, according to Brett Lawson, chief of staff to a parish councilman.

Compounding the suffering, parts of Louisiana and Mississippi were under heat advisories, with temperatures forecast to reach up to 105 Fahrenheit (40.6 Celsius) on Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.

“The heat advisory for today does pose a big challenge,” the agency’s New Orleans outpost said on Twitter. “While you need to keep hydrated, know if you’re under a boil water advisory.”

Widespread flooding and power outages also slowed efforts on Tuesday by energy companies to assess damages at oil production facilities, ports and refineries.

HIGHWAY ‘WASHED OUT’

As the weather system traveled north on Tuesday and weakened, it unleashed heavy rain in neighboring Mississippi. At least two people were killed and 10 injured when a deep crevasse opened up on Highway 26 in George County, about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Biloxi.

“We’ve had a lot of rain with Ida, torrential,” Mississippi Highway Patrol officer Calvin Robertson said. “Part of the highway just washed out.”

Seven vehicles plunged into the ditch, which was 50 feet (15 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) deep, Robertson said on CNN.

Officials warned residents about the hidden dangers of flood waters that might bring wildlife closer to neighborhoods.

Sheriff’s deputies in St. Tammany Parish were investigating the disappearance of a 71-year-old man after an apparent alligator attack in the flood waters brought on by the storm.

The man’s wife told authorities that she saw a large alligator attack her husband on Monday in the tiny community of Avery Estates, about 35 miles (55 km) northeast of New Orleans on Monday. She stopped the attack and pulled her husband out of the flood water.

Seeing that his injuries were severe, she took a small boat to get help, and came back to find her husband gone, the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

MEMORIES OF KATRINA

Ida made landfall on Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane, 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina, evoking memories of a disaster that killed more than 1,800 people in 2005 and devastated New Orleans.

But a $14.5 billion system of levees, flood gates and pumps designed in the wake of Katrina’s devastation largely worked as designed during Ida, officials said, sparing New Orleans from the catastrophic flooding that devastated the area 16 years ago.

The state’s healthcare systems also appeared to have largely escaped catastrophic damage at a time when Louisiana is reeling from a resurgence of COVID-19 infections that has strained hospitals.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Peter Szekely in New York, Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Additional reporting and writing by Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Lisa Shumaker)

Ida loses punch, levees hold, but Louisiana expects more rain and flooding

By Devika Krishna Kumar

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) -Ida lost some of its punch over southwestern Mississippi on Monday after making landfall in Louisiana as one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the region, but it could still trigger heavy flooding, the National Hurricane Center said.

Ida, the first major hurricane to strike the United States this year, made landfall around noon on Sunday as a Category 4 storm over Port Fourchon, a hub of the Gulf’s offshore oil industry, packing sustained winds of up to 150 miles per hour (240 km per hour).

Although weakened to a tropical storm, heavy downpours could bring life-threatening flooding, the NHC said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator Deanne Criswell said the full impact of the storm would become clear later in the day.

“We’re hearing about widespread structural damage,” Criswell said in an interview with CNN. “I don’t think there could have been a worse path for this storm. It’s going to have some significant impacts.”

Federal levees installed to reduce the risk of flooding appeared to have held, according to preliminary reports.

“Daylight will bring horrific images as the damage is assessed. More than 20,000 linemen will work to restore the deeply damaged power lines,” Shauna Sanford, communications director for Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards wrote in a tweet.

“The good news: no federal levee failed or was overtopped.”

Kevin Lepine, president of Plaquemines Parish, home to 23,000 residents and one of Louisiana’s southern most communities, said he had had little sleep overnight as he braced for first light and the chance to go and assess the damage.

“We’re worried about the levees down the road,” he said.

On Sunday night, the sheriff’s office in Ascension Parish reported the first known U.S. fatality from the storm, a 60-year-old man killed by a tree falling on his home near Baton Rouge, the state capital.

President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in the state, ordering federal assistance to bolster recovery efforts in more than two dozen storm-stricken parishes.

Ida crashed ashore as Louisiana was already reeling from a resurgence of COVID-19 infections that has strained the state’s healthcare system, with an estimated 2,450 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide, many in intensive care units.

Its arrival came 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina, one of the most catastrophic and deadly U.S. storms on record, struck the Gulf Coast, and about a year after the last Category 4 hurricane, Laura, battered Louisiana.

A loss of generator power at the Thibodaux Regional Health System hospital in Lafourche Parish, southwest of New Orleans, forced medical workers to manually assist respirator patients with breathing while they were moved to another floor, the state Health Department confirmed to Reuters.

Within 12 hours of landfall, Ida had plowed a destructive path that submerged much of the state’s coastline under several feet of surf, with flash flooding reported by the National Hurricane Center across southeastern Louisiana.

Nearly all offshore Gulf oil production was suspended in advance of the storm, and major ports along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts were closed to shipping.

WIDESPREAD OUTAGES

Power was knocked out Sunday night to the entire New Orleans metropolitan area following the failure of all eight transmission lines that deliver electricity to the city, the utility company Entergy Louisiana reported.

One transmission tower collapsed into the Mississippi River, the Jefferson Parish Emergency Management Department said.

More than 1 million Louisiana homes and businesses in all were without electricity early on Monday, as well as some 120,000 in Mississippi, according to the tracking site Poweroutage.US.

Residents of the most vulnerable coastal areas were ordered to evacuate days ahead of the storm. Those riding out the storm in their homes in New Orleans braced for the toughest test yet of major upgrades to a levee system constructed following devastating floods in 2005 from Katrina, a hurricane that claimed some 1,800 lives.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the newly reinforced New Orleans levees were expected to hold, though they said they said the flood walls could be overtopped in some places.

Hundreds of miles of new levees were built around New Orleans after flooding from Katrina inundated much of the low-lying city, especially historically Black neighborhoods.

Inundation from Ida’s storm surge – high surf driven by the hurricane’s winds – was reported to be exceeding predicted levels of 6 feet (1.8 m) along parts of the coast. Videos posted on social media showed storm surge flooding had transformed sections of Highway 90 along the Louisiana and Mississippi coast into a choppy river.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in New Orleans; Additional reporting by Jessica Resnick-Ault and Jonathan Allen in New York, Erwin Seba in Houston, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Laura Sanicola, Linda So and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington, Liz Hampton in Denver, and Arpan Varghese, Kanishka Singh, Bhargav Acharya and Nakul Iyer in Bengaluru; Writing by Steve Gorman and Maria Caspani; Editing by Richard Pullin and Nick Macfie)

Delta variant pushes U.S. cases, hospitalizations to 6-month high

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in the United States are at a six-month high, fueled by the rapid spread of the Delta variant across swathes of the country grappling with low vaccination rates.

Nationwide, COVID-19 cases have averaged 100,000 for three days in a row, up 35% over the past week, according to a Reuters tally of public health data. The surge of the disease was strongest in Louisiana, Florida and Arkansas.

Hospitalizations rose 40% and deaths, a lagging indicator, registered an 18% uptick in the past week with the most fatalities by population in Arkansas.

The intensifying spread of the pandemic has led to cancellation of some large high-profile events. One notable exception is an annual motorcycle rally in South Dakota which has been proceeding as planned.

Florida set records for hospitalizations for eight days in a row, according to the analysis. In that state, most students are due back in the classroom this week as some school districts debate whether to require masks for pupils.

The head of the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union on Sunday announced a shift in course by backing mandated vaccinations for U.S. teachers in an effort to protect students who are too young to be inoculated.

The number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 is rising across the country, a trend health experts attribute to the Delta variant being more likely to infect children than the original Alpha strain.

With the virus once again upending Americans’ lives after a brief summer lull, the push to vaccinate those still reluctant has gained fresh momentum.

States including California, New York and Virginia have mandated vaccinations or weekly testing for state employees, as well as several cities.

The administration of President Joe Biden set new rules late last month requiring federal workers to provide proof of vaccination or face regular testing, mask mandates and travel restrictions.

In the private sector, a growing number of companies are also mandating COVID-19 vaccinations. United Airlines, meatpacker Tyson Foods Inc and Microsoft are requiring employees get vaccinated.

STURGIS CROWDS

The evolving pandemic and the rapid community spread spurred by the Delta variant have already prompted the cancellation of some large-scale events. Last week, organizers canceled the New York Auto Show that had been set for later this month.

The New Orleans Jazz Fest was canceled for the second straight year as Louisiana fights a severe outbreak.

But fears about the Delta variant seem to not have dampened the mood in Sturgis, a small town in South Dakota that welcomes hundreds of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

This year’s gathering, taking place Aug. 6-15, might already be attracting record crowds.

“It is one of the biggest crowds I have seen,” Meade County Sheriff Ron Merwin said in an email. “I think there will definitely be some spread.”

The city of Sturgis has partnered with health officials to provide COVID-19 self-test kits to rally-goes but the event does not require proof of vaccination or mask-wearing.

Last year, the rally became the super-spreader event that many feared it would become.

While cases and hospitalizations were relatively low in South Dakota when the event started on Aug. 7, 2020, three months later the state set a record for hospitalized COVID-19 patients and new infections.

In the month of November alone, the state lost 521 people to COVID-19, nearly three times the number of deaths reported in October, according to a Reuters tally.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by David Gregorio)

Early-season Gulf of Mexico storm trims some U.S. oil production

HOUSTON (Reuters) -The first storm to hit oil-producing regions of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico this year sent workers fleeing offshore oil platforms and cut some production.

A weather disturbance in the central Gulf of Mexico was expected to become a tropical storm on Friday. It was moving north at about 14 miles per hour (22 kmh) and could bring up to 12-inches of rain to the central U.S. Gulf Coast by Saturday, the National Weather Service said.

Equinor ASA on Friday said it had removed staff and shut production at its Titan platform, which is about 65 miles (105 km) off the coast of Louisiana. Chevron and Occidental Petroleum also removed staff and began taking precautions at their offshore oil and gas platforms.

“This is not that unusual to run evacuation flights this early in the season,” said Jason Glynn, director of operations at a Bristow Group offshore crew transport unit in Louisiana. “The last couple of years we’ve always had one softball like this early in the season.”

Chevron removed non-essential staff from three U.S. Gulf of Mexico oil platforms and fully evacuated a fourth that is about 150 miles sought of Louisiana. Output remains at normal levels, a spokesperson said.

“All of our facilities have plans to prepare for weather-related events and are implementing those procedures,” Occidental said on its website. It did not comment on production.

Other major producers including BP, BHP, Royal Dutch Shell and Murphy Oil said they were monitoring weather conditions but production had not been affected.

Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the region’s only deep water oil export port, was operating normally. Offshore pipeline operator Enbridge also said it was monitoring conditions.

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by David Gregorio)

Biden to visit storm-battered Louisiana to tout infrastructure spending

By Jarrett Renshaw

(Reuters) – President Joe Biden on Thursday will visit the Gulf Coast state of Louisiana, which has backed Republicans in U.S. elections for the past two decades, to tout his plans to invest in water and storm projects in cities that have been battered by hurricanes.

Biden, a Democrat, will visit both the decidedly liberal-leaning city of New Orleans, still scarred 15 years after Hurricane Katrina, and deeply conservative Lake Charles, a city of 77,000 with a major refinery and petrochemical plants, which was slammed by Hurricanes Laura and Delta last year.

The visits are the latest stop in the White House’s “Getting America Back on Track Tour,” to promote Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure spending plan and a $1.8 billion education and child-care proposal.

Biden’s push to spend more federal money on schools, roads, job training and other public-facing projects, and tax the wealthiest Americans and companies to pay for it, is popular with members of both parties. But the plans face stiff opposition from Republican lawmakers.

The White House is betting trips like this will build public support for Biden and his spending proposals, even among Republican voters who backed former President Donald Trump, who continues to hold enormous sway over his party.

Biden plans to tour one of New Orleans’ aging facilities that houses water purification equipment and turbines for drainage pumps, which help pump out water during storm events. “Storm-hardening” projects that invest in dams and levies are a potentially popular idea in a Gulf Coast state increasingly threatened with extreme weather that scientists blame on climate change.

Biden is asking Congress for $50 billion to improve the resiliency of infrastructure nationwide, and additional support to help areas recover from disaster.

Congressional Republicans oppose Biden’s proposed $2.25 trillion in infrastructure spending over a decade, saying the higher taxes that would be levied on corporations to fund it would cost jobs and slow the economy.

Some Republicans have offered a far smaller package, $568 billion, focused on roads, bridges, broadband access and drinking water improvements. However, much of that reflects money that the federal government is already expected to spend for that infrastructure.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell predicted last week that Biden’s infrastructure and jobs plan will not get support from Republican lawmakers.

“I’m going to fight them every step of the way, because I think this is the wrong prescription for America,” McConnell said in an event in his home state of Kentucky last month. In the closely divided Senate, Biden would need every Democratic vote if no Republicans support the bill.

Biden brushed off the comment on Wednesday when asked about it by reporters at the White House. He recalled that McConnell said something similar when former President Barack Obama was in office, but yet “I was able to get a lot done with him.”

(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Heather Timmons and Leslie Adler)

Shell begins permanent shutdown of Convent, Louisiana, refinery

By Erwin Seba

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Royal Dutch Shell Plc began the permanent shutdown of its 211,146 barrel-per-day (bpd) Convent, Louisiana refinery, the company said on Tuesday.

Sources familiar with plant operations told Reuters the permanent shutdown of the refinery, which Shell has been unable to sell as fuel demand has been hammered in the COVID-19 pandemic, began on Monday night.

“We’re engaged in a phased shutdown of Convent and (will) take all of the time necessary to safely accomplish that,” said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith in an email on Tuesday.

The shutdown began when Shell idled the 12,000-bpd isomerization unit on Monday night, the sources said. The company was taking offline the 36,000-bpd diesel hydrotreater on Tuesday.

Shell said on Nov. 5 it would permanently shutter the refinery after failing to find a buyer for the plant, which had become unprofitable because of reduced demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shell will keep the refinery on the market after it completes the shutdown by the Christmas holiday, the sources said.

Shell and the United Steelworkers union (USW) reached agreement last week on a severance package for 350 hourly workers at Convent.

The USW and Shell agreed hourly employees will be paid three weeks for every year of service with a minimum of 12 weeks and a maximum of 78 weeks, sources familiar with the agreement said.

That package is similar to what Shell salaried employees are being offered, they said. The number of salaried and hourly staff is about equal. Another 400 contractors work at the Convent refinery.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba, editing by Louise Heavens and Bernadette Baum)