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)

Hurricane Ida hits Cuba’s Isle of Youth; U.S. Gulf Coast braces for hit

By Maria Caspani

(Reuters) – Hurricane Ida barreled into Cuba’s Isle of Youth on Friday, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said, and the U.S. Gulf Coast braced for a direct hit this weekend as the storm churned toward the region.

Ida reached hurricane status much more quickly than forecasters had expected. New Orleans city officials ordered residents to evacuate areas outside the levee system, with a voluntary evacuation for the rest of the parish.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency on Thursday and said on Friday he had sent a request to President Joe Biden for a “pre-landfall” federal declaration of emergency.

“Unfortunately, Louisiana is forecast to get a direct, strong hit from Tropical Storm #Ida, which is compounded by our current fourth surge of COVID-19. This is an incredibly challenging time for our state,” Edwards wrote on Twitter.

Ida smashed into the Isle of Youth packing maximum sustained winds of 75 miles per hour (120 km per hour), meteorologists said.

The storm was expected to keep gaining strength and speed over the warm Gulf waters, endangering the coast lines of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, forecasters said. Ida was expected to make landfall along the northern U.S. Gulf Coast on Sunday.

Officials in U.S. coastal areas preparing for the storm urged residents to move boats out of harbors and encouraged early evacuations.

Officials in Louisiana’s Lafourche Parish said they would enact a voluntary evacuation, especially for people in low-lying areas, mobile homes and RVs. Hurricane force winds of about 110 mph with gusts of 130 mph could hit the state, forecasters said.

“By Saturday evening, everyone should be in the location where they intend to ride out the storm,” Edwards said on Thursday.

Cuba’s meteorology institute said Ida would cause storm surges as far east as Havana. The governor of the Isle of Youth Adian Morera said an evacuation center was ready to receive families in the main town of Nueva Gerona, and sea vessels had already been secured along the coast.

Jamaica was flooded by heavy rains and there were landslides after the passage of the storm. Many roads were impassable and forcing some residents to abandon their homes.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Arpan Varghese in Bengaluru, Nelson Acosta in Cuba and Kate Chappell in Jamaica; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Jason Neely, Kirsten Donovan and David Gregorio)

New Orleans renters face toxic mix of crumbling homes, weak rights, eviction worries

By Kathleen Flynn and Makini Brice

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – Fifteen years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and triggered a mass exodus, the Crescent City is bracing for new storms as it faces an entirely different crisis – the beginning of a possible wave of evictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The final eviction protections from the coronavirus relief bill, dubbed the CARES Act, expire nationwide on Aug. 24. Millions of renters around the country are worried, and evictions typically hit Black communities hardest. But those in New Orleans face a particularly toxic combination of steep housing costs, low incomes, weak tenant rights, and housing stock that is crumbling and decrepit.

New Orleans was battered early by the coronavirus, and as tourism shut, nearly one in five residents were put out of work in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As the city slowly tries to reopen, that dropped to 12.9% in June, but many people are still trying to catch up to lost coronavirus income, advocates say. Up to 56% of Louisiana’s renters are now at risk of eviction, the Aspen Institute calculates, the second-highest percentage of at-risk renters in the country after Mississippi.

Potentially making matters worse, Tropical Storm Marco and Tropical Storm Laura are bearing down on the Gulf of Mexico, and threaten to flood the city again.

KATRINA’S LASTING IMPACT

After flooding from Hurricane Katrina damaged 70% of the city’s housing stock in August 15 years ago, tens of thousands of New Orleans buildings stood blighted for years. Large public housing buildings were demolished, over residents’ protests, and replaced with mixed-income housing that pushed many apartment units out of reach for the city’s poor.

According to the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a housing rights organization, New Orleans rents have increased by 50% since 2000, while wages have only risen by 2%.

More than half of the city’s 390,000 residents are renters, and of those 61% are considered cost-burdened, paying more than a third of their income on rent, Jane Place calculates.

“People are paying more rent now than they’ve ever paid in their lives,” said Frank Southall, lead organizer at Jane Place. “It’s not uncommon to never see a one-bedroom apartment that’s in good condition for less than $1,200 in a city where the area median income for a single mother with a child (is) $25,000.”

A CEILING IS NOT UNREASONABLE

Amid the pandemic, housing advocates say some landlords are taking advantage of renters’ vulnerable position.

“We are seeing landlords, that if you owe them money right now, they’re refusing to make necessary repairs that they’re legally required to do,” said Amanda Golob, a housing lawyer for Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.

De Borah Wells, a 49-year-old chef who worked at the landmark Creole restaurant Commander’s Palace before being furloughed in March, said her landlord threatened to evict her after she spoke up about her landlord’s treatment of tenants and complained about the repairs her home needed, including the collapse of her kitchen ceiling in June.

“I just wanted something decent. I don’t feel like a ceiling is that unreasonable!” said Wells, who negotiated with her landlord over the August rent because of the needed repairs but the deal fell through, according to correspondence between her and her lawyer. “I can see outside from my kitchen, inside.”

Wells took her landlord to court. On Friday, the landlord let her out of her lease, she said. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

In Louisiana, landlords only need to give five days’ notice before filing eviction notices, which they can do if payment is even one day late.

And, though landlords are supposed to make repairs to keep homes inhabitable, renters cannot withhold rent until they are made, leaving them with little recourse.

“The hard thing is, especially with low-income folks, it is difficult to move,” Golob said, citing unreturned deposits or first month’s rent and particularly COVID-19’s impact on rental searches. “Some people are staying in pretty terrible conditions because it is better than sleeping in their car.”

Brandie Barrow, a 25-year-old cook and mother of two, said she was able to stay current on her rent despite the restaurant where she works cutting her hours during the pandemic.

Still, after she complained last week of mold, maggots and mildew she found in her daughters’ closet, she said her apartment complex gave her 30 days to move out. Her landlord did not respond to requests for comment left by voicemail.

“How inhumane. Why should I have to pay for somewhere that I’m not happy?” Barrow said.

Tammy Esponge, the executive director of the Apartment Association of Greater New Orleans, an association of rental housing owners, said she thought worries about mass evictions were overblown.

The group had been encouraging landlords to work with residents to develop payment plans. So far, in Louisiana, the eviction rate was 5%, she said, though she acknowledged it was higher for some individual properties.

“Landlords don’t want to evict. They lose money,” said Esponge.

Nonetheless, Wells, who moved into her house last September, said she is thinking about leaving the city altogether. “Worse case I can go back home to Chicago where my parents and boyfriend are,” she said.

(Reporting by Makini Brice in Washington and Kathleen Flynn in New Orleans; Editing by Heather Timmons and Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. eviction bans are ending. That could worsen the spread of coronavirus

By Michelle Conlin

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Last month, as the coronavirus was surging in Houston, recently unemployed hospital secretary Ramzan Boudoin got more bad news: She had six days to vacate her apartment for failing to pay the rent.

A Texas ban on evictions had enabled Boudoin to keep the two-bedroom place she shared with her daughter and granddaughter while she searched for another job. But that moratorium expired on May 18. The landlord took legal action and Boudoin couldn’t come up with $2,997 plus interest to settle the judgment.

So this month Boudoin, 46, packed her family into a 2008 Nissan compact and headed to New Orleans, where she moved in with her mother and her sister’s family. In all, nine people share the packed three-bedroom house. Bedouin said her mother suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, a lung illness that makes her particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 in a city where cases are rising at an alarming pace.

“Every minute, we are worried someone is going to give it to her,” Boudoin said.

As the coronavirus began to shut down large swaths of the U.S. economy in March, spiraling millions of Americans into unemployment, a patchwork of state and federal eviction bans were enacted to keep people in their homes. Now those protections are vanishing. Moratoriums have already expired in 29 states and are about to lapse in others. On Friday, a federal stay, which protects roughly one-third of American renters who live in buildings with mortgages backed by the federal government, will run out unless Congress acts fast.

As many as 28 million people could be evicted in coming months, according to Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University who is the co-creator of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, a national research center on evictions. That’s nearly triple the estimated 10 million Americans who lost their homes during the years after the 2008 mortgage crisis.

Public health and housing experts say such a massive displacement of renters would be unprecedented in modern history. In addition to the hardship that comes with losing one’s home, they say, the evictions could lead to a second-wave public health crisis as the newly homeless are forced into shelters or tight quarters with relatives, increasing the risk of spread of COVID-19.

Evictions have resumed in cities including Houston, Cincinnati, Columbus, Kansas City, Cleveland and St. Louis, according to data compiled by Princeton University at its Eviction Lab. No single, comprehensive source exists to track U.S. evictions nationwide.

In Milwaukee, eviction filings dropped to nearly zero after Wisconsin instituted an emergency 60-day ban on evictions on March 27. But after that order was lifted May 26, evictions surged past their pre-pandemic levels. Milwaukee recorded 1,966 eviction filings in the seven weeks following the ban’s expiration, an 89% increase from 1,038 notices filed in the seven weeks leading up to the moratorium, the Princeton data show.

Dr. Nasia Safdar, an infectious disease physician and the medical director for infection prevention at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said it’s impossible at this point to establish a scientific correlation between evictions and COVID-19 spread and deaths; diagnosed coronavirus cases are up 150% in Milwaukee, for example, since the eviction moratorium ended.

What is not in doubt among public health experts, she said, is that evictions are dangerous during a pandemic. “A key tenet of prevention in a pandemic is to have the infrastructure that will minimize transmission from person to person,” Safdar said. “Any activity that breaks down that structure … makes containment of a pandemic exceedingly difficult.”

A July 17 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that in 44 U.S. cities and counties, eviction filings by landlords have almost returned to their usual levels in places where moratoriums have expired, or where bans were never enacted.

That study said evicted tenants are “at greater risk of contracting, spreading and suffering complications from COVID-19” because precariously housed people often are unable to shelter in place, and because they tend to use crowded emergency rooms for their primary medical care.

As evictions rise in some coronavirus hot spots, displaced families are doubling up with relatives or moving into shelters, creating conditions for the virus to spread widely, according to Diane Yentel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition, the U.S.’s premiere affordable housing policy group.

“In these cases where social distancing is difficult or impossible, the likelihood of them contracting and spreading coronavirus increases exponentially,” Yentel said.

A fragile safety net is adding to the strain. Enhanced $600 weekly unemployment benefits provided by the federal government are set to evaporate next week, at a time when the national unemployment rate is 13.3%.

Landlords say the pandemic is a crisis for them as well. Bob Pinnegar, CEO of the National Apartment Association, says eviction is always a “last resort,” but “the rental housing industry alone cannot bear the financial burden of the pandemic.”

He said nearly half the country’s landlords are mom-and pop operators who have invested in rental property for retirement income.

COVID POSITIVE, AND FACING EVICTION

For weeks, eviction courts across America were shuttered due to COVID-19. Now, over Zoom, conference calls and even in person in some places, proceedings are ramping up again.

In Houston’s Harris County, more than 5,100 eviction cases have been filed since the virus upended the U.S. economy in March, according to data compiled by Houston-based data science firm January Advisors.

That’s still roughly half of pre-pandemic levels. But it’s worrisome to public health advocates given that Harris County has seen confirmed coronavirus cases jump 500% since Texas’s eviction ban was lifted May 18, the Reuters COVID tracker shows.

Swapnil Agarwal is the 39-year-old founder of Nitya Capital, one of the largest landlords in Texas and owner of the Providence at Champions Apartment Homes from which Boudoin was evicted. During the pandemic, the company has filed more than 120 eviction notices against renters in Houston, a Reuters review of court records found. Houston-based Nitya has $2 billion in real estate assets under management, according to its website.

Agarwal said his firm evicted Boudoin because she was behind on her rent and “we realized that there was no intention to pay,” an allegation she disputes. He said Nitya has gone to great lengths to keep tenants in place and has provided $4 million in rent assistance to those who lost their jobs.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Mariah Smith was served an eviction notice on July 1. A shipping clerk for an aircraft parts maker, she lost her job in May. Smith said she hasn’t been able to pay her rent because she never received her $1,200 federal stimulus check and is still waiting to receive unemployment benefits.

Her fortunes have only gotten worse. Smith, 25, last week was diagnosed with coronavirus after experiencing chills, body aches and a sore throat. She said just walking leaves her winded.

On Thursday, she faces a court hearing on her eviction. Nick Homan, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, agreed to help. He said he’s handling around 25 eviction cases a week now, more than double his typical load.

After Reuters contacted Smith’s landlord — a limited liability company named LPT 46 — an attorney representing the firm, Marvin Bynum II, said the company just learned of Smith’s COVID diagnosis. “The landlord is hopeful that Ms. Smith recovers soon, and is confident the parties can swiftly reach a mutually amicable resolution,” Bynum said.

Homan said he’ll see what happens Thursday, but the larger issue remains.

“There’s nobody in any position of authority to stop eviction right now,” Homan said. “I don’t see anybody making decisions on public health. I only see landlords making decisions about their finances.”

(Reporting by Michelle Conlin; Editing by Tom Lasseter and Marla Dickerson)

Why is New Orleans’ coronavirus death rate nearly three times New York’s? Obesity is a factor

By Brad Brooks

(Reuters) – The coronavirus has been a far deadlier threat in New Orleans than the rest of the United States, with a per-capita death rate almost three times that of New York City. Doctors, public health officials and available data say the Big Easy’s high levels of obesity and related ailments may be part of the problem.

“We’re just sicker,” said Rebekah Gee, who until January was the health secretary for Louisiana and now heads Louisiana State University’s healthcare services division. “We already had tremendous healthcare disparities before this pandemic – one can only imagine they are being amplified now.”

Along with New York and Seattle, New Orleans has emerged as one of the early U.S. hot spots for the coronavirus, making it a national test case for how to control and treat the disease it causes. Chief among the concerns raised by doctors working in the Louisiana city is the death rate, which is close to three times that of New York and over four times that of Seattle, based on publicly reported data.

New Orleans residents suffer from obesity, diabetes and hypertension at rates higher than the national average, conditions that doctors and public health officials say can make patients more vulnerable to COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Some 97% of those killed by COVID-19 in Louisiana had a pre-existing condition, according to the state health department. Diabetes was seen in 40% of the deaths, obesity in 25%, chronic kidney disease in 23% and cardiac problems in 21%.

Orleans Parish, which encompasses the city, reported 115 deaths as of Wednesday, giving it 29.5 coronavirus deaths per 100,000 people. That rate for New York City was at 10.8 on Wednesday.

New Orleans could be a harbinger for the potential toll the pandemic could take in other parts of the South and Midwest that also have high rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.

A host of other factors could contribute to New Orleans’ high death rate from COVID-19, ranging from access to healthcare and hospital quality, to the prevalence of other conditions, including lung disease, health officials say.

But they also note that it is clear that obesity-related conditions are playing a role in the deaths. That could be a warning sign for the United States at large, where chronic obesity is more common than in other developed countries, they said.

Hospitals are reporting cases across the generations -mothers and daughters, fathers and sons – being intubated and cared for in the same intensive care units, said Tracey Moffatt, the chief nursing officer at Ochsner Health, the largest healthcare provider in Louisiana. The prevalence of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease in New Orleans and Louisiana plays into that, she said.

Those family members often suffered from the same medical conditions before becoming sick, leaving them similarly vulnerable to the coronavirus despite their age gaps.

“We had a case where a mom was already in the ICU and the daughter, who was obese, came in,” she said. “The daughter asked staff to wheel her by her mom’s room so she could say goodbye before she herself was intubated. We knew the mother was going to pass away.”

Both patients suffered from obesity.

‘MORE VULNERABLE’

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week released for the first time a report showing that 78% of COVID-19 patients in ICUs in the United States had an underlying health condition, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and chronic lung disease.

The CDC report was based on a sample of under 6% of reported coronavirus infections, but doctors in Louisiana said it was consistent with what they are seeing, and it is in line with what other countries like Italy and China have faced.

Those percentages, said Dr. Joseph Kanter, an emergency department doctor and the top public health official in New Orleans, are likely similar in cities across the United States.

“What we worry about here is that we have more people in our communities with those conditions,” he said. “We’re more vulnerable than other communities, and the number of deaths we’ve seen illustrates that.”

The New Orleans metropolitan statistical area ranks among the worst in the United States for the percentage of residents with diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, a Reuters analysis of CDC data shows. An estimated 39% have high blood pressure, 36% are obese and about 15% have diabetes.

Nationally, the median is 32% with high blood pressure, 31% obese and 11% with diabetes.

“The burden of disease in Louisiana and the Deep South is higher than in the rest of the country,” said Gee. “Invariably that means that the South is going to be hard hit by this.”

(This story corrects headline, paragraphs 1 and 3 to reflect actual death toll of Orleans Parish of 115 deaths; Inserts new paragraph 6 with breakdown of figures.)

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas, additional reporting by Ryan McNeill in London; Editing by Scott Malone, Rosalba O’Brien and Dan Grebler)

U.S. could face 200,000 coronavirus deaths, millions of cases, Fauci warns

By Doina Chiacu and Tom Polansek

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. deaths from coronavirus could reach 200,000 with millions of cases, the government’s top infectious diseases expert warned on Sunday as New York, New Orleans and other major cities pleaded for more medical supplies.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimated in an interview with CNN that the pandemic could cause between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths in the United States.

Since 2010, the flu has killed between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 1918-19 flu pandemic killed 675,000 in the United States, according to the CDC https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/pandemic-preparedness.htm.

The U.S. coronavirus death toll topped 2,400 on Sunday, after deaths on Saturday more than doubled from the level two days prior. The United States has now recorded more than 137,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, the most of any country in the world.

Click https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS-USA/0100B5K8423/index.html for a GRAPHIC on U.S. coronavirus cases

Jason Brown, who was laid off from his job in digital media due to the pandemic, said Fauci’s estimate was scary.

“I feel like it’s just growing, growing, growing,” said Brown, who is 27 and lives in Los Angeles, one of the epicenters of the outbreak. “There’s no vaccine. It seems like a lot of people don’t take it seriously in the U.S. so it makes me believe that this would become more drastic and drastic.”

Erika Andrade, a teacher who lives in Trumbull, Connecticut, said she was already expecting widespread deaths from the virus before Fauci’s estimate on Sunday.

“I wasn’t surprised that he said the numbers were coming. They were lower than what I actually expected,” said Andrade, 49. “I’m worried for my mother. I’m worried for the people I love.”

In New York, the usually bustling city was quiet except for the sound of ambulance sirens.

“It feels very apocalyptic,” said Quentin Hill, 27, of New York City, who works for a Jewish nonprofit. “It almost feels like we’re in wartime.”

New York state reported nearly 60,000 cases and a total of 965 deaths on Sunday, up 237 in the past 24 hours with one person dying in the state every six minutes. The number of patients hospitalized is slowing, doubling every six days instead of every four, Governor Andrew Cuomo said.

Stephanie Garrido, 36, a tech worker from Manhattan, said she has not left her home in 15 days, receiving her groceries by delivery. Too many New Yorkers have underestimated the aggressiveness of the virus as many people continue to socialize and congregate, Garrido said.

“Those people are in denial or just don’t think it will affect them. It’s extremely inconsiderate,” Garrido said. “People need to consider that this will be much longer term.”

The governors of at least 21 states, representing more than half the U.S. population of 330 million, have told residents to stay home and closed non-essential businesses.

Maryland arrested a man who repeatedly violated the ban on large gatherings by hosting a bonfire party with 60 guests, Governor Larry Hogan said on Sunday.

One bright spot on Sunday was Florida reporting about 200 more cases but no new deaths, with its toll staying at 56.

President Donald Trump has talked about reopening the country by Easter Sunday, April 12, despite many states such as New York ordering residents to stay home past that date. On Saturday, he seemed to play down those expectations, saying only “We’ll see what happens.”

Tests to track the disease’s progress also remain in short supply, despite repeated White House promises that they would be widely available.

Trump, who is due to hold a news conference at 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT), bragged on Twitter about the millions of Americans tuning in to watch the daily briefings.

VENTILATOR SHORTAGE

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, whose state has become one the fastest growing areas for the virus, especially in the county that includes Detroit, called the rapid spread “gut-wrenching.”

“We have nurses wearing the same mask from the beginning of their shift until the end, masks that are supposed to for one patient at one point in your shift. We need some assistance and we’re going to need thousands of ventilators,” Whitmer told CNN.

New York City will need hundreds more ventilators in a few days and more masks, gowns and other supplies by April 5, Mayor Bill de Blasio said to CNN.

New Orleans will run out of ventilators around April 4, John Bel Edwards told CBS.

Ventilators are breathing machines needed by many of those suffering from the pneumonia-like respiratory ailment and many hospitals fear they will not have enough.

Dr. Arabia Mollette, an emergency medicine physician at Brookdale and St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, say she now works in a “medical warzone.”

“We’re trying to keep our heads above water without drowning,” Mollette said. “We are scared. We’re trying to fight for everyone else’s life, but we also fight for our lives as well.”

Click https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html for a GRAPHIC tracking the spread of the global coronavirus

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Doina Chiacu and Chris Sanders in Washington, Karen Freifeld in New York, Tom Polansek in Chicago and Dan Trotta; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

New Orleans is next coronavirus epicenter, catalyst for spread in south, experts say

By Brad Brooks

(Reuters) – New Orleans is on track to become the next coronavirus epicenter in the United States, dashing hopes that less densely populated and warmer-climate cities would not be hit as hard by the pandemic, and that summer months could see it wane.

The plight of New Orleans – with the world’s highest growth rate in coronavirus cases and where authorities have warned hospitals could collapse by April 4 – also raises fears it may be a powerful catalyst in speedily spreading the virus across the south of the country.

New Orleans is the biggest city in Louisiana, the state with the third-highest case load of coronavirus in the United States on a per capita basis after the major epicenters of New York and Washington. The growth rate in Louisiana tops all others, according to a University of Louisiana at Lafayette analysis of global data, with the number of cases rising by 30% in the 24 hours before noon on Wednesday. On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump issued a major federal disaster declaration for the state, freeing federal funds and resources.

Some 70% of Louisiana’s 1,795 confirmed cases to date are in the New Orleans metro area.

The culprit for the coronavirus in the Big Easy? Some blame Carnival.

“Mardi Gras was the perfect storm, it provided the perfect conditions for the spread of this virus,” said Dr. Rebekah Gee, who until January was the Health Secretary for Louisiana and now heads up Louisiana State University’s health care services division.

She noted that Fat Tuesday fell on Feb. 25 – when the virus was already in the United States but before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and national leaders had raised the alarm with the American public.

“So New Orleans had its normal level of celebration, which involved people congregating in large crowds and some 1.4 million tourists,” Gee said. “We shared drink cups. We shared each other’s space in the crowds. We shared floats where we were throwing not just beads but probably coronavirus off Carnival floats to people who caught it and took it with them to where they came from.”

Gee said that the explosive growth rate of the coronavirus in the Mississippi River port city means “it’s on the trajectory to become the epicenter for the outbreak in the United States.”

RESILIENT, BUT WARY

Dr. Peter Hotez is the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College, a renowned vaccine scientist and an expert on the coronavirus pandemic.

He said that the rapid grip the virus is gaining on New Orleans was deeply worrying and a possible harbinger for worse to come across the south and for less densely populated and warmer cities across America.

“There has been some research and data suggesting that warmer, more humid weather could slow this epidemic,” he said. “The fact that this occurred on the Gulf Coast, which has some of the higher humidity and temperatures in the U.S., is a serious concern.”

Hotez noted that more research into how climate does or does not play a role in the spread of this coronavirus needs to happen, but acknowledged that experts hoped that warm weather and the coming summer months in the northern hemisphere would be natural buffers against it.

“If you look at this epidemic, we’ve not seen much in the hotter parts of the country. Texas has not had a lot. Arizona has not had a lot. Then all of a sudden – bam! – it appears in strength in New Orleans,” he said. “We have to follow this trend closely.”

Having an entirely new coronavirus epicenter kick off means that the United States may soon be dealing with multiple hot spots all at once, Hotez said – a worst-case scenario that could cripple healthcare systems.

If predictions were correct, the hospitals in New Orleans would struggle to manage past next week, Governor John Bel Edwards told a news conference on Tuesday.

New Orleans could well be the first major domino to fall in the south, starting a chain reaction in other metro areas in the region, said Hotez.

That is a serious concern for Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country and a major center for the oil industry. The two cities have historically strong links made even more so by an influx of New Orleans residents into Houston following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey.

On the ground in New Orleans’ famed French Quarter, residents said they were definitely concerned, but that the virus was an entirely different threat from the natural disasters that routinely befall the city.

Jonathan Sanders, a 35-year-old general manager of the French Quarter brasserie Justine, said the city was calm and residents largely heeding authorities orders to stay inside.

“There is always something going on at all hours of the day or night. Now, without it all, it’s very peaceful,” he said. “You can park anywhere in the French Quarter.”

The virus, Sanders said, was so far easier to deal with than the death and destruction Hurricane Katrina unleashed in 2005, when over 1,800 people died along the Gulf Coast.

“When you think of the total destruction of Katrina… that was gut wrenching,” he said. “We’re fairly more resilient than other places that haven’t had so many tragic things happen to their city.”

New York takes new steps against coronavirus as impact spreads across U.S.

New York takes new steps against coronavirus as impact spreads across U.S.
By Maria Caspani and Susan Heavey

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – While the burdens of the coronavirus intensified across the United States, New York City on Wednesday took aggressive new steps to battle the crisis, closing streets and asking people to stop playing basketball and other contact sports in public parks.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said more than 30,800 people had tested positive for the virus in his state, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, and more than 17,800 in New York City alone. The state has reported 285 deaths and roughly half the country’s reported infections.

State measures to control the coronavirus appear to be working as the rate of hospitalizations has slowed in recent days, Cuomo said. “Now that is almost too good to be true,…” he said. “This is a very good sign and a positive sign, again not 100% sure it holds, or it’s accurate but the arrows are headed in the right direction.”

He described street closures in New York City, where more than 8 million people live, as a pilot program and said sports like basketball would be banned in city parks, first on a voluntary basis as long as people comply.

With closures to vehicles, the intention is to allow pedestrians to walk in the streets to enable greater “social distancing” to avoid infections.

“Our closeness makes us vulnerable,” said Cuomo, who has emerged as a leading national voice on the coronavirus.

“We will overcome. And we will show the other communities across this country how to do it.”

Even as city officials struggled to contain the health crisis, the impact was increasingly being felt beyond the hot spots of New York, California and Washington state as Louisiana and others faced a severe crush on their healthcare systems.

U.S. President Donald Trump issued the latest major federal disaster declarations for Louisiana and Iowa late on Tuesday, freeing up federal funds to help states cope with the increasing number of cases of the dangerous respiratory disease caused by the virus that threaten to overwhelm state and local resources.

That brings to five the number of states receiving major disaster declarations from the Republican president. New York – the state with by far the most infections and deaths – was given such status last weekend as well as California and Washington state.

Louisiana, where large crowds last month celebrated Mardi Gras in New Orleans and other locations, reported a spike in infections with 1,388 total confirmed cases and 46 deaths as of mid-Tuesday, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

Dr. Rebekah Gee, who until January was Louisiana’s health secretary and now heads up Louisiana State University’s healthcare services division, said that it was the Mardi Gras, when 1.4 million tourists descended on New Orleans, that fueled the city’s outbreak.

“It’s a highly infectious virus and Mardi Gras happened when the virus was in the United States but before the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and national leaders had really educated the public or even acknowledged the extent to which it was in the U.S.,” Gee said. “We had the president saying, ‘It’s just a few people, don’t worry about it.'”

‘FREAKING OUT’

New Orleans restaurant owner Ronnie Evans said everyone in New Orleans was “freaking out.”

“People don’t know what to expect or how long this will last. Everyone is worried about their jobs,” said Evans, 32, whose restaurant Blue Oak BBQ is just few steps from the city’s renowned Bourbon Street. The restaurant is offering takeout orders only.

“People are still coming out, but they’re scared. This is as bad as Katrina or worse,” referring to the hurricane that devastated the city in 2005.

The governors of at least 18 states have issued stay-at-home directives affecting about half the U.S. population of roughly 330 million people. The sweeping orders are aimed at slowing the spread of the pathogen but have upended daily life as schools and businesses shutter indefinitely.

A number of other U.S. states have also applied for major disaster relief status in recent days including Florida, Texas, New Jersey, North Carolina, Missouri, Maryland and South Carolina, as well as Northern Mariana Islands U.S. territory.

Nationwide, more than 53,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus that is particularly perilous to the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions, with at least 730 deaths. World Health Organization officials have said the United States could become the global epicenter of the pandemic, which first emerged late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

World Health Organization expert Dr. Bruce Aylward told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program: “The U.S. is a gigantic country so it is very difficult to say something is going to happen right across the whole country. You are going to see this evolve differently in each part of the country.”

Trump on Tuesday said he wanted to re-open the country by Easter Sunday – far sooner than public health officials have said is warranted – but later told reporters he would listen to recommendations from the nation’s top health officials.

Wall Street on Wednesday was unable to sustain strong gains from Tuesday’s session as fears about the pandemic’s economic toll overshadowed optimism about sweeping fiscal and monetary stimulus to aid businesses and households.

U.S. lawmakers and the Trump administration reached a deal for a bipartisan $2 trillion stimulus package to help businesses and millions of Americans hit by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate was due to vote on the legislation on Wednesday. The House of Representatives was not expected to act before Thursday.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Brad Brooks, Maria Caspani, Stephanie Kelly, Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu, Patricia Zengerle and Stephanie Nebehay; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)

Remnants of storm Barry dump more rain in the U.S. southeast

Crews clear debris from Highway 23 during Hurricane Barry in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, U.S. July 14, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Collin Eaton

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – The remnants of the once-mighty storm Barry, the first hurricane of the 2019 season, dumped dangerous amounts of rain as it crawled north through the United States on Monday after coming ashore west of New Orleans at the weekend.

Barry, now downgraded to a tropical depression, still packed winds of up to 25 mph and could drop 5 inches or more of rain on a water-logged Louisiana, forecaster Andrew Orrison of the National Weather Service said.

That brings the risk of dangerous flash floods from already bloated rivers across much of the gulf region and Mississippi Valley, he said.

“We’ll see the winds coming down as the day progresses,” he said. “But the big story is the rain. This is still capable of very heavy rains through the next 24 hours.”

Through Monday and Tuesday, the storm will bring 3-to-5 inches of rain with spots of 10-to-15 to eastern Arkansas, western Tennessee, and parts of Missouri and Mississippi, as it heads north toward Ohio, he said.

As of early Monday, about 50,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana were without electricity, according to the tracking site PowerOutage.us.

Barry, which made landfall on Saturday as a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity and then quickly weakened to a tropical storm, was expected to break up into a post-tropical depression by Monday afternoon, forecasters said.

Fears that Barry might devastate the low-lying city of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina did in 2005 were unfounded, but rain in the forecast could still cause dangerous flooding into Monday, meteorologists said.

The additional rainfall could cause life-threatening conditions, the NWS said in a bulletin.

New Orleans saw light rain on Sunday, and churches and several businesses were open, including some on Tchoupitoulas Street along the flooded Mississippi River. Streets in the city’s Garden District were quieter than usual but some joggers and dogwalkers ventured out.

A concert by the Rolling Stones scheduled for Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which served as an emergency shelter during Katrina, was postponed until Monday because of the weather forecast, the venue said.

Barry has shut in 73%, or 1.38 million barrels per day (bpd), of crude oil production in the U.S.-regulated areas of the Gulf of Mexico, officials said on Sunday.

(Reporting by Collin Eaton in New Orleans; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter and Rich McKay; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Tropical Storm Barry lands first blow on coastal Louisiana, New Orleans hunkers down

A view of downtown New Orleans pictured with the Mississippi River as Tropical Storm Barry approaches land in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S. July 11, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Collin Eaton and Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – Coastal Louisiana felt the first blow from Tropical Storm Barry’s winds early on Friday as the slow-moving tempest was forecast to become the first Atlantic hurricane of 2019 threatening to bring rain and flooding to New Orleans later in the day.

U.S. President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for Louisiana late Thursday, hours after the region’s oil production was cut in half as energy companies evacuated offshore drilling facilities and a coastal refinery.

Tropical Storm Barry packed maximum sustained winds of 50 miles per hour (85 km per hour) early Friday and was centered 95 miles (155 km) southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Barry will likely strengthen into a hurricane, the National Hurricane Center said, with winds of at least 74 mph (119 km) by the time it comes ashore late Friday or early Saturday, but officials warned that torrential rains posed the greatest danger.

Authorities kept a close eye on the levee system built to contain flooding along the lower Mississippi River that winds through the heart of New Orleans and has been running above flood stage for the past six months.

Barry was forecast to bring a coastal storm surge into the mouth of the river that could push its crest to 19 feet (5.79 m)on Saturday. That would be a foot lower than initially predicted but still the highest since 1950 and dangerously close to the top of the city’s levees.

Meteorologists predicted as much as 25 inches (64 cm) of rain could fall, leading to life-threatening flooding along parts of the Gulf Coast on Friday and Saturday.

The brunt of the storm was expected to skirt the western edge of New Orleans, avoiding a direct hit. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said the city has not ordered any voluntary or mandatory evacuations. But she added that 48 hours of heavy downpours could overwhelm pumps designed to purge streets and storm drains of excess water in the low-lying city.

“There is no system in the world that can handle that amount of rainfall in such a short period,” Cantrell said on Twitter.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards warned: “The more information we get, the more concerned we are that this is going to be an extreme rain event.”

Officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the levees, insisted that no significant breaching of the 20-foot-tall levees in New Orleans was likely.

Some residents, recalling the deadly, devastating floods unleashed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said they were determined to get out of harm’s way.

Others flocked to supermarkets for bottled water, ice, snacks and beer, thronging grocery stores in such numbers that some ran out of shopping carts.

Throughout the city, motorists left cars parked on the raised median strips of roadways hoping the extra elevation would protect them from flood damage.

A concierge at the luxury Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans noted many cancellations ahead of the storm. The hotel had been hosting the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority’s 54th national convention and most attendees checked out early, said the concierge, who declined to give her name.

A tropical storm warning was in place for metropolitan New Orleans, and a hurricane warning was issued for a stretch of the Louisiana coast south of the city.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for areas of Plaquemines Parish beyond the levees southeast of the city, and for low-lying communities in Jefferson Parish, to the southwest.

(Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Jeffrey Benkoe)