In his more than 30 years working with the Potomac Edison electric utility company, Keith Potter has seen his fair share of natural disaster destruction — ice storms, snowstorms, floods and high winds.
He spent two weeks in Texas after Rita, which the National Weather Service regards as the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, made landfall as a Category 3 storm in September 2005, roughly a month after Katrina devastated New Orleans.
But the damage Hurricane Ida brought to eastern Louisiana in late August, particularly to parts of the state’s electrical infrastructure, is unlike anything Potter has ever seen.
He is one of at least 10 people who work in Frederick County who responded to the Bayou State in the days after the Category 4 hurricane exacted its toll, whipping up winds of 150 mph and initially leaving more than a million people without power.
“The people that leave their families to help in emergency situations like this are definitely troopers,” Potter told the News-Post from Louisiana earlier this week. “They’re first responders.”
Entergy, the energy company that services areas of Louisiana and Mississippi that Ida hit hardest, has restored electricity to approximately 90 percent of its 948,000 customers in the region who lost it. But as of this week, tens of thousands of people across Entergy’s service area still didn’t have power.
Ed Link, a Middletown resident who directed the Army Corps of Engineers’ investigation into the failure of New Orleans’ flood levees during Katrina, said Ida marked the most daunting test of the state’s risk reduction infrastructure since it was assembled after August 2005.
Ida didn’t produce the storm surge that would’ve been necessary for water to overtop the new levees and bring Katrina-level flooding, Link said. But the hurricane’s forceful winds exposed power systems as a vulnerability in the water-adjacent city.
Between southeast Louisiana and southwest Mississippi, Ida damaged or destroyed more than 30,000 electrical distribution poles — more than Katrina and three previous storms combined, according to Entergy’s website.
Potomac Edison dispatched 20 Maryland employees, including nine who work in Frederick County, to Louisiana as part of a network of electric companies assisting Entergy, spokesman Will Boye said.
Upon arriving, Potter’s team saw unearthed trees, poles blocking roadways and wires strewn across vehicles. In some cases, homes had lost their roofs and gas stations were void of their canopies.
From the vantage point of buckets attached to Potomac Edison utility vehicles, Potter said his crew could see damage extend for miles.
Their days in New Orleans began at 6 a.m. and lasted 16 hours through humidity that Potter described as “tremendous.” Their body temperatures weren’t helped by the long-sleeve, fire-retardant shirts, safety vests and, in some cases, rubber gloves and sleeves they wore for protection.
“You pull to a job, and you step outside, and within 10 minutes you’re soaking wet,” Potter said.
As a result, the crew followed intermittent breaks and water consumption guidelines based on the day’s heat and humidity indexes.
For more than two weeks, the Potomac Edison crew straightened poles, replaced transformers and rewired homes. In cases where a pole was down and electrical wire was tangled, they had to reconfigure the previously standing infrastructure, beginning with new poles and new wire.
They’re far from the only ones — utility trucks and repair workers were omnipresent throughout the most-battered parts of the state.
Frederick resident Carole Henderson is also in New Orleans, though in a different capacity than the Potomac Edison crew. She’s a Red Cross volunteer with a specialty in post-disaster child care, according to Curt Luthye, the executive director for the Red Cross chapter Henderson volunteers for.
The chapter, which covers Montgomery, Howard and Frederick counties, has largely kept its response to Ida local, Luthye said. Personnel have mostly mobilized to assist the hundreds displaced by flooding in D.C.-Frederick region.
Henderson’s training in post-disaster child care, however, made it more appropriate for her to be in Louisiana, Luthye said. She’s helped children process the trauma their family may be enduring, and her care frees up parents to coordinate with their insurance companies and handle other matters.
Since Sept. 3, Henderson has worked three child care shifts per day, typically spanning 12 hours altogether. Between each shift, she cleans and follows a series of COVID-19 protocols to mitigate the risk of transmission within the shelters that she’s working.
“We absolutely couldn’t do the mission of the Red Cross without volunteers like her,” Luthye said.
Henderson’s schedule — and the unpredictability of responding in a post-hurricane setting — prevented her from speaking with The Frederick News-Post directly, Luthye said.
Henderson has been in Louisiana for two weeks, which is the typical length for a Red Cross volunteer deploying to a disaster area. But, Luthye said, if she wants to remain and the Red Cross finds it necessary, she’ll extend her deployment.
Potter recalled seeing people returning to their homes, or what remained of them, to discover what they’d lost. Despite the devastation, the people of Louisiana have shown immense gratitude to the Frederick residents who mobilized to help after Ida, he said. They’ve offered whatever food or water they have to those helping them. They’ve essentially offered the shirt off their back.
“A lot of the people didn’t have much to start with, and they lost everything. But they have an attitude unlike any other state I’ve worked in,” Potter said. “They say we will rebuild, and we’ll survive.”