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Pilots line up to help in Ida’s wake

The airport was among 1 million utility customers without power after Hurricane Ida made landfall on August 29 near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, a slow-moving storm that lashed the state with 150-mph sustained winds and caused widespread damage, as well as at least one fatality, though officials expected to find many more had not survived. Images of flattened buildings and rescue boats cruising flooded streets began to trickle in within hours of sunrise, but a full picture of the devastation would likely take days to assemble.

Local and national media reported many canceled flights at larger airports in Louisiana and Mississippi, as tropical storm force winds and torrential rain continued to wreak havoc. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards told MSNBC that he expected the official death toll of one person to rise “considerably” as search-and-rescue efforts were underway. 

Martin, who hunkered down overnight at the New Orleans airport that juts into Lake Pontchartrain, said first light revealed that hangars and other structures had “fared very well” through a night of wind and rain as the storm’s center passed west of the city. That center of circulation was over the outskirts of Baton Rouge, about 50 nautical miles northwest of the airport, when Martin was reached by cellphone shortly before 8 a.m. Central time.

While the airport was not yet officially closed, according to FAA notams, that was about to change, Martin said. The main runway was “95 percent clear,” but taxiways and ramps were under 3 to 4 feet of water, and the drain valve into the city had been closed to protect the city, so he expected it would take some time to drain the airport.

Across the region, notams reflected outages of airport infrastructure, but may not have reflected actual conditions because of the widespread power outages and damage to communications networks.

“We probably won’t be reopening until tomorrow,” Martin said. He had not yet been in contact with city officials and had ridden out the storm with a small team of firefighters who had not enjoyed a restful night.

“It was gnarly, that’s for sure,” Martin said. “When we lost power … some of the doors started flying open.”

Ida struck on the sixteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a storm that flooded much of New Orleans and led to a multibillion-dollar federal project to upgrade the levees and pumps and create a storm mitigation system that largely held, though at least one levee outside of that system was overtopped, according to local and national media reports.

Two hangars were damaged at Louisiana Regional Airport in Gonzales, about 38 miles north of Houma-Terrebonne Airport in Houma and also in the path of the hurricane. A Piper Malibu was damaged by falling debris in one of the hangars, though other aircraft were not. Photo courtesy of AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Logan Eichelberger.

The utility company Entergy reported all eight of the power transmission lines into New Orleans were out of service, and warned it would take days just to assess the damage done to a transmission-line tower that collapsed into the Mississippi River upstream of New Orleans in Avondale. Restoration of power was expected to take weeks in many cases. The surge of water and onshore winds had reversed the flow of the Mississippi River for a period of hours on August 29, a rare but not unprecedented event.

Martin said that from his perspective, the combination of wind and flooding—particularly the flooding—from Ida will be remembered as the worst hurricane he has personally experienced.

“It’s unlike any hurricane I’ve been a part of,” Martin said.

Rescues underway, GA mobilizes

While the storm’s center passed west of New Orleans, Houma, Louisiana, was directly in the path and may have suffered the worst of the storm. Houma-Terrebonne Airport, located 44 nautical miles southwest of Lakefront Airport, posted several notams effective August 30 indicating the tower was closed through midnight (UTC) on August 31, and various navigational aids and obstruction markings were out of service. The airport office phone was out of service on August 30; an email sent to the airport office drew no immediate response.

Aerobridge, a nonprofit organization that coordinates general aviation disaster relief flights (and dispatched volunteers to the region following Hurricane Harvey in 2017), had also been trying to reach that airport to no avail. Aerobridge was activated August 29 and working on August 30 to stage emergency supplies in Pensacola, Florida, and Shreveport, Louisiana. Spokesman Charley Valera notified volunteer pilots and crews via posts on the organization’s website and Facebook page that flight operations would commence once weather improves, and not before August 31.

Operation Airdrop, a Texas nonprofit that also organizes GA relief flights in disaster areas, was also assessing next steps and requesting donations, with further updates promised on its Facebook page.

Valera said Aerobridge hoped to help restore the Houma airport’s communications infrastructure as quickly as possible: “We have a guy to fix them, tool and radios, but can’t get him in there.”

The storm’s excruciatingly slow progress north delayed damage assessments on the ground, as well as by air. “Can’t fly into there as wx is still terrible. Tomorrow we can get HUM the supplies and radio connections,” Valera wrote.

Several pilots posted intentions to join the GA airlift on the Aerobridge Facebook page. As the comments accumulated, the extent of the damage was only beginning to become clear, and Ida remained a top story on national news outlets. The Washington Post reported that officials expected to cancel all flights August 30 at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport pending damage assessment. Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport also canceled flights scheduled August 30, with the “possible exception” of late evening arrivals if weather conditions improved.

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