Hurricane Ida is one of the "most catastrophic hurricanes" to make landfall in the United States, and its impact is even worse because of the COVID-19 surge that is taxing hospitals in the path of the massive storm, FEMA Director Deanne Criswell said Monday.
"My biggest concern is still the fragility of our healthcare system," Criswell said on ABC News' "Good Morning America." "It has been stressed from COVID-19 and the occupancy has been full. We have put plans in place to support that. They all have generator backup. Some are already on generator backup. We have resources to go in and augment that if we need to but we're also prepared to move patients out of state."
Meanwhile, FEMA is still trying to assess the damages from the storm, and one main concern is whether the levees will hold back flooding caused by the storm, which landed on the 16th anniversary of the devastating Hurricane Katrina.
"I'm told right now the levee around New Orleans [held] but we knew there could be some in the southern parts of Louisiana that would overtop and those are areas that did have a mandatory evacuation order in place," said Criswell. "We brought in search and rescue assets, power restoration team, food, and water to support the shelter operations."
The COVID-19 pandemic is also adding a "level of complexity" to the response to Ida, Criswell said.
"One of our biggest concerns is making sure that we're not spreading COVID-19 unnecessarily," said Criswell. "We have some pandemic shelter kits that can help support social distancing in the shelters but we're also prepared to immediately move people into hotels so we can keep them separated and try to avoid any additional spread of this virus."
Meanwhile, Criswell said damage reports have indicated that there have been building collapses after the storm came ashore in Louisiana Sunday. Ida had blown out power to millions in Louisiana before weakening into a tropical storm over southwestern Mississippi early Monday.
The storm is still causing heavy downpours that officials said are likely to result in life-threatening floods.
"Some of the initial reports that we're hearing are some building collapses across the area and significant structural damage to many buildings," said Criswell. "We're seeing some barges and some vessels that may have been broken loose and we're also, you know, experiencing over a million power outages right at the moment."
The state of Louisiana also sent search and rescue teams out at first light, said Criswell.
"This is significant," she said. "There is major damage. We've got a lot of resources in place to support the state and they'll be going out as soon as it's safe to do so."
She insisted, however, that the emergency response systems are far different now than they were after Hurricane Katrina.
"The federal, state, and local emergency management structure is in a very different place than it was 16 years ago and we've never had a better relationship with our state and local partners in Louisiana," said Criswell.
Criswell, also appearing on "CBS This Morning," commented that more damage was being revealed as the sun rose Monday, and warned that people may have to stay in place for some time.
"We're going to have a long road over the next few days as we try to identify where people may be, and people need to be prepared to stay put for about 72 hours," said Criswell. "We're going to get to you. The state and the local first responders are going to get to you as quickly as they can."
Criswell also pointed out that Ida was more than just a Category 4 hurricane, but one that stayed at that strength for several hours, and warned that it may be "weeks" before electrical power is restored in many parts of the region.
"There are over a million customers right now without power," said Criswell. "People should be prepared for several weeks before full power restoration comes on. We're not going to be able to tell you where it's going to come on first. People need to be prepared. It's going to be weeks before we get it all restored."
She added that with the Gulf of Mexico being key to the oil and gas industry, precautions were made to protect workers and the facilities, but the impact of the storm in that sector was not yet known this morning.
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