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Plaquemines Parish President Hunkers Down Through Hurricane Ida With Members

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Teams in Louisiana are scrambling to respond to calls for help and assess the damage in Hurricane Ida's wake. The president has said that more than 5,000 members of the National Guard will help with search-and-rescue efforts. And about a million people in New Orleans still don't have electricity after fierce winds downed the transmission lines that power the city. The levee system is still protecting the city of New Orleans. It appears to be doing its job so far. We reached out to Plaquemines Parish President Kirk Lepine. Welcome to the program.

KIRK LEPINE: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Now, we're talking to you in part because Plaquemines Parish is in Louisiana's southern most part of the state, where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico. Can you talk about, first, this worry about the levees, so to speak? Do you have that? What are you dealing with in terms of flooding?

LEPINE: Yes, we are 65 miles long from the top of the parish to the bottom. And we're on the east and west bank because we're separated by the Mississippi River. So we have a river levee, and we have a marsh levee which protects us from that coastal side. So our concern is always the marsh levees. The river levees are at 20, 25 feet. Other levees with the marsh - some are as low as 3 to 6 feet. So that's where - the concern when the storm surge is 10 to 15, it just inundates those levees.

CORNISH: And so far?

LEPINE: So far, so good. We had a chopper up today. We had a drone up today. We had guys in airboats. And we don't see breaches in the levee. So that's very important. We see overtopping. So that water that was inundated was overtopping. If it was a breach in the levee, then we would have more problems.

CORNISH: What are the most urgent needs in your parish right now? We heard the president of Jefferson Parish saying that they had something like 250 rescue calls. I know in a press conference you talked about parts of your parish that are underwater. What are you needing in this moment?

LEPINE: Well, you know, we have not received one distress call from our 911 center, so that's very refreshing. We had ordered a mandatory evacuation on Friday. And we tried to get out much as many residents out as we could. And I think we saw a steady stream of people coming up and getting out. So we were very encouraged by that. So now we don't - we're asking our residents not to come back right now. Let us get cleaned up.

CORNISH: Right. I heard you're also asking people to conserve water, right? I mean, because of the power outages, there's no essential water supply.

LEPINE: Well, we do have a water plant, but it feeds out - it feeds the whole parish. So if we do pump water down to - it's in Belcher (ph), our northern city, which pumps it down to our lower cities. So if it gets inundated when it's on generator power, we're going to have some problems. But when we're at full power, it's not a problem. So that's why we're asking people to conserve water.

CORNISH: Where are people sheltering during this evacuation? When are you telling them they can come back?

LEPINE: Well, we used to offer our shelter of last resort on our complex, a government complex. We have a multipurpose center, and it's 33,000 square foot. So we're able to shelter people amid COVID, so socially distanced. This time, because of the intensity of storm, we actually moved these people to West Monroe. We have a contract with West Monroe. That's in northern Louisiana. And we had about 40 residents go, so we bussed them up there. And they're still up there.

CORNISH: So there's some sort of social distancing there or what is it that makes it different?

LEPINE: Yes. They have a contract with different parishes. So they also have a multipurpose center. So it allows them to separate people. So it gives them an opportunity to be COVID safe and allow them to have a good evacuation place and still be in a safe environment.

CORNISH: Kirk Lepine of Plaquemines Parish, thank you so much for keeping us up to date. Please stay safe.

LEPINE: Thank you, guys. Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 30, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier headline mistakenly referenced the president of New Orleans Parish. This interview is with the president of Plaquemines Parish. Louisiana doesn't have a parish named New Orleans Parish. Additionally, an earlier summary of this report incorrectly said the interview was about the impact of Hurricane Ida on New Orleans. In fact, it was about the impact on Plaquemines Parish.