When Rachael Nelson moved to a suburb of New Orleans two years ago, she never dreamed she would be riding out a Category 4 hurricane.
The former Seymour resident moved to Kenner, Louisiana, which is about a 15-minute drive from New Orleans, in 2019, after her fiancé, Jeremy Rose, accepted a position as a hospitality staffing manager for LGC Hospitality. He is now the area manager for Louisiana and Alabama.
Nelson, 25, works as an outreach teacher for the Louisiana Special School District and does home visits with families of deaf and hard-of-hearing children from birth up to age 5.
“We work on language development and education about specific issues of the deaf and hard-of-hearing,” she said. “The educational gap for deaf people is truly awful, and our goal is to help families navigate the difficulties and make sure that D/HH kids are school ready by age 5.”
Nelson said since moving to Louisiana, they have experienced hurricanes Barry, Laura, Delta and Zeta.
“Laura didn’t affect us at all, and Delta/Zeta brought a little bit of wind damage and some brief power outages,” she said. “In my experience, those other storms were like a jog, and Ida was a 5K race. Huge difference.”
Nelson said they had emergency kits, supplies, dry food, water and water filtration and a place to evacuate to and were ready for Hurricane Ida.
“We had our bags packed and ready for us and the dog as well as emergency backpacks that we prepared a few years ago with dry food, first aid supplies, etc.,” she said. “We also bought a lot of easy dry snacks to eat and cooked a lot of food ahead of time that we could eat cold.”
They also filled a cooler, the kind seen on football fields, with clean water for themselves and their dog, Murdoch, and had 20 gallons in reserve.
“Jeremy also has a Sawyer squeeze for water filtration if needed, and the bathtub was filled with water to be used to flush toilets and other nondrinking tasks,” she said. “In the house, we keep a ton of first aid supplies handy, mostly because I’m so clumsy. Nobody was wanting for Band-Aids or Neosporin.”
She said they weren’t expecting Ida to be that bad, and when they initially made the decision to stay, it was expected to be a Category 3 and was pretty far west of them.
“By the time we heard that it was a Category 4 and shifting east toward us, it was Saturday morning and the interstates were a parking lot,” Nelson said. “Even then, we weren’t super worried because we felt well-prepared and live on the second floor of an apartment building.”
Nelson and Rose were in their apartment Aug. 29, the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, when the storm started rolling in about noon.
Hurricane Ida blasted ashore in Louisiana with torrential downpours, blowing roofs off of buildings with 150 mph winds, knocking out power to all of New Orleans when all eight transmission lines that deliver electricity to the city failed, according to utility company Entergy Louisiana.
“We lost power at 1 p.m. Then it peaked with the most wind, rain and flooding between 7 and 10 p.m,” Nelson said. “It started slacking off at around 2 a.m. on the 30th.”
The towns of Kenner, LaPlace, Houma, Norco and Destrehan all got hit really hard because the eyewall passed over them, Nelson said.
“A town called Lafitte had water top the levees and flood the whole place,” she said. “My friend lives there and spent the night in her attic, and people there had to be rescued by boat by the National Guard and Cajun Navy.”
Nelson said the actual hurricane took trees and power lines down, tore roofs and tossed debris.
“In my complex, there are two huge trees that have been ripped out by the roots, there are windows broken all over and it’s next to impossible to walk around for all the limbs,” she said. “We actually got through the peak of the storm pretty well and just had some road flooding that kept us upstairs until it receded.”
Nelson said their outside-facing walls leaked through the cracks and water gushed through their windows and the front door and even a light switch. They used every towel they had.
“However, what we didn’t know was that apparently, fires are common during hurricanes, typically from misuse of generators and other nonelectrical equipment,” Nelson said. “At around 9:30 p.m. Sunday, a huge fire broke out two buildings over from us.”
She said they called the fire department and begged for help, but they wouldn’t come until the storm died down, and help never arrived until around 1 a.m.
“At this time, we don’t know the cause of the fire, but a generator is suspected, as you’re not supposed to use them in enclosed areas or tight spaces,” she said. “The building shot flames like 30 feet into the sky, and people could see it all over town.”
Her fiancé spent hours running to the other buildings warning people to leave because the wind was blowing the flames all over.
“He and other neighbors doing this absolutely saved lives because the flames spread to another building, and they both completely and totally burned to the ground,” Nelson said. “We watched the walls crumble until about 4:30 a.m., and when I woke up at 9 a.m. Monday, the flames were still active, but the fire department was there monitoring, and they had gotten a water tank truck to work with.”
She said during the worst parts of the fires, between 10 p.m and 2 a.m. Sunday, people were panicking and trying to leave, but water was filling the roads around them, and one of the buildings on fire was very close to the front gate.
“There is a back gate, but it has been locked with a heavy chain for months, so we were essentially locked inside with two huge fires and the hurricane raging with nowhere to escape,” Nelson said. “The scariest part was the fire, especially with Jeremy outside in the storm trying to warn people. I had no idea where he was, if he was OK and didn’t know if the fire was going to spread to my building.”
Nelson, Rose and Murdoch left Monday afternoon because government officials were asking people to leave and were estimating five days to regain water services and three weeks for power to come back on.
“Our apartment complex also doesn’t want people in the buildings until they are assessed for structural damage,” Nelson said. “It was super hot, not a comfortable time to be without air conditioning, so we left by car to stay with some of Jeremy’s family outside Atlanta.”
Murdoch is having a hard time. He is a rescue that experienced some serious abuse, so he’s already very anxious.
“The storm scared him a lot, the fire scared him a lot and now, he’s staying with his cousin dogs, who are elderly, blind and don’t seem to like him very much,” Nelson said. “But he’s got a big backyard to play, he’s safe, healthy and here with us, and that’s what’s important.”
Nelson said she was pleased to see the levees held in Kenner, the flooding receded quickly and city officials are working fast to fix things.
As for work, Nelson is not sure when the Louisiana Special School District will reopen, but she has been in touch with a few of the families and will be offering virtual visits. Rose will work remotely to staff clients for a while.
Through this experience, she said the most important things she learned are to definitely evacuate for Category 4 and above storms in the future and hurricane-related fires are a huge risk.
Nelson said even though they were hit hard with Ida, they want to continue living in southeast Louisiana.
“I grew up in Seymour, and my dad, Mike Nelson, and sister, Erin Nelson, still live there, but I really enjoy living in Kenner, and we’ll be going back home as soon as we can,” she said.