The Greatest Killer in New Orleans Wasn’t the Hurricane. It Was the Heat.
A huge power failure after Hurricane Ida left vulnerable residents in sweltering apartments for days. At least 10 deaths in the city have been tied to the heat.,
NEW ORLEANS — In many ways, Iley Joseph’s one-bedroom apartment was an ideal place to ride out a hurricane. It was on the third floor — much too high to flood — of a building that was sturdy and new, part of a sleek, gated community for older residents like him.
But in the days after Hurricane Ida, his home began to feel like a trap. The huge power failure that cut off electricity to New Orleans rendered Mr. Joseph’s air-conditioner useless and his refrigerator nothing more than a cupboard. Even worse, the outage froze the building’s elevators in place, sealing him inside the building because his health problems prevented him from using the stairs.
Mr. Joseph, 73, insisted in telephone conversations with his sons that he was doing just fine. But in his apartment, No. 312, it kept getting hotter. On Sept. 2, the fourth day after the storm hit — the hottest yet — a friend found him lying still on the side of his bed.
“I call his name, he doesn’t respond,” said the friend, Jared Righteous. “I realized he was gone.”
Only in recent days, as the last lights flickered back on in New Orleans, have officials here discovered the true toll of Hurricane Ida. Unlike in the Northeast, where many who perished were taken by floodwaters and tornadoes, heat has emerged as the greatest killer in New Orleans.
Of 14 deaths caused by the storm in the city, Mr. Joseph’s and nine others are believed to be tied to the heat. Experts say there are probably more. And friends of those who died have begun to ask whether the government or apartment landlords could have done more to protect older residents before they died, often alone, in stiflingly hot homes.
“Heat is a hazard that we simply haven’t given sufficient attention to,” said David Hondula, a professor at Arizona State University who studies the effects of sweltering temperatures. “All cities are in the early stages of understanding what an effective heat response looks like.”
In New Orleans, officials set up air-conditioned cooling centers across the city and distributed food, water and ice around town. But for residents like Mr. Joseph who could not leave their buildings, the aid might as well have been worlds away.
All 10 people whose deaths have been tied to the heat were in their 60s and 70s, and they died over four broiling days, the last of which was Sept. 5, a full week after the storm.
Among the first was Corinne Labat-Hingle, a 70-year-old woman who had fled to Memphis during Hurricane Katrina but returned to New Orleans and was living at an apartment complex for older people near Saint Bernard Avenue, a short walk from the city’s largest park. She was found dead on Sept. 2, when the temperature reached 93 degrees outdoors and was most likely higher inside her apartment. Two days later, another 93-degree day, four people were found dead, including Reginald Logan, 74, whose body was discovered after a neighbor saw flies in his window. On Sept. 5, the heat index reached 101, and one of the last victims of the heat was found dead: Keith Law, a 65-year-old man who lived in the Algiers neighborhood.
Heat most likely contributes to more deaths each year than are officially recorded, Professor Hondula said. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports fewer than 700 heat-related deaths a year, some studies have estimated 5,000 to 12,000. Last month, The New York Times found that 600 more people died in Oregon and Washington in the last week of June, during a heat wave, than normally would have, a number three times the state officials’ estimates of heat-related deaths.
People who die from the heat may not recognize their symptoms as life-threatening, and heat-related deaths can also occur suddenly, with little warning. The most frequent cause is cardiovascular failure, when the heart cannot pump blood fast enough. Less frequent are deaths from heat stroke, when a person’s internal temperature rises by several degrees and the body cannot cool off, causing organs like the brain, heart or kidneys to fail.
Laura Bergerol, a 65-year-old New Orleans photographer, died on Sept. 5. She had planned to evacuate to Florida before the storm but told friends she had trouble finding a hotel room. By the time she arranged plans, it was too dangerous to leave. After the storm, an errant $400 charge on her bank account had left her without enough money to get out. She stocked up on candles and hunkered down in her second-floor apartment in an affordable complex built for artists in the Bywater neighborhood downriver from the French Quarter.
“Missed my window of opportunity,” she wrote on Twitter. “Curse you #HurricaneIda.”
Neighbors said Ms. Bergerol largely stayed in her apartment with the doors and windows closed. Still, she seemed to be surviving. On Sept. 3, she texted Josh Hailey, a neighbor, asking if she could visit his cat while he was out. “I have plenty of treats,” she wrote. The next day, she joined neighbors in the building’s courtyard for a showing of “Cinderella.”
On Sunday Mr. Hailey let himself into her apartment when she did not answer the door. He found her lying on the floor and tried to resuscitate her, but it was too late. That evening, the neighbors played brass-band music in the courtyard and danced for Ms. Bergerol, recalling her vivid blue eyes and frequent, wide smile.
By then, city health officials had begun to realize the danger that older residents were facing. A day before Ms. Bergerol’s death, they evacuated eight apartments for older residents, including several where people had died. Now, city officials are considering mandating, during natural disasters, that subsidized apartments serving older or disabled residents have generators, conduct welfare checks or have a building manager on the property at all times, a spokesman said.
The proposed measures are gaining momentum partly because of deaths like that of Mr. Joseph, the man stuck in apartment 312.
Mr. Joseph was well known at Village de Jardin, a relatively affordable complex in New Orleans East for people 55 and older. It is owned by the Louisiana Housing Corporation, a state agency, and managed by Latter & Blum, a large real estate company that manages properties across several states. The housing agency said Latter & Blum had encouraged tenants to evacuate and then, after the storm, brought cooling buses to the property and supplies to tenants who chose to stay.
Mr. Joseph had retired years ago from a job selling car parts. He frequently chatted with neighbors, and his routine included grabbing coffee and beignets around town. He was known for his faith, his love of his family and, to some, his trademark reply, “Yes, indeed,” which led his grandchildren to call him Grandpa Yes Indeed. Many more people knew him for his humor, which is how he became friends with Mr. Righteous, 45, who was drawn to Mr. Joseph when he was cracking jokes at an event hosted by the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church.
In the days after the hurricane, neighbors looked out for Mr. Joseph, who was subsisting on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. One friend brought him a warm plate of food. A neighbor across the hall charged Mr. Joseph’s phone using a car battery and an inverter.
But Sept. 2 was the most grueling day yet. Around 1:45 p.m., the heat index was nearing 103, and Mr. Joseph’s phone had died again. He poked his head outside his door and motioned for a woman in the hallway to come closer. The woman, Rhonda Quinn, thought he looked unwell and asked if he needed some air. He brushed her off, joking that after days in the heat, he smelled too bad to go out, she said.
What he did need, he said, was to charge his phone to make a call. Ms. Quinn found someone to help, but when she tried to return the phone sometime before 3 p.m., he did not answer her repeated knocks. She assumed he had gone out, and she left.
Shortly after, Mr. Joseph’s friend from church, Mr. Righteous, pulled into the complex’s parking lot with a bag of oatmeal cream pies and other snacks. He, too, received no answer after knocking on Mr. Joseph’s door. When he opened it, he found Mr. Joseph slumped to the side of the bed, as if he had been sitting on its edge and looking out the window.
His death has left his two sons grief-stricken and stunned, unable to understand how their father could make it through the hurricane’s wrath without a scratch only to perish in the heat that followed.
“He didn’t die from flooding, he didn’t die from a lightning bolt,” said his oldest son, Iley Joseph Jr., 45. “It’s just, he’s gone.”
Sophie Kasakove contributed reporting from New Orleans. Susan C. Beachy and Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.