Analysis: An unwelcome twist on an unwanted ritual
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Some familiar rituals are not comforting. Tabulations of deaths. Searches for the missing. Picking up the pieces of homes, businesses and lives.
Hurricane Laura arrived two days before Saturday’s 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. And it hit roughly a month short of the same anniversary of Hurricane Rita — kind of an unscheduled, unwanted re-enactment of a southwest Louisiana disaster with much of the original, not particularly enthusiastic, cast.
This would be difficult enough without a pandemic, which complicated not only unwelcome disaster routines like searching for shelter but the big health trend of 2020 — getting a COVID-19 test.
Laura’s approach brought a halt to much of the community testing for COVID-19 in the state at a time when a second surge of the disease appeared to be diminishing — but also at a time just after the return of schools and colleges, when testing is crucial to help determine whether the gathering of students on and off campuses might spark an outbreak.
“This is when you would want to be looking really, really hard to see those first signs of whether we’re going to have increased cases, increased positivity,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a news conference before the hurricane struck.
Laura’s target area was another complication. “Tens of thousands of individuals from southwest Louisiana, in the area with the known highest positivity of the state, are now evacuating to all parts of the state, and will be there for some period of time,” he said.
In addition to stalling community testing, the hurricane — which claimed at least a half-dozen lives when it roared ashore Thursday morning - caused an overall disruption in testing of nursing home residents and staff aimed at protecting those in the state who are most fragile and at-risk to severe consequences from the virus.
“The testing disruption for nursing homes is that much more concerning because they are among our most vulnerable populations,” health department spokesman Kevin Litten said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press. “The department is eager to return to our community testing sites and testing regimen for nursing homes, as it’s an important part of our response to COVID-19. But we will need to reevaluate how to logistically and safely do this after Hurricane Laura.”
The department said 823 nursing home residents were evacuated out of Laura’s path, despite concerns about moving the vulnerable patients amid the coronavirus.
“We have been very concerned about moving people from nursing homes during COVID as well as other evacuees, but the priority was to get everyone safely out of the way of the hurricane,” Kevin Litten, state health department spokesman said last week. “For the nursing homes, we are in close contact with them about their evacuation plans and their ability to isolate anyone who has become sick.”
There was little welcome news in any of this. But the exodus of people from the stricken area before and after the storm has provided a much needed lifeline to some of the many businesses devastated by the pandemic — hotels.
The state had booked more than 1,000 hotel rooms as alternatives to traditional open shelters, hoping that move would help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Baton Rouge hotels were benefiting from bookings of evacuees and first responders ready to head into the stricken areas once Laura passed.
“It’s obvious that hotels across the state have been suffering through COVID-19,” said Meredith Conger of tourism agency Visit Baton Rouge. “I’m sure this will be a much needed bump in revenue.”
“Obviously no one wants to see that come from any sort of tragedy,” she added. She said the agency had created a webpage to provide evacuees with safety information.
The looming bad news is that the peak of hurricane season is not yet past. And the end of the pandemic is not yet in sight, adding an unwanted twist to the unwelcome storm rituals.
The oddness of it all is lost on nobody.
“With the coronavirus and all this other stuff,” said Ron Leleux, a former mayor of Sulphur, “we’re just kind of running out of surreal experiences.”
EDITORS NOTE: Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter in New Orleans. Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge contributed to this analysis.