Iley Joseph’s one-bedroom apartment was an ideal place to survive a hurricane in many ways. It was on the third floor, too high to be flooded, of a newly built building, inside a high-end, gated community for elderly residents like him.
But in the days following Hurricane Ida, the apartment began to feel like a trap. The massive blackout that left New Orleans without electricity rendered the air conditioning in the apartment unusable and left the refrigerator functioning only as a closet. Worse yet—the blackout paralyzed the building’s elevators, leaving Joseph trapped inside the building, as his health problems prevented him from using the stairs.
When talking on the phone with his kids, Joseph, 73, made a point of saying he was fine. But the temperature in her apartment, number 312, kept rising. On September 2, the fourth day after the hurricane hit—and the hottest day so far—a friend found him lying by his bed, motionless.
“I called him by name and he didn’t respond,” Jared Righteous said. “I realized he was dead.”
It was only in the last few days, when light returned across the city, that authorities in New Orleans discovered the true number of deaths from Hurricane Ida. Unlike in the northeastern US, where many of those who died were washed away by floods and tornadoes, in New Orleans it was clear that the biggest cause of death was heat.
Of the 14 deaths caused by the hurricane in the city, Joseph and nine others are believed to have been due to the heat. Experts say there are likely to be more dead. And friends of those who died are beginning to question whether the government or homeowners could have done more to protect elderly residents before they died, in many cases alone, in apartments and homes where the heat had become suffocating.
“Extreme heat is a danger that we don’t pay enough attention to,” said David Hondula, a professor at Arizona State University who studies the effects of very high temperatures. “All cities are just beginning to understand what an effective response to extreme heat would be.”
In New Orleans, authorities set up air-conditioned cooling centers in various parts of the city. They distributed food, water and ice throughout the city. But help was out of reach for people like Iley Joseph, who couldn’t leave their buildings.
All ten people whose deaths were linked to the heat were in their 60s or 70s and died over four days of sweltering sunshine, the last of which was September 5, a week after the hurricane hit.
One of the first to die was Corinne Labat-Hingle, who was 70 years old and single. She had moved to Memphis after Hurricane Katrina, but had returned to New Orleans and was living in a seniors housing project near Saint Bernard Avenue, near the city’s largest park. She was found dead on Sept. 2, when the temperature reached nearly 34°C outdoors and was probably even higher inside her apartment.
Two days later, on another day of 34°C heat, four people were found dead, including Reginald Logan, 74, whose body was discovered when a neighbor saw flies in his window. On September 5, the temperature passed 38°C, and one of the last victims of the heat was found dead: Keith Law, 65, who lived in the Algiers neighborhood.
According to Hondula, heat is likely to contribute to more deaths annually than the officially recorded number. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports fewer than 700 deaths annually from heat, some studies estimate the actual number to be between 5,000 and 12,000. Last month, the New York Times found that 600 more people died in Oregon and Washington states in the last week of June during a heat wave than would normally have died. That’s three times the number of estimates of heat-related deaths made by state officials.
People who die of heat may not realize that their symptoms are life-threatening. And heat-related deaths can occur suddenly, with few previous signs. The most common cause is cardiovascular failure, when the heart cannot pump blood fast enough. Deaths from heat stroke are less frequent, when a person’s internal body temperature rises by several degrees and the body is unable to cool itself, leading to failure of organs such as the brain, heart or kidneys.
Laura Bergerol, a 65-year-old photographer living in New Orleans, died on September 5th. Before the hurricane, she had planned to evacuate her home and go to Florida, but she told friends she couldn’t find a hotel room. When he managed to finalize his plans, it was already too dangerous to leave. After the storm, an erroneous charge of US$400 (R$2,110) to her bank account left her with no money to leave. She stocked up on candles and prepared to stay in her apartment on the second floor of an accessible artists’ complex in the Bywater neighborhood, downriver from the French Quarter.
“I missed my window of opportunity,” she wrote on Twitter. “Damn #huracãoIda.”
Bergerol’s neighbors said she stayed inside the apartment with the doors and windows closed. But it seemed to be surviving. On September 3, she texted a neighbor, Josh Hailey, asking if she could visit his cat when he was out of the house. “I have lots of treats for him,” she wrote. The next day she attended a “Cinderella” session in the courtyard of the building, with other neighbors.
Hailey entered Bergerol’s apartment alone when she didn’t answer the door. He found her lying on the ground and tried to revive her, but it was too late. That night neighbors played band music in the courtyard and danced in Bergerol’s honor, remembering his vivid blue eyes and his big, frequent smile.
By this time, New Orleans authorities had begun to realize the danger faced by elderly residents. The day before Bergerol’s death, eight apartments for the elderly had been evacuated, including several in which residents had died. Now the authorities are studying the possibility of decreeing that during natural disasters, subsidized properties for elderly or disabled residents have generators, receive inspections to monitor the well-being of residents or have to have a caretaker in the property 24 hours a day.
The proposed measures are gaining momentum in part as a result of deaths such as that of Iley Joseph, the resident who was trapped in apartment 312.
Joseph was an auto parts salesman, retired four years earlier. He used to chat with his neighbors, and his routine included drinking coffee and buying carolinas in various places in the city. He was known for his religious faith, his love for his family and, for some, his usual “yes indeed” response, which led his grandchildren to nickname him “Grandpa Yes Indeed”.
In the days following the hurricane, neighbors kept an eye on Joseph, who was living off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. A friend brought him a hot meal. A neighbor across the hall charged Joseph’s phone, using a car battery and a converter.
But September 2nd was the hottest so far. By 1:45 pm the heat reached almost 39.5°C, and Joseph’s cell phone had run out again. He poked his head out the door and called a woman passing in the hallway. The neighbor, Rhonda Quinn, thought he was unwell and asked if he needed air. He ignored it. He replied jokingly that after several hot days he was smelling too bad to leave the house.
He said what he needed was to charge his phone so he could make a call. Quinn found someone to help, but when he tried to return the phone to Joseph before 3 pm, he didn’t answer the door, despite knocking several times. She assumed he had left and had given up on hitting.
Shortly thereafter, Joseph’s friend from church, Jared Righteous, arrived with a bag of oatmeal pies and other snacks. He knocked on Joseph’s door and no one answered. Opening the door, Righteous found Joseph slumped beside the bed, as if he’d been sitting on the edge, looking out the window.
His death left his two sons shocked and saddened, unable to understand how their father managed to survive the fury of the hurricane without suffering a scratch, only to succumb in the heat that followed.
“He didn’t die in the flood, he didn’t die from lightning,” said his eldest son, Iley Joseph Jr., 45. “It just left.”