Kathleen Flynn for ProPublica
The day after Wilma Banks lost power, the stale summer air inside her New Orleans apartment became suffocating.
Typically when her breathing gets strained, Banks straps on her plastic nebulizer mask. After turning it on, a medicated mist flows into her lungs, making her short breaths full again.
But after Hurricane Ida knocked out her power on Aug. 29, she couldn’t use the nebulizer. She knew her oxygen level would continue to drop. Her heart could stop.
Banks dialed city agencies, where employees told her to find a charging station for medical devices. But they couldn’t help her secure what she needed most: temporary lodging where her machines could remain plugged in. Banks, who lives alone in the neighborhood of New Orleans East, couldn’t turn to friends and neighbors. For miles in every direction — and for more than a million people — the power grid run by Entergy and its subsidiaries had failed.
Like many native New Orleanians, Banks, 58, had lived through catastrophic hurricanes, from Betsy in 1965 to Katrina in 2005. She learned to stock supplies and thought she could ride out this storm, especially because the city hadn’t issued a mandatory evacuation order.
For years, Banks worked in local casinos where clouds of cigarette smoke exacerbated her asthma and eventually contributed to congestive heart failure. On the fourth day of the power outage, after relying on her car to charge her phone, she tweeted at her power company, Entergy New Orleans: “the strain on my heart is getting worse. I need my machines!!”