ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
People living along the Gulf Coast have been dealing with unrelenting tropical winds and high water. Last evening, Hurricane Zeta became the fifth named storm of the 2020 Atlantic season to strike Louisiana. Zeta has taken at least five lives on its race across several states. Millions are without power. And Louisiana's governor, John Bel Edwards, calls the damage in the barrier island of Grand Isle catastrophic.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN BEL EDWARDS: Our heart breaks because this has been a tough, tough year. And we've been fighting the COVID public health emergency since March. We've had so many named storms that have come through Louisiana, and to do that only - you know, almost at Halloween.
SHAPIRO: Joe Valiente is the emergency management director of Jefferson Parish, La. And Grand Isle is in his parish.
Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
JOE VALIENTE: Thank you. Thank you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: First, how are you and your neighbors doing?
VALIENTE: We're doing well. We're doing well, all things considered. I think this has been a very challenging year for us when you consider that it started with COVID, and then it basically evolved into a rather brutal hurricane season - that everyone's doing well. We are.
SHAPIRO: So what are your most pressing needs right now?
VALIENTE: Well, right now, from the emergency management standpoint of view, is that we're in a post-storm environment where we're doing a tremendous amount of assessment. Of course, you know, as your intro led up to is that Grand Isle, which is really one of the last great barrier islands for the southeast Louisiana floodway - you know, it just - it was just devastated by this storm. It had been battered by the previous four, but this one just really struck it hard. The eye passed nearly over it. It caught the brunt of the highest winds and the most severe storm surge. And so it just really completely dismantled a lot of the work that we had done all summer long to help strengthen that southern shoreline of the island.
SHAPIRO: So you're saying that there had been preparation for hurricanes, and people were trying to do what they needed to do to be safe, but even that was overwhelmed by the string of five storms in one year alone.
VALIENTE: I think that that's a very accurate way to put it. But I think, also, Grand Isle is a perpetual work in progress, where we're constantly filling in gaps that occur. And so - but yes, basically, that's true. We have been fighting each storm. And we've been - we were building it up a little bit as we were going along. In, you know, one event, we put a ton - tons of crushed rock on top of that burrito levee. And then we were putting a backup levee with these super sandbags that are just huge. And then on the backside of the island, they even constructed a five-foot earthen levee to help with the backwash, and it just - so much of it just got completely destroyed by the storm.
SHAPIRO: And just briefly, how has the pandemic on top of all of this affected your ability to respond?
VALIENTE: Well, you know, we get that question a lot, Ari. And I think that we've been very aggressive about testing. And I think, on a whole, Louisiana has done well with this. But the COVID-19 protocols definitely makes it much more difficult for us to prepare shelters...
VALIENTE: ...And keep people out of harm's way.
SHAPIRO: Joe Valiente, emergency management director in Jefferson Parish, La.
Thank you for speaking with us today.
VALIENTE: Yes, sir. Thank you very much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.