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After Ida outages, a group wants to help New Orleans restaurants 'Stay Lit' during hurricanes

 After Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans and southeast Louisiana as a Category 4 storm, it left behind significant damage and downed trees and power lines that caused mass power outages.
Aubri Juhasz
After Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans and southeast Louisiana as a Category 4 storm, it left behind significant damage and downed trees and power lines that caused mass power outages.

When Hurricane Ida knocked out the entire New Orleans power grid, Devin De Wulf was one of the few residents who still had electricity.

De Wulf was able to power his neighbor's oxygen machine, a phone charging station on his front porch and another neighbor’s refrigerator. The solar panels installed on his roof and a battery pack enabled him to help his community.

As storms and hurricanes happen more frequently and grow more intense, especially in the Gulf’s warming waters, another round of prolonged power outages are likely to impact the city again. But at least one thing would shrink down those future power outages, De Wulf thought: more solar panels, specifically on New Orleans restaurants, already the unofficial first responders when the city faces natural disasters.

That started the idea of 'Get Lit, Stay Lit,'" De Wulf, one of the board of directors at Feed the Second Line, said. "If we give restaurants solar panels and batteries, we basically solve like seven problems in one fell swoop."

One problem the Feed the Second Line program hopes to solve is creating a space for residents to seek refuge when the city’s power grid fails.

Instead of running city buses for cooling centers, as the city did during Hurricane Ida's aftermath, dining rooms could be used for cool-down areas. Restaurants using the ‘Get Lit, Stay Lit’ solar panels could also keep their food in their refrigerators, create and distribute ice, and charge cell phones.

Central Business District venue Howlin’ Wolf didn’t have solar panels, but the business luckily saw its lights flicker back on just four days after Ida made landfall in Louisiana. What happened next became part of the inspiration for De Wulf’s ‘Get Lit, Stay Lit’ program.

The owner of Howlin' Wolf, Howie Kaplan, said over 100 restaurants donated food, and volunteers came by to cook and clean. In all, they gave away 20,000 plates of food, including dishes like smoked salmon and red beans and rice on Monday.

Nathanial Zimet, chef and owner of Boucherie and Bouree, says he believes most restaurants would be happy to join the program mostly because it would save their food often turned to waste during a hurricane.

Zimet, who also runs the Que Crawl food truck,threw out around 2,400 pounds of food for Hurricane Zeta. For Hurricane Ida, he evacuated with his young daughter, but didn’t return fast enough to his kitchen to save any food in his walk-in fridge.

"I threw away fat, I threw away pickles," said Zimet. "It's an exterior walk-in fridge, and it just became a big steam hot box. I threw away 90 quarts of duck fat."

Among other things, Zimet was forced to dispose of wagyu beef, 150 pounds of quality cheeses and Gulf-caught seafood. During Zeta, Zimet received a $10,000 insurance check from his Spoilage Insurance but thinks his spoilage from Ida will be greater due to longevity of the power outage and the heat.

Zimet wasn’t the only one. Due to De Wulf’s connections with various charities, local restaurants also began to reach out to him in hopes of finding places they could donate thousands of pounds of food that was about to spoil without electricity, another problem he thought could be solved with solar panels.

De Wulf says the charity has now received over $27,000, enough to install solar panels on the first restaurant. The charity is now trying to find which area of the city they can expect to find the most residents who don’t typically evacuate for storms and which restaurants in those areas would be willing to join the program.

The bulk of the money will be spent on the batteries necessary for the solar panels to work off the grid, and these batteries can cost as much as $10,000. Without the batteries, the solar panels become "decorations," as De Wulf put it.

But De Wulf said the program would pay for itself, as there are currently tax credits that return 24% of the purchase. The program will also ask the restaurants that receive the panels to donate the money they save on electricity back into the program, creating a stream of donations. Solar panels connected to the grid can help customers save more than $150 a month in electric costs.

De Wulf's goal is to have 600 locations enrolled in the program and at least one in every neighborhood for the next storm. For now, he is trying to find state officials that could help fund the program.

Donations for ‘Get Lit, Stay Lit’ are being accepted at Feed The Second Line's website.

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio

Ryan Nelsen