Carbon monoxide worries post-Ida prompt officials to take action

Published: Nov. 1, 2021 at 10:40 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Reports of dangerous levels of carbon monoxide inside homes after Hurricane Ida prompts Jefferson Parish to conduct a safety study of whole house generators. While the equipment proved convenient for thousands of people without power, others say the fumes nearly cost them their lives.

Hurricane Ida’s ferocious winds ripped up utility poles and knocked out power to more than a million people in the greater New Orleans area. Yet inside Sean Hebert’s River Ridge house, he and his family still had all the comforts of home.

Hebert explains, “The generator kicked on right after we lost power and it was running like it should, worked perfectly.” With A.C. and a cold fridge full of food, Hebert said things seemed to be alright until three days after the storm made landfall. “It was about 9:30 at night, the carbon monoxide detectors started going off in my house,” Hebert explained.

He goes on to say, “We didn’t have any headaches, we didn’t feel bad, nothing.” As a precaution, Hebert called the fire department.

He remembers, “They came out and immediately sensed high carbon monoxide levels in the house.” Hebert and his family got out as firefighters set to work airing out the home.

“There’s no telling how high the levels would have went throughout the night,” Hebert said. Firefighters also inspected his whole house generator, set up on the side of his home, determining that’s where the deadly fumes were coming from.

Hebert explains, “So the generator is 20 inches from the side of the house and by code you’re supposed to be 18 so I exceed that and I don’t remember the exact measurements but I think its 5ft from the soffit, I exceed that. It’s 5ft from the windows, I exceed that, I got enough room from the properly line, I’ve got enough room from the vent.” Hebert says he’s not the only one this has happened to. He claims to know of over a dozen people who had similar issues with carbon monoxide getting into their homes from generator use after Hurricane Ida.

“It was really scary actually to think that this happened this way,” Paul Leblanc commented. Leblanc credits carbon monoxide detectors with saving his family’s lives.

Walking us through his parents’ house, he explains, “The fireman came in through this way, he immediately got a reading on his meter, like right here.” His parents have had their generator for seven years and say they’ve never had a problem with it before. In fact Leblanc says it was just serviced a month before the storm.

“Very surprising, you think of the regular gas generators outside that people hook a cord to it and you think yeah ok those are the ones that are going to cause monoxide poisoning or whatever. Never expected it from this,” Leblanc commented.

Jefferson Parish councilman Scott Walker says he started hearing similar stories from some of his constituents after Ida and from the fire department.

“We have to look at standby generators and see if we’re doing things the best way possible. There was a lot of confusion like how is this happening? Why am I dealing with this?”, Walker stated.

East Bank Consolidated Fire Chief Dave Tibbetts weighs in, saying, “It kinda came to our surprise when we started getting calls on the fixed generators.”

So the parish is taking action. “You have to look at what you’re doing and reevaluate things and that’s what our planning department is doing along with inspection and the East Bank Consolidated Fire Department they’re doing a study on the generators, the stand by generators, the placement of them around homes and just the safety element of it,” Walker explained.

Tibbetts adds, “I was able to physically go on some of the scenes myself take a look and see problems.” Tibbetts says in some cases, the weather is likely to blame.

He explains, “Even if the unit is properly positioned, you’re still dependent on the weather, is the wind blowing it into the house, away from the house? Is there just not a lot of wind blowing at all that would make the vapors lay around and stay around and find a way to ease into your house?”. That’s exactly what Sean Hebert thinks happened. He remembers the air being very still the night his carbon monoxide detectors went off.

“The carbon monoxide was coming in through the soffit which I still have sealed off with visqueen so that’s where it was entering in,” Hebert said. Hebert contacted the manufacturer of the generator who says it was improperly installed. He and his contractor contend they followed the instruction manual and even the parish approved it’s placement.

We asked Chief Tibbetts if contractors could have different interpretations of instruction manuals provided by generator manufacturers, especially considering every house is different.

“I don’t disagree with you and I think it’s a problem,” Tibbetts said. A problem that Scott Walker hopes will be cleared up after the study is complete.

“It could be a potential outcome that generators are placed further away from homes,” Walker explained. That’s what Hebert is now in the process of doing.

“It’s being moved about 70 feet from where we are right now,” Hebert explained.

He says it’s going to cost about $3,000.

He offers this warning to anyone considering purchasing a whole house generator.

“Just because your installer says they can install your generator in a specific spot because it meets code, does not mean that you won’t get carbon monoxide in your house so choose your spot wisely and make sure you have carbon monoxide detectors,” Hebert stated. They could just save your life.

The manufacturer of the generators in this story, Generac, says safety is the company’s number one priority. A spokesperson also points out that Sean Hebert’s unit is exhausting into a structural corner where there is a window and soffits. Again, Hebert says his unit’s placement was approved by the parish and it was installed by a Generac dealer. Jefferson Parish leaders hope to meet this month to go over the study results and then present their findings to the full parish council.

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