Saving communities after Hurricane Ida: Local resilience fills gaps

The remnants of a house in Louisiana’s southernmost parish, Port Fourchon, remain untouched on Feb. 14, 2022, nearly six months after Hurricane Ida. (Mckenzie Richmond/MEDILL)

By Mckenzie Richmond
Medill Reports

Sixteen years to the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall along Louisiana’s coast, coastal communities were struck Aug. 29, 2021, by Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 hurricane.  The storm devastated and displaced thousands. A lesser-known impact: Over 200 residents from Louisiana’s southernmost parish, Port Fourchon, who chose not to evacuate during the storm were isolated by a 25-mile, 8-foot-deep flood zone. The residents of this parish were confined to their water-saturated homes without access to food, water, power or an escape plan. Surrounding parish communities did not feel they could rely solely on the government to respond in a timely manner, at the scale the community needed. So residents with the ability and means to aid others began to take it upon themselves to meet the needs of the disaster survivors and save their community. Hear some of their stories here.

Transcript:

Text on Screen: On Aug. 29, 2021, A Category 4 hurricane, commonly known as Hurricane Ida, made landfall near Louisiana’s southernmost port, less than 100 miles south of New Orleans, devastating a majority of coastal communities. Sixteen years to the day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Hurricane Ida hit, becoming the second-most damaging hurricane to hit the state of Louisiana on record, only behind Katrina. Hurricane Ida left the southernmost parish of Louisiana isolated from the mainland by way of a 25-mile floodzone, 8 feet deep, with no access to food, water or power. As a result of the immense destruction caused by Hurricane Ida, the communities couldn’t rely solely on the government’s response, and many community members took it upon themselves to apply their skills and capabilities to meet the needs of the disaster survivors and save their communities.

 

Richie Blink (Plaquemines Parish councilman and captain): I wasn’t liking what I was seeing from the response at the local level. And we should be very, very good at this now.

 

Jacqueline Richard (associate professor of geology at Fletch Technical Community College): I mean, the FEMA response was so ungodly slow. I mean, we’re in New Orleans. How many people died in the Superdome? How many people died right there at the convention center because it took them like five days to bring water in? You know, like, that should not happen. But it still happens, you know, but that’s what now requires people to we just take it into our own hands now. So, material was being brought to the southern end of the parish, and we knew that. The National Guard, it took them like five or seven days before they were even down there. And so, Richie was like, “I’m not waiting around.”

 

Richie Blink: I was thinking of more of, you know, how do I save my community or buy us more time, right? But I do remember just, you know, kind of breathing in some air and just thinking like, you know, this is gonna be a lot of work, but I want to do it. During the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, it took two or three days to even get our bearings, you know. What’s going on? What’s happening? And so, once we were able to get gas in the boat, we started bringing like military meals, drinking water and ice and stuff, right. And so, it was something like a 26-hour round-trip. But we were having to gather the supplies, put gas in the boat and also like feed ourselves, and do all of the communications, right. So, I had messages flying in from Instagram, from Facebook, my phone itself, email. We would put out ask like, “Look, this is what we need. We need dog food.” You know, we need this, we need that.

 

Jacqueline Richard: So, we were making trips back and forth. You know, bringing people medication, bringing spark plugs for generators, you know, things like that, that they needed that they were not going to get from the National Guard. And then it became very apparent that there was lots of cats and dogs that were left, left behind because people do it. You know, most hotels don’t allow you to bring dogs or cats in, and so it’s really unfortunate that that’s what happens. So, Richie put out a call on his Facebook. You know, asking, you know, if you have a pet at home, give us your address. We’ve got a bunch of dog food because I actually bought the whole first boatload of dog food myself. I went into the grocery store in Plaquemines Parish, and I bought every single bag of dog food, every single can. I bought the whole frickin’ pet aisle. I don’t even know how much money I spent, it didn’t even matter. Bought the whole pile, put it in the boat, and we went down there and then people started giving us some cash donations to do that continually and then the LSSPCA came through and they’re like, “Oh, here’s some cat food and dog food.” I mean, you could have saved me a lot of money, but it’s fine. We would go to Port Sulphur and meet the firemen and police that were still stationed down there, and they would help offload the boat and then bring it to the firehouse for people. So we were using Facebook really, for the most part, we would post up on Facebook like we just delivered X amount, whatever, if you need it, go to the Buras Fire Department or the Port Sulphur Fire Department. This is where it’s located. What we did to me is so important, like, I feel like a little bit more light needs to be shed on it because it kind of shows the breakdown of the governmental agencies and what happens when people take it into their own hands. And so, I hate to say FEMA is not doing anything, I know they are. They’re helping some people, but it’s not the scale that we need. It’s not with the urgency that’s needed. And really a lot of times it feels like people are kind of being tricked. You know, I sat there with Richie after the hurricane, right? We were together for the whole thing, bringing food and all this stuff. And he was applying for his own federal aid, right. Well, the website didn’t work on the phone, wasn’t mobile friendly. It’s like, so, what do they think? The hurricane just hit. Do you really think I can use my computer with internet at home? We don’t have power. And so, they make things, they make information really inaccessible. I don’t, I would hope it’s not done on purpose. Maybe it’s just not done with a whole bunch of forethought. I don’t know. But the process is so difficult for people to walk to. It’s just very inaccessible. And so people just give up. They just don’t apply for the aid, and then the communities rally together to help each other out. It shouldn’t. It shouldn’t have to be that way. People shouldn’t have to organize themselves. We’re paying our taxes. We’re doing our stuff. We should be able to rely on the agencies that are there to help us.

 

Richie Blink: For instance, where we’re at right now, Plaquemines Parish, is it’s still owed money from FEMA for Katrina recovery. Usually, say, for like a Small Business Administration loan, you’re going to need to show proof of loss, proof of the property that’s owned by you. There’s vulnerable people that,  it’s like the storm happened a week ago at their house, you know. They’re on a fixed income, maybe. They’re falling through the cracks in one way or another where it’s like maybe they’re living on family land, so they can’t produce a deed or a title or anything like that. So, they can get an SBA loan or, you know, the FEMA money that they might be receiving to help kind of get their lives back in order is very limited due to them maybe not technically owning their property on paper. And so, the most vulnerable people are often falling through the cracks and it’s, that’s tough. You know, there’s a lot of things that aren’t really seen on paper that really make it hard for these folks to get the traction they need get their lives back in order.

 

Mckenzie Richmond (interviewer): And what if they’ve lost those papers in the hurricane, then what?

 

Richie Blink: That’s, that’s definitely a thing. I think most people are starting to know better by now. But, it’s some people are a little bit more disorganized than others, you know, or have, you know, there’s just higher barriers of entry for them to even get that help that they need. Some people don’t even know it exists at all, and they just kind of pave their own way.

 

Text on Screen: Those that find FEMA’s application process too complicated or cannot provide the documents have to rely on flood insurance, which has become very limited since Hurricane Katrina put the National Flood Insurance Program $20 billion in debt.

 

Richie Blink: Now, what’s going on is your flood insurance reflects your risk, right? And where it’s not kind of spread out across a census tract, but at your own address. So, for instance, my backyard is 4.9 feet below sea level, right? And so, now all of a sudden, these new flood maps had to be adopted here. And so, the base flood elevation of my house went from about 3 feet above sea level. Now it’s 13 feet above sea level. Well, I’m starting 5 feet below sea level right now, and FEMA wants to feed a freeboard, and so to get my home elevated, which is a smaller home, on a smaller footprint, it’s about $55,000. Now, for a regular American home, it would probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of $175,000 to elevate my home to base flood elevation. So effectively, what’s happening is working people are being forced off of the coasts. Now, if you’re a doctor or a lawyer, have the means to come down here and build a hardened concrete structure 19 or 20 feet in the air and you want to do that, you can do that. And the problem was, it seems to me that the bureaucrats and politicians maybe realize that it was unsustainable to have people on the coasts, but they could never tell them you can’t be there. That’s a bit un-American. So, they just whipped it with bureaucracy. So, for instance, so my constituents here, they’re in their mid-70s and they’ve rebuilt their house after Katrina, but now they’re not going to be able to afford flood insurance, and they’re certainly not going to be able to afford or have the wherewithal to rebuild after the next major hurricane. And it’s not just if they wanted to, they could rebuild their house at grade. Anything that’s more than 51% damaged has to go, the first floor has to go to base flood elevation. So here it is, like we’re forcing the elderly out of communities they’ve been in their whole lives. We’re forcing working people that in some cases have literally been forced to the ends of the earth. Whether it’s, you know, home Indians being forced off of that Trail of Tears, quite literally, or other people that have literacy issues or immigrated here from another country that are trying to get their foothold here.

 

Jacqueline Richard: You know, these are people that if they have to move somewhere else, they’re not going to make it because they have this generational business, and that’s just how it works down here. So, people don’t want to move. Their whole identity is tied to a business, to this place, to this location. They’re not gonna move.

 

Richie Blink: I don’t want to have to go. But at some point, you know, folks will, and I’m going to figure out a way to eke it out around here. I’m going to live on a boat or on stilts or whatever.

 

Jacqueline Richard: People can live in these areas. It takes, it takes a lot of forethought and a lot of work. But you still can live down here. And you can do what you can while you’re here to save the coast and save these areas.

 

Text on Screen: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did not respond to a phone call nor an email request seeking comment on their recovery work along Louisiana’s coast. For more details on FEMA and their emergency management strategies please visit fema.gov

 

McKenzie Richmond is in the social justice specialization at the Medill School of Journalism.

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