I am on my fourth hurricane in 367 days. My protocol at this point has become routine: you prep for hours, and then you wait. You buy your water, you fill the bathtub so you can pressure flush the toilet, you bulk up on flashlights and candles, you throw out your perishable food, you secure your belongings and your property, you cool the house as much as possible before the power goes out. I choose to stockpile cigarettes, beer, and votive candles of Catholic saints, but that is my individual pleasure. Everyone has their own.
I helped out in Lake Charles, where I grew up, last year in the aftermath of Hurricanes Delta and Laura, and I live in New Orleans where I rode out our last two storms. Then in Lake Charles there was last winter’s ice storm, a hundred-year’s flood in May, and still no federal aid. Those people lost everything. My mom was knocked off her feet: sixty years of shit, thirty-three years of flood insurance, six inches of water, and just a couple hours. For months afterwards she stayed inside our gutted house when FEMA wouldn’t give her enough money to find someplace else to live.
But what can you do? My dad’s side of the family has lived along Louisiana’s coast for nearly three hundred years. We arrived here from Acadia in Le Grand Derangement; the town of Delcambre is named after us; my grandma was born in the marshes off of Lake Arthur and had her hands beat with a ruler when she spoke Cajun French at school. I live in New Orleans. Louisiana is my home.
Sunday night I drank beers through Hurricane Ida with my neighbor in our apartment on Royal. The winds were strong; the storm went on forever; it broke through the lock on my front door. We did alright. Patti stayed in our apartment both during and after Katrina, and it was clear by the morning that it would not be that bad.
As far as damage goes: I saw debris in the street when I went out to walk around. I saw no power poles down across the road; no houses split in half; photos of a handful of roofs torn off their buildings; and only a few trees blocking anyone into their street. A few spots really got it. My heart goes out to my neighbors in Houma and Jefferson and LaPlace, and the folks outside the levee protection system in Grand Isle. On the Cajun Navy radio I heard heartbreaking calls for rescue: a baby, four adults, and an elder on oxygen flooded into their attic.
We share the same ancestors south of I-10. It hits us all; not just the places the media focuses on most.
I know what will come now. There is the endless insurance battle, there will be fraud and embezzlement and scams, there will not be enough building materials or labor to repair all the damage at once, and those with the least resources and biggest needs will suffer the most. They always do. I drove up and down I-10 and saw blue tarps for the past twelve months. Many people leave and don’t come back.
I count myself lucky. New Orleans is still here, and the conditions on the ground are much better than after Hurricane Laura: if I do not have power, at least I have cell service; the damage I have seen in my neighborhood is substantially less catastrophic; there is an abundance of resources on the ground already providing aid in metro New Orleans. Of course it is still awful. We have had no electricity all week; it is hot and I stink; we are coming down the peak of the pandemic’s third wave; there has been looting and break-ins, and I am a young woman who lives in an apartment alone.
But if you want to compare storms, I will not let you. Each hurricane brings with it different changes and variations on historic traumas. They all reveal new and spectacular insights into our failing infrastructure, national apathy and disinterest, and institutional failures of aid. Anyone who is from here will tell you: every hurricane that hits, for the ones it fucks up, is the worst one ever. I live in solidarity forever against our shared public enemies: big oil; every agent of our local, state, and federal government; and FEMA, who allow this all to happen unchecked, who fail us year after year, and who, afterwards, conveniently turn their heads away.
I am not naive or stupid. I know hurricanes are a fact of life along the coast. But there is a human influence to what is happening to these storms. State officials lease our land to petrochemical engineering companies that produce the plastics and poisons that all but ensure we lose everything to climate change, at which point they will find someplace else to go. There are fewer and fewer wetlands to buffer storms on their way to the shore as a result of catastrophic losses to the region’s biodiversity. Don’t get me fucking started on the damming of the Mississippi, which would otherwise naturally rebuild the marsh by continuously depositing sediment it brought down. These are our contemporary laws of nature. This is my ecocultural understanding of storms.
But what can you do? I try just to witness. At times it feels like no one is paying any attention to the ongoing destruction of my home. There are a number of exaggerations and inaccuracies in the way I have seen the past year reported. To start: How could you compare Ida to Katrina and not engage in any discourse about what happened in Lake Charles. And this is not the same New Orleans it was in 2005: our neighborhoods have been gentrified beyond recognition; the city’s wealth per capita has skyrocketed over the past ten years; our levee protection system is brand new and has been reinforced. To print headlines that Ida was the strongest storm to hit the state in 150 years when a category four hurricane made landfall three hours away last year is misleading and untrue. And it misses so much of this larger narrative about the repeated devastation of my home.
I say this not to draw comparison, but to tell you the truth: there are gross inadequacies and discrimination in media coverage and in the distribution of mutual aid in the aftermath of rural disasters when compared to those that strike urban America. I will never understand how our country let families spend their pandemic Christmas living in tents after Hurricane Laura and just turned their heads away. I will never forgive them for sacrificing our health and land to consume the plastic products we produce that they just throw in the fucking trash.
But what can you do? I try to learn from this. The media loves convenient narratives. FEMA will always let you down, and it is us who saves our neighbors.
Come together, take a glance at this historic moment. Something wrong happening here, when the same extreme weather events happen over and over and over and the powers in charge make the same mistakes every time and plead ignorance when they are asked what they can do. I do not know how bad things will get after Ida yet, but I have my suspicions. And what I do know is that what happened last weekend is just the latest in a series of storms that is significantly disrupting Louisiana’s culture, history, and most precious inhabitants. I have no doubt that it is too late for any of us to change course.
So far, this storm is a blip in an otherwise awful year. But it is just the first week, and I threw out the food in my fridge before it spoiled.