The Poorest Louisianans Still Struggle Post-Hurricane Ida, but Neighborly Support Is Helping Them Bounce Back
Many in parishes directly along the path of Hurricane Ida say they have not seen the same level of aid as big cities like New Orleans, which demonstrates to them that support and media attention don’t favor the rural poor in the wake of climate disaster.
On the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana and much of the United States bore witness to the wrath of Hurricane Ida – a storm just shy of a Category 5 with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.
Making landfall in Port Fourchon, La., located on the southernmost tip of Lafourche Parish and about two hours away from New Orleans, Hurricane Ida tore off roofs, turned streets into canals and left major cities without power for days.
Hundreds of thousands were either delivered mandatory or voluntary evacuation notices, and many were ordered not to return for several days due to severely damaged roads, widespread power outages and unsafe homes.
“No one fled this killer storm because they were looking for a vacation or a road trip … they felt they had to flee the risk of death,” President Joe Biden said during his visit to LaPlace in the aftermath.
The storm continued to head northeast into states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, which saw record-breaking rainfall and flooding, leading to dozens of people found dead after they had been trapped in flooded basements.
The estimated economic damages of Hurricane Ida is estimated to be around $95 billion, according to forecasting company Accuweather, making it the seventh costliest hurricane to hit the U.S. since 2000, according to CNBC.
But as major cities like New Orleans bounced back quickly, with most electricity having returned about a week-and-a-half after the hurricane’s touchdown, residents of more rural areas that found themselves at the eye of the storm or where the hurricane made landfall continue to be in the dark and fending for themselves, nearly four weeks later.
“It is absolute survival mode down here,” Houma-native Georgia Malbrough told Inside Edition Digital.
Malbrough is a mother of three young children who, like most families in Houma, has lived in the community for several generations. “There’s very deep, deep rooted families here and honestly that’s the only reason half of these families made it out alive.”
As of Friday, more than 1,300 customers are seeing power outages in Terrebonne County, which has a population of around 111,000 and is where Houma is located, according to data shared by Entergy, the company that supplies energy to most of Louisiana.
Malbrough, who is staying with her mom closer to the city center of Houma, where they have power, explained that the main power outages are being experienced in the Lower Bayou, a more rural and remote area where she and the majority of people actually live.
“We've pretty much just been in darkness, and all you can really hear is generators running all night long,” she explained. “A lot of people have actually been looting and walking around in houses right after the storm because they couldn't get the bare necessities that they needed.”
Just next door to Houma is LaFourche Parish, which encompasses cities like Galliano and Port Fourchon, where the hurricane made its initial impact. Housing a population of about 100,000, more than 4,000 are seeing power outages – a significant upgrade from the 15,700 customers in the dark just earlier this week.
“Half the community is living in tents,” Malbrough said of her neighbors. “They claim not enough people request when they don’t have power to request it. They don’t even have fricken walls.”
Those whose homes are sturdy enough to stay in are dealing with additional challenges, like installing tarps for parts of the roofs or walls that had been destroyed in order to keep out more rain, or dealing with the moisture, mold and water damage that is quickly beginning to set in.
“The first week, people have said ‘We’re so thankful we have a roof, we have walls,’” Malbrough recalled. “And then you look at the roof and the walls you’re so thankful to have and a week later, they’re riddled in black mold. And now you’re having to cut all the walls out. We’ve had family members, their house looks perfectly fine from the outside and you go in and it’s mold everywhere.”
Schools also took the brunt of the damage, with many entirely destroyed in the hurricane or sustaining enough damage that it is unsafe for students to attend.
While some districts have announced some schools reopening in the coming weeks, and other planning for a phased re-opening, Malbrough has her doubts that schooling will return to normal for most kids in the area. “It's going to take at least three or four months to put the power back on. And then after that it's going to be shrink wrapping schools and dehumidifying everything,” she speculated. “Finding any kind of sense of normalcy is going to take at least five or six months.”
She explained that, because there is no power, there is no effective way to fully dry buildings, especially considering that September temperatures can reach up to 90 degrees, and humidity levels consistently linger at around 70%.
And those working day-in and day-out to save what’s left of their communities are faced with additional challenges, like working in the blistering heat with no air-conditioning, or pests that thrive in warm and damp environments.
“It’s not cooler at night. The conditions actually get worse because of mosquitos and because of wasps,” Malbrough said. “The amount of wasps we’ve had kicked up has been unbelievable. The amount of mosquitos just coming in through all the tiny holes has been impossible to avoid, and there’s people who are handing out bug spray just so we can sleep through the night.”
Meanwhile, in New Orleans, a city of nearly 400,000 people, considered an economic hub of the state that garnered the most media attention in the aftermath of the hurricane, only 7 customers are reporting power outages.
Those numbers alone, Malbrough said, demonstrated the rich-poor divide when it came to emergency assistance.
“They claim not enough people request [help] when these people don’t have power to request it,” she said.
And that’s just the beginning of how Louisiana’s rural poor are the ones most gravely impacted by climate disaster.
During Biden’s address in his tour of the damage, he acknowledged that many couldn’t seek help because many didn’t have reliable cell service, but the problem doesn’t end there.
Weeks after the initial impact, locals were still rescuing their neighbors trapped in homes, and Malbrough fears there may be even more members of her beloved community that have no way of getting help.
“There's people who just haven't been gotten to, like elderly people. We don't have people checking on them. They're still at home. There's no power for them to charge their phones. There's no power or internet for them to even get in touch with anyone possibly,” she said. “It's just traumatic for us to see those poor people who have been left to kind of fend for themselves.”
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said its staff has been on the ground in Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes since the hurricane hit, and has been working behind-the-scenes with local organizations to support supply-distribution and other recovery efforts.
“If a community needs a resource, the state will provide that resource. If the state doesn’t have it, they ask FEMA for that resource,” spokesperson John Mills said in a statement, “You won’t necessarily see a FEMA logo because the whole community is responding.”
Speaking to Inside Edition Digital, Mills said FEMA has provided more than $74.2 million in grants to homeowners and renters in the Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, and they have paid for hotel stays for more than 3,200 people displaced as of this weekend.
"We encourage survivors to utilize the assistance currently being provided to them for short-term housing needs," he said.
But locals are still not seeing long term solutions, and Malbrough said the response was not immediate, and substantive aid took much too long to arrive. “It took two weeks for them to set up three or four locations for people to get to,” she said. “They should have learned by now that they need to have things ready. They should have trailers ready. They should have things already on the way. They should have cases and cases of water on the way the second they hear this one’s going to make landfall.”
Instead, she said those most vulnerable in her community relied on neighbors cruising their fishing boats and leisure boats along flooded streets, and personally going door-to-door to make sure no one has been trapped or forgotten about.
“If we had not, honestly, a lot of these people would have gone days without eating,” she said.
In anticipation of food insecurity issues, the Department of Children and Family Services has introduced food stamps, or the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (DSNAP), to families impacted by Hurricane Ida.
The disaster-specific amendment to the traditional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which more than 42 million Americans a year access, also has certain allowances for their circumstances, including that benefits can be applied to “hot food products prepared for immediate consumption” with the exclusion of restaurant purchases.
DSNAP is currently being rolled out in three phases, first by locality and then alphabetically by family name, with phase 1 beginning the week of September 20 encompassing places like New Orleans and Baton Rouge. More rural communities, like Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, are in phase 3, and will not be given access to benefits until at earliest October 4 – meaning residents there would have been dealing with food insecurity problems resulting from the hurricane for more than a month by the time aid arrives.
“They started rationing gas. Everyone needed their generator running just so that they could power their freezers or they would lose all of their food, and it's not like they're getting the resources to get more food to eat,” Malbrough said.
According to The Advocate, the dates in which communities can access food-stamp benefits are staggered to account for when electricity is back on for each locality, and stores can reopen.
Malbrough also speculated the delay for benefits in LaForche and Terrebonne was to give residents time to get to the internet access they need in order to apply for the benefits, or make sure refrigerators are up and running again so people have a way to store new food.
For the rural poor, that means being handed a catch-22 situation, in which their communities were too damaged to access help, but without help, their communities will continue to be damaged.
New Orleans, however, is effectively back up and running.
“They had access to get better,” Malbrough said, “These people down here are still trying to put tarps on their homes. These people don’t have any chance to do any better.”
In times of trouble, families in the Lower Bayou are turning to a Louisiana tradition: cooking.
“A lot of families were cooking. My dad actually cooked for two days in a row in his neighborhood, a huge pot of jambalaya each day,” Malbrough said. “That way, people around the neighborhood could come and walk by, and get a meal.”
With freezers out of power, grocery stores offloading what they can, and food on the brink of going bad, many are cooking huge community meals to hand out to their neighbors struggling to get food.
“We hunt and we fish. We've got freezers of food that are going bad,” she explained. “And instead of just throwing it all away, these people are cooking these huge meals and distributing them.”
And everyone, young and old, pitches in.
She explained the task isn’t as simple as it sounds, considering even those who have the resources and time to cook are dealing with their own home damage or power outages.
“So far, it’s been off of butane bottles, and gas, and basic Cajun ingenuity,” Malbrough said. “Whoever has power, wherever, that’s where we’re cooking. That’s where we’re going.”
FEMA has helped out by handing out water and instant food to families, but nothing is as healing as a home-cooked meal, Malbrough said.
“A lot of us come together at least one day a week and we have a home-cooked meal and we sit down and we're together,” she said.
However, even this is getting harder to maintain. “There is none of that," she explains. "Now it's survival of the fittest.”
But where she says federal resources are lacking, the community is making up for it. Grassroots volunteer organizations and local mutual aid funds will be how their communities come back from the rubble, Malbrough explained.
The Cajun Navy has been collecting and distributing supplies, while the Cajun Army are clearing debris and gutting houses on a voluntary basis.
Additionally, there have been many independent volunteers driving their trucks to areas hours away to find stations that aren't limiting the amount of gas that can be purchased, in order to bring supplies back to their neighbors. Others are collecting tarps and supplies from less-damaged communities and distributing where needed.
“The Red Cross doesn’t know MoMo and PoPo who live down the road. They don’t know that their whole family has left town, and no one’s looking for them,” she said. “These grassroots movements have deep roots and they know what the community needs. They know the families that aren't on social media or the internet asking for help. They know where they've been because they've seen their faces their entire lives and they know what they need.”
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