Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

This is what hurricane response looks like during a pandemic

The Jones family outside their hotel in New Orleans after Hurricane Laura hit their home in Lake Charles. From left to right: Josiah Jones, Elizabeth Jones, Joyce Singleton, and Wendell Jones. Photo by Carly Berlin

Wendell Jones remembers vividly how it felt returning to his home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, after Hurricane Rita 15 years ago. The drive back into the city after his family’s stay at a shelter “was a harrowing experience,” he said. But Hurricane Laura, which crashed into southwest Louisiana last week and was, by some standards, the strongest storm to hit the state since 1856, “is five times worse.” 

Though Laura’s storm surge was not as severe as predicted in Lake Charles, small towns on the coast saw major flooding. Large swaths of southwest Louisiana devastated by Rita in 2005 suffered major wind damage. As of Thursday, over 200,000 utility customers were still without power, and thousands of people lacked access to clean water. Then, this week, a heat wave blanketed the region, with temperatures in the 100s. According to the EPA, the storm led to dozens of oil and chemical spills; it also set off a chemical fire at a chlorine plant that burned for three days.

Nearly 12,000 evacuees are being sheltered by Louisiana. That number doesn’t include people who evacuated to Texas, those from eastern Texas who fled, or many others who are likely staying with family members elsewhere.

From his hotel room in New Orleans, Jones has been assessing the damage, poring over news reports and Facebook posts. “That’s the hardest thing,” he said on Friday. “Not knowing if we’ve got anything to go back to.”

Navigating hurricane response during a pandemic is an unprecedented task, though emergency management officials have been preparing for such an event since the spring. Jones and his family left Lake Charles on a state-run bus two days before the storm, which was only partially filled to allow room for physical distancing. They’re now among thousands currently staying in New Orleans hotels, which the state is using instead of the usual congregant shelters to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Meals are provided in individual containers three times a day. State employees mill around, reminding everyone to wear masks and handing them out when necessary. 

If a medical issue comes up, “nobody wants to go to the hospital,” Jones said. “Let’s say you go in, you’re asymptomatic, you don’t have no signs, but you come up positive for corona. Now you’re away from your family. Nobody wants to take that chance.”

When a hurricane or other disaster occurs in Louisiana, each state department sets aside its regular tasks and plays a role: The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries becomes a search and rescue operation; the Department of Natural Resources assesses oil and gas pipeline leaks and drinking water quality. 

The pandemic has added a new layer of responsibility for these agencies, and requires more cooperation among officials and recovery groups. The Department of Transportation and Development not only oversaw evacuations last week, it also took evacuees’ temperatures before they boarded buses, “treating everyone like they were COVID positive,” said Mike Steele, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP). 

The state’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) typically oversees sheltering operations, which now means managing evacuees at dozens of hotels across the state. “It’s a massive undertaking,” said Catherine Heitman, a department spokesperson.

Having so many evacuees in New Orleans is rare, said Laura Mellem, public engagement manager for the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “New Orleans is really never considered a receiving city for evacuees because we ourselves continue to be in a danger zone if another storm were to come,” she said. 

Another storm could make for a difficult and dangerous situation. There are now 10,000 more people in New Orleans who would need to evacuate. 

As of Tuesday, 36 hotels in New Orleans were hosting evacuees, according to Marketa Garner Walters, DCFS secretary. But they reached capacity, so the agency moved its reception center — where evacuees register with the state to receive a hotel assignment — three hours north to Alexandria, at a state-owned mega-shelter. Cots are spread out to allow for distancing, but the department is working around the clock to find hotel space for evacuees, Walters said. 

She added that they don’t want to host evacuees in congregate shelters “any longer than we absolutely have to.” On Wednesday morning, there were 295 people staying at the mega-shelter, though Heitman said most have been assigned to hotels.

When asked if there was a limit on how long evacuees could stay, DCFS staff deferred to the department’s partners at the American Red Cross. Greta Gustafson, a spokesperson for the organization, said it’s “too early to know that right now,” and that the Red Cross will partner with other relief organizations to find housing arrangements for evacuees while their homes are “unlivable.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday that after 30 days of keeping evacuees in hotels under contracts with the state, it will shift to a voucher system. The hotel rooms will drive recovery costs “well beyond” $700 million, he said.

New Orleans agencies are also offering help. “We know what they’re going through,” Mellem said. “We went through it 15 years ago.” Her department is operating a resource fair out of the convention center, where evacuees can pick up baby supplies, hygiene items, and clothes. 

They are also offering telehealth screenings as well as prescription services onsite, and the National Guard is providing free COVID-19 testing. Many testing sites across Louisiana were shut down for days because of the hurricane, making it difficult to assess current case numbers in a state that has seen a high volume of COVID-19 cases and deaths. 

Local mutual aid groups, which mobilized during the pandemic, are pivoting to address evacuees’ needs. In New Orleans, volunteers for Imagine Water Works, which is focused on climate justice, water management, and disaster response, visited hotels to hand out flyers and help people sign up so they can request resources

Executive co-director Klie Kliebert said the goal is to provide a platform for people to voice their needs, which are so often prescribed during disasters. “You’ll see somebody getting 500 tubes of toothpaste, but, you know, they might actually just need shoes, or they might have kids and need crayons,” they said.

The online platform proves a technological barrier for some people, but it is a crucial tool since evacuees are dispersed in hotel rooms, rather than centralized at a shelter. The Democratic Socialists of America chapter in Lafayette and Lake Charles is helping to operate a Hurricane Laura relief effort as well, and is looking for volunteers to do everything from moderating Slack channels to removing downed trees. 

Megan Romer, a chapter member, said they are asking volunteers to think twice before heading to the impacted area, and to act with caution. “I don’t know that it has ever occurred to anyone to decontaminate a chainsaw, but that is one of the things we’re doing,” Romer said. 

Recovering from a major hurricane like Laura can take years. Disasters can lead to long-lasting mental health effects for survivors, and they devastate local economies. The pandemic — and the federal government’s haphazard response to it — adds more challenges. Many Louisianans have lost work because of COVID-19, and are receiving only $300 in additional weekly unemployment funds from the state since federal unemployment benefits ended in July.

Hotel stays for evacuees are covered by FEMA, according to GOHSEP spokesperson Steele, and federal unemployment benefits are available for people who lost jobs as a result of the hurricane. But that assistance amounts to only $108 a week, Governor Edwards said in a press conference, and in order to be eligible, individuals can’t be receiving any state unemployment benefits. In approved parishes, residents can begin applying for federal assistance to rebuild, but receiving aid can often take months or years

Jones works as a construction finisher, and has kept his job during the pandemic. But the hurricane is a major hurdle. There’s rebuilding work to do, but nowhere to stay. “The option of going to work ain’t there,” he said. 

Gesturing to the hotel behind him, he said, “It’s a blessing. But at the same time, you know, not knowing is…” 

“Scary,” his wife, Elizabeth, finished for him.

If you are an evacuee looking for current information about shelters, text LASHELTER to 898-211 or call 211. If you are looking to locate a loved one in a non-congregate shelter, call 225-342-2727 or fill out this form from the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services: http://www.dcfs.louisiana.gov/form/dcfs-connect./

Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.