On a Saturday in February, six months after Hurricane Ida rocked southeast Louisiana, I stood in a house with no roof. I’d planned to get up there and secure the blue tarp that had blown off in a recent tornado, but the sky looked like rain. 

Like many old homes in St. James Parish, the house was built with corrugated metal strapped directly to the rafters, without a plywood sheathing or protective storm guard beneath. No match to Ida’s heavy winds, roofs peeled off like paper. 

St. James Parish did not have major flooding, but serious roof damage meant hundreds of homes had water damage. Repairing them requires a process called “muck and gut.” First, you muck the home, sorting through a family’s possessions to see what can be saved and what must be discarded while shoveling out mud brought in by floodwater. Then you gut it by pulling out carpet or vinyl flooring and tearing sheetrock down to the studs.

The process should start immediately so the wood foundation of a house can dry out and be treated for mold. Wet drywall and carpet must be taken out or rot spreads quickly. Yet there we were at Alexis Jones’ house, six months after Ida rolled through. She is an elder, living alone, and didn’t receive timely support she needed from FEMA or the state. 

Our small volunteer group came together in the days after Ida hit in August 2021, when most of southeast Louisiana was still without power. After months of relief work, we formed the Louisiana Just Recovery Network, led by four organizers (including me) who work under the guidance of rural environmental justice leaders.

We’d helped hundreds of folks in similar situations, but by late November, our volunteer force had dried up. A bare-bones crew was working on Jones’ house half a year later. As we studied the mold creeping down her hallway, she told me that nothing like Ida had ever happened in St. James. She hadn’t seen anything close to this since Hurricane Betsey in 1965.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” she said. “The recovery from Ida has been slow, and the need is so great. We deserve far more help than what has been offered. But I tip my hat to the volunteers for doing what they could.”

A painted sign thanking volunteers and first responders. (Photo courtesy Michael Esealuka)

Building a network for recovery

Two or three days after the storm, our group reached out to community partners, including environmental justice groups in St. James, St. John the Baptist, and Plaquemines Parishes. RISE St. James, The Descendants Project, Inclusive Louisiana, Concerned Citizens of St. John, Zion Travelers, and the town of Ironton sent us hundreds of requests from churches and families who needed help. Within five days of Ida’s landfall, we had learned to tarp roofs. Ten days later, we were tearing out drywall. Bedtime was sundown because no one had electricity; it took weeks until fresh vegetables, gasoline, and clean laundry were widely available.

Early on, volunteer labor was plentiful. Without power or cell service, many in southeast Louisiana were unable to work, and nervous about what came next. The only thing to do with our anxiety and grief was to start cleaning up. 

“There is no way to comprehend a hurricane’s aftermath until you see it yourself,” said Kate McIntosh, formerly an organizer with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. She recently quit her job to transition to a career in climate-adaptive, sustainable construction. “Neighbors, churches, volunteers—we’re responding to disaster as we’re in the midst of it ourselves, not sure how to get back home.”

We drove up and down the Mississippi River at least five times a week, from St. James to New Orleans to Plaquemines Parish. In September and October we deployed nearly 300 volunteers. One Saturday we sent out 11 crews to three different parishes. In a month, I put 3,000 miles on my truck. 

A market suddenly filled with demand meant contractors could charge hundreds to tack on a blue tarp. In five weeks, our crews tarped nearly 50 roofs for free, fueled by gas station chicken, energy drinks, and bottled water. In mid-September, the Army Corps of Engineers announced their Blue Roof program had installed just over 100 tarps. We bragged because our volunteer crews had done 43 in that same time without resources from the federal government. 

The author tarping a roof destroyed by Hurricane Ida. (Photo courtesy Michael Esealuka)

The work was rewarding: We were doing what Louisiana people have always done. We help our neighbors in times of crisis because if we don’t, no one else will.

“I know how disruptive these events can be,” said Ben Miller, a co-founder of LJRN. Raised in Lafayette and Vermilion Parish, his family rebuilt their home after Hurricanes Laura and Delta, and the 2016 floods. “I will always remember the first few weeks—being stunned, in a daze, not knowing what to do. I’ve been through it. After Ida, I thought the least I could do was help folks figure out how to put one foot in front of the next.”

The Louisiana Just Recovery Network formalized through months of grassroots relief pulled off on a crowd-funded, shoestring budget. LJRN is now a network of organizations responding to disaster and rebuilding after storms through a climate justice lens. We’ve secured modest funding to train and hire workers from rural, Ida-impacted communities.

‘No time for bureaucracy’

After Hurricane Ida, I watched Louisiana’s environmental justice leaders arrive well before the state, FEMA, or Red Cross. For instance, without cell service or a generator to run air conditioning and electricity, Pastor Harry Joseph opened up Mt. Triumph Baptist Church as a central distribution hub in St. James Parish. His congregation sent out 5,000 hot meals in a matter of weeks; Joseph gutted his church and tarped dozens of roofs. 

In the beginning this was a point of pride. Half a year later, as rain began to fall through Jones’ roof, I realized I was angry. McIntosh, a volunteer, was as well. “There is no time for bureaucracy when walls have been flooded, roofs are gone, and the heat index is over 100 degrees,” she said.

Toi Carter, who helped start LJRN, is from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. As a volunteer leader, she’s donated 40 hours every week since mid-September. “In the beginning I just started making calls,” she said.“I’d been through Katrina and I know how poor communities and communities of color were left behind.” Carter helps juggle meetings between faith-based charities and kind-hearted contractors while trying to get new roofs installed for families who can’t afford repairs.

Much of LJRN’s work has taken place in St. James and St. John the Baptist Parish. Both are located in a stretch a between Baton Rouge and New Orleans called “Cancer Alley,” as it’s home to over 150 chemical plants and refineries that emit toxic chemicals.

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Mt. Triumph Church and Jones’ house, and more than a dozen industrial facilities, are located in St. James’ 4th and 5th Districts. In these districts, the vast majority of residents are Black. Many communities have faced generational disinvestment and barriers to building wealth.

“We’re working with so many people to make their homes liveable and they weren’t always liveable before the storm,” Carter said. “I see decades of systemic neglect, open sewage ditches, scrawny roads that couldn’t fit two lanes of traffic—and then Ida came to make it worse.”

A month before Hurricane Ida, St. James residents discovered that Nucor Steel had violated its air permits for six years by releasing toxic sulphur gas. The plant stayed on with backup generators while residents went weeks without electricity in their homes after the storm. In late summer, outside was cooler than inside, so residents sat on the porch and watched Nucor light up at sundown as their own streets went dark. A few miles away, a downed electricity pole blocked a major thoroughfare in the historic Black town of Romeville for nearly two weeks. 

“The need is overwhelming, the damage is overwhelming,” said Pastor Joseph, reflecting on those early days. “You have to stay busy constantly and focus on recovery. We learned the hard way to rely only on ourselves, to rely only on our community. Right after the storm, no one else came.” 

Six months after Ida and sixteen years since Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana residents like Joseph struggle to answer difficult questions: How does our government allow this situation where our most vulnerable community members—people with disabilities, elders, single moms—feel the least supported? 

The author and Pastor Harry Joseph repairing a roof. (Photo courtesy Michael Esealuka)

Why were residents of Ironton, a historic Black community in Plaquemines Parish, forced to rent heavy equipment and clear their own streets? Why did residents have to send out search teams to find caskets of their family members uprooted by floodwater? 

Why is it that some communities get the resources to recover, when others do not? 

Research shows that as the climate changes, the Gulf South will see more back-to-back tropical storms. Hurricanes will intensify, bringing more rainfall and leaving major pollution events in their wake. To address the escalating threat of climate disaster, we need swift and coordinated efforts from every level of our government, not just hard work from persistent volunteers.

Inclusive Louisiana founders Gail LeBeouf, Myrtle Felton and Barbara Washington at a cemetery clean-up day they organized to clear debris in their community after Ida. (Photo courtesy Michael Esealuka)

According to the Louisiana Budget Project, the state has a surplus of over $1.6 billion that could be allocated during this year’s legislative session. More is on the way: Louisiana is poised to receive billions in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act, and FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, which means money is on the table to sustainably rebuild communities able to withstand flooding and storms. But we’ve come to learn that the first step is making recovery a priority.

“The two hours that Ida passed over my home were the most frightening two hours of my life. As my roof blew off I talked to God, because I didn’t know who else to talk to, ” said Myrtle Felton, co-founder of Inclusive Louisiana. “Our leaders must take a close look at what causes these storms to be so intense. We need real solutions to the root issues: pollution and injustice.”

Michael Esealuka is a co-founder of Louisiana Just Recovery Network and an organizer with Healthy Gulf.

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