A year after  Hurricane Ida brought eight to 15 feet of floodwater to Plaquemines Parish—a coastal parish in Southeast Louisiana—historic Black communities Ironton and West Point a la Hache are still fighting for a just recovery. Slow-moving action from federal agencies like HUD and FEMA, a massive shortage in affordable housing, and inadequate flood protection have left residents facing a difficult decision: leave behind neighbors, traditional lifeways, and ancestral lands to migrate in search of housing, or fight to rebuild, elevate homes and make the coast more resilient to intense storms.

I’ve been working as an organizer in Plaquemines Parish since 2020, starting with a successful campaign to stop an oil terminal from excavating a cemetery where enslaved people were laid to rest. I continue to support residents in their efforts to rebuild after Ida and advocate for stronger flood protection. Recently, I spoke with several residents to hear about their experience with recovery from the storm. A year since Ida’s landfall, nearly all of my friends in Plaquemines Parish have yet to return home.

All photos by Virginia Hanusik.

Eugene Miller, resident of Ironton

“I’m a U.S. Army veteran. I’ve been living in Ironton, La. for 68 years. I heard that Louisiana has received several billion dollars for hurricane recovery. Some of that needs to be used to help us restore our community. 

After Hurricane Ida destroyed most of the homes in my town, it took a while for me to get a temporary trailer. You’ve got … to talk to the state, you’ve got to talk to FEMA. I made calls everyday and it took me two or three weeks before I even got through to someone. Eventually I did get a travel trailer through Louisiana’s Ida Sheltering Program. When I was waiting for my trailer, I sometimes slept in my truck. It was hard waking up in the morning. Now that I got my temporary housing, I have a roof over my head. It’s not much but I have somewhere to stay. One day at a time, I hope Ironton, my community, can come back together and rebuild.”

Many residents are still living in temporary housing. FEMA has long been criticized for its inability to address emergency housing needs in a timely manner. In Southwest Louisiana, some families whose homes were destroyed in Hurricane Laura waited 10 months for FEMA to issue temporary trailers. After the 2021 hurricane season, Louisiana set up a new emergency housing program called the Ida Sheltering Program to issue travel trailers more quickly, and the state has housed nearly 12,000 residents through this program. But it’s unclear what other housing options are available to them. Louisiana faced a severe shortage of affordable housing before the hurricane.

Ironton residents have hung signs throughout their community to let Plaquemines Parish know they intend to come back and rebuild.

Elliot Sylve, resident of West Point a la Hache

“We in West Point a la Hache have lived through many storms, but they are getting worse. We were promised a better levee system after Katrina. It’s yet to be completed. I worry that our officials have abandoned the lower part of Plaquemines Parish. 

My future here in West Point a la Hache seems like it’s coming to an end. Not because of my health but because of the government personnels who refuse to give us proper assistance and protection through these storms. I’ve paid taxes on my property for the last 15 years … I vote for parish council members. I vote for state officials. I vote in every election. It seems as though we’ve been forgotten.”

“Oil and Water,” a short documentary produced through a partnership between Healthy Gulf and Frontline Media Network, is the first of a series that documents the stories of Gulf South residents living at the frontlines of the climate crisis.

Directed by Michael Esealuka, shot by Jazz Franklin, produced by Nate Birnbaum and Marielle Olentine, and edited by Nik Damants and Esealuka.

Cassandra Wilson, resident of Ironton

“For Ironton to really come back home after Ida, we need a strong levee. We have not had levee protection. This is the reason we keep flooding. Other communities like New Orleans and Port Sulphur have their levee protection. Without it, they would have flooded out years ago. 

If we had the levee, we would not have to keep our guards up every hurricane season. They’ve bypassed Ironton with the construction of levees because we are a little Black community. We have always been looked over for anything and everything.”

Nearly one in three U.S. residents live along the coast, and climate predictions show that hurricanes and rising seas will threaten major coastal cities like New York within our lifetime. In South Louisiana, where communities have been hit hard by devastating storms while losing land faster than anywhere in North America, climate migration is already a bitter feature of daily life. In the last two years, Louisiana has been hit by four major hurricanes. The loss of wetlands to industrial development combined with stronger and more frequent storms now put nearly 1 million of the state’s residents at risk of flooding

Louisiana has long been reliant on the oil and gas industry. Canals were dredged through thousands of acres on the Louisiana coast to make room for vessels and drilling rigs. Wetlands that provide protection from storms were destroyed to make way for pipelines. Today Louisiana is the third largest energy producer in the U.S. and among the states most vulnerable to climate change.

A federal levee system authorized after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 excludes the lower sections of rural Plaquemines, where most of the parish’s Black and Indigenous communities are located. The New Orleans levee system cost $14.5 billion and took over a decade to complete, but areas like Ironton and West Point a la Hahce were not included because of insufficient federal funding. As heavy rains, hurricanes and coastal land loss increase in frequency, estimates show US flooding losses will spike by nearly 30% within the next 30 years.

Carolyn Sylve, resident of West Point a la Hache

“It would be difficult for me to adjust to another way of living. I have been here all my life and I don’t want to live anywhere else. The recovery from Ida has been slow and expensive. I’m in my 70s and I’m still working. I am not a millionaire. I’m an average Joe who works everyday to try and make a living.

The plan for our government is to pass the buck. I’ve met with my local officials and asked them for help. They say go to FEMA. FEMA says we can’t get a temporary trailer because we’re in a flood zone. The parish says if we rebuild we have to elevate our homes by fourteen feet. Just further down from my community is the town of Diamond, LA. They’re closer to the coast but they don’t have to raise their homes because they have a better levee system. I don’t see how FEMA and the state can say West Point a la Hache is in a flood zone, when down the road in [the nearby town of] Port Sulphur they’re just as prone to flooding as I am. In South Louisiana, we’re all against water.”

Leroy Ducette, resident of West Point a la Hache

“We lost everything we had. We’re starting all over again. This is the third time since Katrina that we’ve been hit by a bad storm, and I feel like these hurricanes are getting worse. With Ida, we had 15 feet of water that stayed here for three weeks after the storm passed. 

It’s hurricane season now and we’re sitting here on pins and needles. Where do we go? Housing has gone up, land has gone up. Down here, we’re on our own. Our leaders don’t have a plan to deal with these storms. Their plan for coastal Louisiana is import and export. Industrial development, gas pipelines, and fishing camps. They want us gone. 

If communities like West Point a la Hache and Ironton are to come back and rebuild, we have to stick together and use our voice. They want us to give up—FEMA, SBA, our local officials—but we won’t leave. God gives us hope.”

Michael Esealuka is an organizer for Healthy Gulf and a co-founder of the Louisiana Just Recovery Network. Learn more about their work and how to get involved here.

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