The Lasting Impacts of Hurricane Ida
Scholar and activist Amy Lesen shares how the region’s most vulnerable communities view Ida as the most destructive in their lifetime
Remember Hurricane Ida? It hit Louisiana in late August, knocking out power and water to more than a million people for weeks — and then fell out of the national news. But for tens of thousands of underserved people who live in New Orleans and Louisiana’s Gulf coastal parishes, the aftermath of Ida — and the destruction it wreaked on their homes and livelihoods — continues.
Amy E. Lesen, an associate professor in the Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center at Dillard University and Research Associate Professor at Tulane University’s ByWater Institute, has been working with these communities for more than a decade as a researcher and an activist. She says they have told her Ida was the most destructive hurricane in memory — more destructive than even Katrina.
I called Amy to hear more about Ida’s impact on the region’s most vulnerable communities, what’s being done (and can be done) to help in the aftermath, and how working with these communities has changed her as a person. I’ve included below excerpts from our broader conversation that will appear soon on a forthcoming episode of my new Audacious Water podcast.
John Sabo: Let’s talk about the communities that you work with. You mentioned the Vietnamese community in Alabama. I know you’ve worked with tribes and African-American communities on the fringe of habitable land. So just describe the communities and what they have at stake.
Amy Lesen: I work with folks, neighborhood groups, and organizations and communities here in New Orleans, largely people who are underserved in some way, be it BIPOC communities and/or communities that are underserved socioeconomically, or all of the above. And I work with tribes on the coast and other communities on the coast.
The folks I work with down in coastal Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes think they have very little in common with folks in New Orleans, which I think is probably true for the most part, except for the fact that we are all in an existential crisis about living on the coast and the fact that most people that I’ve met who’ve lived on the coast of Louisiana — or really most other Gulf states — for their whole lives would like very much to continue to live here. I’m starting to feel that my job is more about how we can all help each other figure out how to live here at the same time that we also are addressing the potential possibility of having to leave.
But I would say the communities that are more rural in Terrebonne and Lafourche, and Plaquemines Parishes — largely fishing communities, largely Native American communities — are certainly where traditionally subsistence-fishers and hunters, have faced huge changes in their physical environment and ecology, and huge social changes. All the communities I work with, including African-American, Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian communities and Native American communities have historically been the targets of institutionalized racism.
I’m starting to feel that my job is more about how we can all help each other figure out how to live here at the same time that we also are addressing the potential possibility of having to leave.
— Amy Lesen
Most of the communities I work with are working-class or poor and are hugely impacted by environmental change. And so it’s really about how to try to work with people who are experts on their own environment. They’re experts in their own lives, and have some pretty good ideas about how they want to do things and what they want to bring to fruition. Because they usually know a lot about what they need to do and are just needing help to try to actualize that, and it’s often a lot of science and a lot of information that they really want. And so those are the kinds of things that I can help them with.
John Sabo: Tell me what Ida did to these sorts of communities.
Amy Lesen: I will say that much to my surprise every person who lives in coastal Terrebonne, Lafourche, or Plaquemines, or Jefferson — because we’re working with people in Jean Lafitte in Jefferson Parish as well — have said that this is the worst hurricane that they can remember in their lifetime, including Hurricane Betsy, which was a really, really bad hurricane for them.
When I went down there most of the houses looked to me like they were dollhouses put in a very strong wind tunnel, or dollhouses made of matchsticks that were put in a strong wind tunnel.
What’s interesting is a close colleague/friend of mine — she’s a disaster studies expert from New Orleans and she lived through Katrina — said [the devastation from Ida] is so much more violent. The effects of Katrina were extremely disturbing to see — it was hard to see that stuff on TV and the level of the water — (and I’m not minimizing any of that), but seeing the destruction that a wind event — as opposed to a flooding event — wrought, it’s a very different look.
Most of the communities I work with are working-class or poor and are hugely impacted by environmental change. And so it’s really about how to try to work with people who are experts on their own environment. They’re experts in their own lives, and have some pretty good ideas about how they want to do things and what they want to bring to fruition.
— Amy Lesen
John Sabo: This is one in a series of many disasters. I mean, you mentioned the oil spill, you mentioned Katrina before, there were two other cat. 4 or 5 storms right before Ida. Has the mentality changed or evolved at all such that it’s viewed as a normal, as a stress instead of a shock?
Amy Lesen: I think people are determined, some are optimistic, some are gritting their teeth. I think people are determined and exhausted.
People here are so attached to place — people I speak to whom I’m calling on the phone to find out “how are you?” and “do you need clothing? And do you need toothbrushes? And what can I do?” they don’t even want to be 20 minutes or a half-an-hour away from home, at their son’s house. They want to be on their property. They just want a trailer so they can be at their property. They want to be by their home. And we have to remind ourselves, I think, in this field how badly people want to be home. Like, this is home. It’s a part of their identity.
John Sabo: You’ve been directly engaged in relief in some of these communities. What does that look like? What have you and others been doing to make it better?
Amy Lesen: Yeah, it’s a combination. This is the thing that happens when you do very deep community engagement, which is that some of the folks I’ve been working with, Chief Albert Naquin of the Isle de Jean Charles Tribe, Theresa Dardar of the Pointe-au-Chien — she’s an elder of the Pointe-au-Chien Native American Community — they’re my friends. And so these are my friends and my colleagues that are being affected.
I’m affiliated with this group that was founded by Reverend Kris Peterson, who also has a PhD in Urban Planning from UNO, and Shirley Laska, who’s an emerita professor at UNO in sociology, an organization called the Lowlander Center that’s based where Kris lives in Terrebonne Parish. We have a tiny team. Almost every day we text or call all of the tribal leaders of five tribes plus another couple of communities that aren’t tribal [to ask] “What do you need?” “I need garden hoses today. We need food. We need bread.” And I try to find a way to get them what they need either that day or the next day. Some people evacuated with the clothes on their back or in a little tiny backpack, and now they literally have nothing. And so one of the things we do is try to make people comfortable and give them what they need in terms of hygiene and clothing.
And then I have some volunteers who’ve now formed these really close relationships with some of the individual households, and they just go off on their own and they’re calling these folks every day to find out. And so one of my volunteers will say, you know, “Miss Judy needs this really badly,” and, you know, “Miss Monica needs her medication,” and “How do we get that done?” And I just try to get it done. So that’s what we’re doing.
And now we’re moving towards how we try to find people temporary housing.
John Sabo: You’re serving on a state subcommittee in Louisiana on health disparities and COVID. One of the important linkages that we need to look at is between clean drinking water and/or hazard management, and COVID and other comorbidities that might be associated with stress.
Amy Lesen: This [the COVID pandemic] is a terrible time to be having this crisis with the hurricane because [during or after a disaster]families all shove themselves into the same house. Stress and mental health issues are really huge. And, the more stress you have, the more the cortisol and stress impacts your immune system. And so that’s a concern, chronic stress or these pulses of stress.
And then we’re also talking about communities that historically either because of historical institutionalized racism in medicine, because of actual abuse that’s been visited on communities by the medical field, because of distrust that in many cases is earned, because of a lack of health insurance, a lack of money, a lack of resources, all of the above — a lot of these communities have existing health disparities that are exacerbated by stress, make them more vulnerable to COVID, and it’s just this really terrible combination of all of these things.
And there’s not a lot of [hospitals or access to mental health services]. Just as one example, Plaquemines Parish — I’ve done some collaboration with Julie Olsen, the director of the Plaquemines Community Care Center, which is the only provider of mental health services in the entire parish of Plaquemines. As far as I know the last time I spoke with her there is not a single psychiatrist that has a permanent office in the Parish of Plaquemines. There are psychiatrists who come from New Orleans and do a day a couple of times a week. But I think for other people in other states or other regions it would be shocking to come to understand the lack of access.
John Sabo: What does drinking water and sanitation look like in these communities and how has the hurricane affected that?
Amy Lesen: There can potentially be a lot of issues with toxics. I haven’t heard as much about that happening with Ida, but for Katrina it was a huge issue, and for some other storms. If you have a state that is simultaneously riddled with oil and gas pipelines and oil and gas refineries and chemical plants, and then you add hurricane vulnerability, it’s a recipe for some pretty terrible things to happen in terms of toxic pollution.
But another thing that a lot of these communities deal with is toxics due to the fact that we’re the receiving end of every chemical that ends up in the Mississippi River starting in Minnesota. Folks might know all about the [Gulf of Mexico] Dead Zone, but those kinds of issues affect people’s drinking water and the aquifers. People are drinking a lot of bottled water. And I think that there’s a general sense of concern about contamination.
John Sabo: How has working with these coastal communities impacted you not just as a researcher but as a person? You mentioned these are your friends before, and I think that’s very powerful.
Amy Lesen: I have learned a huge amount from working with everyone I’ve worked with who’s not an academic, who lives on the coast. From just talking about concerns and trying to solve problems, and hearing the situations people are in.
People in southern Louisiana are really fun to hang out with, they’re funny, they’re determined, people have great senses of humor, they’re kind, you know, if you’re trustworthy. I’ve learned a huge amount about the environment of Louisiana from these folks. They know more than I do, for sure, about where they live.
Understanding that we’re all facing the same problems and to see us as a group of people trying to solve this together rather than pointing fingers at people and where they shouldn’t live — I think that’s a message I really want people to hear.
— Amy Lesen
I’ve learned what’s important to people that might be the same or different from me. I’ve learned that sometimes being a friend is more important than being a collaborator.
Kris Peterson, who’s my mentor, who’s the founder of the Lowlander Center — I remember I used to go visit Chief Albert on a regular basis and just hang out with him and talk. And one time I went with Kris and we left, and we were in the car together. And, you know, we used to write a bunch of grants, and we almost never got any. And I was, like, “I feel like I’m not helping.” And she just looked at me and she said, “You’re his friend.” Like, “I think he appreciates that.” And it just blew me away … And another thing that is very unique about community-based work is that it’s very hard to pick apart what’s your work and what’s your personal piece because you’ve become part of these people’s families.
And I’ve learned a lot about what I do not like — you know, the word “resilience” is really overused often. I’ve learned about grit and determination, and I’ve learned when to check myself, I’ve learned when I’m offering things that I shouldn’t offer, I’ve learned when I should talk and when I shouldn’t, when I should step back.
John Sabo: How can people reading this help communities that we’ve been talking about?
Amy Lesen: Well, I think people certainly need donations. (Ed. note: See below for links to charities that are helping.) And, I think one thing that people need is to understand that saying “Those people shouldn’t live there” is, number one, incredibly unhelpful, and number two, many of the people who say these things live in places that are, if not vulnerable right now, will be vulnerable very soon.
Place means different things to different people. Ultimately no matter where you live in the world — be it in the desert, or on the coast, in a rainforest — we’re all right now dealing with environmental change. Understanding that we’re all facing the same problems and to see us as a group of people trying to solve this together rather than pointing fingers at people and where they shouldn’t live — I think that’s a message I really want people to hear.
Here are a few organizations and charities Amy recommends supporting to help the region’s most impacted communities.
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