The flood waters of Hurricane Ida have receded, the media circus has moved on, and Anderson Cooper is back in the studio in New York. For weeks, the media plied us with feel-good stories of individual acts of selflessness and charity meant to reassure us that as a nation we are strong, resilient, and united in our response.
But the reality on the ground is quite different. Only now – out of sight of the media—will we begin to see the real toll such storms exact in human displacement, anxiety, and despair.
For the victims of Ida, the nightmare is only beginning to unfold.
As an on-the-ground witness to the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I’ve learned that it is the weeks and months that follow a catastrophe that shape the lives of thousands of families.
The plight of New Orleans dominated the news after Katrina: images of floods wiping out buildings across the Ninth Ward, chaos downtown, and the terrible conditions in the Superdome where thousands waited out the storm for days. The media went to New Orleans, but the city was only a small part of the story.
As aid began to pour into the city, fleets of trucks raced past devastated rural towns and minority neighborhoods to deliver provisions in middle-class white neighborhoods. In those overlooked rural areas and minority neighborhoods, the situation was dire: livestock drowned, crops were devastated, and caskets were seen adrift miles from their above-ground burial sites.
The only help for those communities came from local volunteers bringing supplies, setting up soup kitchens, and building tent cities in open fields. To rehouse the homeless, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) eventually brought in tiny white trailers that turned out to have toxic insulation. With nowhere else to go, many relocated to other cities for short-term housing, where they spent years awaiting news of their insurance claims.
Unfortunately, the insurance companies created a variety of obstacles for families looking to secure the post-disaster support they desperately needed – and indeed, deserved. If your roof had blown off, you were told that you only had flood insurance. If your house was flooded, you only had wind insurance. Some who lived in a low-lying area or floodplain were informed that their policy coverage did not cover such “acts of God.”
Insurance abuse was particularly egregious in minority and rural areas. In bayou country, families were told that to secure coverage, they would have to raise their homes twelve to fifteen feet above the ground on large mounds. This was unaffordable for most rural families, who would then have to face selling both their home and farm.
Most elderly, poor, and minority families had no insurance and no place to go. Those fortunate enough to receive help often had to rely on church volunteers to remove the masses of toxic mold and replace electric wiring so that the interior walls could be reconstructed. Although the cost of labor was free in these cases, the prices of building materials are typically astronomical after a disaster.
Much of the cleanup work after Katrina and Rita was done by undocumented workers – many of whom were Hispanic veterans with US military service records – who were quickly rounded up by local authorities and shipped out of the country once the job was done.
In Biloxi, Mississippi, where onshore gambling is illegal, large hotels line the beach linked to large floating barge casinos by flyway bridges. Katrina and Rita destroyed both the offshore barges and bridges – as well as the homes of the African American and Vietnamese residents of the neighborhoods surrounding these hotels. Rather than provide needed assistance to the residents of these minority neighborhoods, the state prioritized opening hotels and casinos and encouraged real estate developers anxious to get their hands on beachfront property to start bidding on condemned properties.
Meanwhile, Haley Barbour, then the Republican Governor of Mississippi, rushed to Washington to request massive funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with waivers from the Senate lifting restrictions on how these funds could be used. He then shifted those housing funds away from the hurricane-affected areas to his favored port development project.
Housing the displaced is always a major problem after a disaster of this magnitude. It was therefore also quite surprising to see state governments quickly condemning and tearing down public housing projects, which had been sturdily built of brick in the 1930s and had weathered prior storms rather well. The storm became a convenient excuse for their removal, owing to the fact that gentrified neighborhoods had grown up around these now unwelcome projects.
The coastal plain and Mississippi bayou country of southern Louisiana has been carved up over decades by the oil industry. The outer barrier islands and wetlands that protected and preserved the southern Louisiana coast are now being swallowed up by the Gulf of Mexico. No amount of diking or wetland restoration by the Army Corps of Engineers will suffice to save Louisiana from losing hundreds of square miles of coast and from the residents of these bayou regions, many of them Native American and traditional Cajun communities, from losing their homes and livelihoods. The oil industry has been both a short-term blessing and a long-term curse for southern Louisiana, Mississippi, and the Texas coast.
For years to come, climate change will continue to be a scourge for the residents of this region. Year after year, it will bring new misery to Gulf Coast families, who will spend years paying the price for the shortsightedness and willful ignorance of political leaders who have chosen to ignore the indignities and suffering of their citizens for short-term profit and political advantage.
Hurricanes and human dignity
The Katrinas, Ritas, and Idas threaten human livelihoods and lives, but they do not, in themselves, rob people of their basic dignity. Only careless politicians and unfair policies attempt that kind of theft. And so the question becomes: what will it take for reasonable people to recognize the urgency for dramatic decision-making and action on behalf of the most vulnerable?
Looking to the future, the Gulf Coast is now the epicenter for extreme weather events predicted by climate scientists. While FEMA has performed admirably in the past, Congress will have to increase its budgetary allocations in order to meet the scale and frequency of future humanitarian crises with adequate stockpiles of emergency shelter, food and other supplies. The federal government will need to invest in restoring coastal wetlands and reducing the destructive impacts of oil extraction and pipelines that have gutted protective coastal areas.
Coordination between state and federal agencies must be improved. Power grids and water storage systems must be weather-proofed. The insurance industry must be accountable to its premium paying customers. And dramatic measures are required to persuade home and business owners to move away from vulnerable coastal areas.
Emergency management is now the new normal for Gulf Coast residents. There are no easy or cheap solutions for what the future holds. Citizens of the region must take the measure of leaders they elect to determine if they are committed and competent to guide the important work that must be done to ensure a safe and sustainable future for all their citizens—not just the ones who can afford it.
Kellogg Faculty Fellow Ray Offenheiser is the William J. Pulte Director of the Pulte Institute for Global Development and professor of the practice in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Before coming to Notre Dame, he served as president of Oxfam America for 20 years.