Louisiana's Marginalized See No Way Out

CHALMETTE, La. (AP) -- Darkness set in for Natasha Blunt well before Hurricane Ida knocked out power across Louisiana.

Months into the pandemic, she faced eviction from her New Orleans apartment. She lost her job at a banquet hall. She suffered two strokes. And she struggled to help her 5-year-old grandson keep up with schoolwork at home.

Like nearly a fifth of the state's population -- disproportionately represented by Black residents and women -- Blunt, 51, lives below the poverty line, and the economic fallout of the pandemic sent her to the brink. With the help of a legal aid group and grassroots donors, she moved to Chalmette, a few miles outside New Orleans, and tried to settle into a two-bedroom apartment. Using a cane and taking a slew of medications since her strokes, she was unable to return to work. But federal benefits kept food in the fridge for the most part.

Then came Hurricane Ida.

The storm ravaged Louisiana as the fifth-strongest hurricane to ever hit the U.S. mainland, wiping out the power grid before marching up the coast and sparking devastating flooding in the Northeast. Among survivors of the deadly storm, the toll has been deepest in many ways for people like Blunt -- those who already lost livelihoods to the COVID-19 pandemic in a region of longstanding racial and social inequality. Advocates say the small wins they'd made for marginalized communities and people of color since the pandemic began have been quickly wiped out.

"The government is really disconnected from what it's like for people who have little to no safety net," said Maggie Harris, a documentarian and grassroots organizer who last year created a fundraiser for Blunt and other women economically devastated by the pandemic. "You marginalize people, you don't pay them enough, they have health problems and aren't insured, you offer little cash assistance or rent assistance, and you allow them to be evicted.

"The message that people get is their lives are expendable."

As Ida approached Louisiana, Blunt knew it was intensifying rapidly. She evacuated to a hotel in Lafayette, more than two hours west of her new home, a day ahead of landfall. But she could afford only a short stay, and the hotel was booked with other evacuees. She had to return to Chalmette, despite officials' warnings not to go back to hot, humid cities with boil-water advisories and no power.

Her apartment was pitch black. Ida's Category 4 winds had blown in the windows of her upstairs bedroom. Her few possessions -- beds, clothing, furniture -- were waterlogged. She'd spent her last dollars getting to the hotel, with no federal aid to evacuate.

"It's like I've got to start all over again," Blunt said, sobbing as she surveyed the first floor of her apartment, where she sleeps now that the bedroom is uninhabitable. "Every time I get a step ahead, I get pushed back down. And I'm tired. I don't see no way out."

Now, Blunt faces eviction for the second time in a year. Her only hope, she said, is Social Security and other disability benefits. She applied before the storm, she said, but has yet to hear back -- social safety net programs are often disrupted in the wake of disasters.

Blunt wants to find a new home, preferably far from the storm-battered Gulf Coast -- a place where grandson Kamille can resume schooling without worrying about power and Internet outages. But she's far from optimistic.

"This is the end of the road; I can't go on much longer," she said. Kamille put down his kindergarten worksheet to gently rub his grandma's leg.

"Don't cry," he told her. She managed a tender reply: "Do your ABCs, baby."

Anti-poverty and housing advocates in Louisiana bemoan links between being Black or brown, living in impoverished areas, and being underserved by governmental disaster response. Available aid from anti-poverty programs often fails to meet the heightened needs of storm victims in states of emergency.

And that, the advocates say, is what happened during Ida. In Louisiana, where 17 storms that caused at least $1 billion in damage have hit since 2000, nonprofits see some of the most dire need and the starkest divide along socioeconomics lines.

"One of the things that we get really frustrated about, in terms of the narrative, is people saying, 'Ugh, Louisiana is so resilient," said Ashley Shelton of the Power Coalition for Equality and Justice, a statewide nonprofit that provides resources and encourages civic participation in underserved communities of color.

"We don't want to be resilient forever," she said. "Yes, we're beautiful and resourceful people. But when you force people to live in a constant state of resilience, it's just oppression. Fix the systems that are structurally broken."

It doesn't help that Louisiana's poverty rate is higher than the national average, according to the Census Bureau 's American Community Survey. High poverty makes the prospect of temporary or permanent relocation precarious for people who were already teetering on the edge before disaster struck, said Andreanecia Morris of HousingNOLA, a program of the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance.

"Housing is a foundational issue for all of these catastrophes, whether that be COVID, economic crisis, criminal justice, or education," Morris said. "Our failure to address racial bias, gender bias and poverty bias in housing impedes all of those things. There is nowhere that is more clear than in our government's response to disasters. And this one is no different."

Less than a week after Ida hit, Morris spent a day canvassing areas of New Orleans where her organization helps the neediest cases. In the Lower Ninth Ward, a New Orleans neighborhood that suffered immensely after Hurricane Katrina, 57-year-old Lationa Kemp found herself cut off from most aid.

Kemp said she had been relying on neighbors with cars to get ice, hot meals and bottled water. To stay cool, Kemp left her front door open for fresh air. She'd gone days without power, and Ida had caused roof leaks and fence damage.

To Morris, the situation was urgent. Kemp had disputes with her landlord over the home's condition, and the threat of eviction loomed. The landlord listed on her eviction notice did not respond to AP's calls for comment.

Morris wants to get Kemp and her 25-year-old son, Alvin, moved elsewhere permanently. In the meantime, Morris suggested a cooling center.

"Thank you, baby, but I'm fine," Kemp told her, explaining that she'd rather stay in a dilapidated home -- past experiences make her fear the shelter system. "I already told the Lord, I'm praying that when I leave out of here, I'm going to a better house. I'll have better income so I won't have to go through this anymore."

The Biden administration set aside nearly $50 billion for rental assistance during the pandemic, but the money has been slow to get out the door. Advocates in Louisiana say they hoped those COVID-19 funds could be transitioned for storm aid, too, but that it hasn't been so easy. And, for people like Blunt and Kemp, the technological savvy needed to apply online can be a hurdle.

Eventually, the Kemps will probably get the help they need, but it takes time, said Cynthia Wiggins, a tenant and property manager at New Orleans public housing development Guste Homes, one of just a few resident management corporations left in the U.S., where tenants share the responsibilities that landlords typically shoulder.

"There's nothing that we can do to get around the process," Wiggins said. "We have the available units, but we paused processing applications when the storm hit."

Like many in Louisiana, Blunt has survived her share of storms --- starting with her birth, during the fallout of Hurricane Camille in 1969. As she tells it, her pregnant mother had been moved to a naval medical ship to give birth. Today, Blunt can chuckle over the coincidence of her grandson's name, Kamille.

"It's like the storms keep coming for me," she said, laughing.

The memory of Katrina is scarier. Blunt evacuated to Alabama and then Chicago. When it was safe, she and Kamille's grandfather returned to their home in New Orleans' seventh ward to find floodwater damage. But even with the horror stories of Katrina, Blunt said, Ida has been worse for her.

"This here was my worst-ever life experience, coming back to this, coming back to darkness," she said. "I'm mad enough, I'm sick and scared as it is. Now, I'm tossing and turning at night."

It might be enough for the lifelong Louisiana resident to leave for good. As she finds herself trashing her storm-damaged belongings, she said she sees no way to find peace in the state.

She's not alone. Many people have fled the state after major storms, data show. In metro New Orleans, and even in Chalmette in particular, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded signification population loss from its 2000 to 2020 counts. After Katrina, in 2006, nearly 160,000 Louisiana residents in total moved to Texas, Georgia and Mississippi. Louisiana's population rebounded as people returned to rebuild, but it's been in decline again since 2016.

For families who stay in spite of natural disasters, it seems each new generation learns new lessons of survival, said Toya Lewis of Project Hustle, a New Orleans nonprofit that organizes Black and brown street vendors who work in the informal economies.

"No one was prepared to be without power in New Orleans for more than eight days," Lewis said. "We're taking all of this lived experience and organizing to thrive. We must begin organizing around our survival."

And Blunt knows that no matter where she ends up, she'll survive. Even in the darkness, she finds some light by helping her community --- trying to secure a power source for a neighbor's breathing machine, sharing her car as a way for folks to charge cellphones. She tells herself: "I'm going to be OK. ... I do good. I don't hurt nobody. I'm still standing."

There's solace in the glimmers of light, but she wants more --- not just for her, but for her grandson. "I want us to go somewhere better," Blunt said, helping Kamille with the TV remote, the power finally restored in their apartment.

"Somewhere I can be stable. I just want to be stable."