Days after Hurricane Ida struck southeast Louisiana as a powerful category 4 storm, hundreds of thousands are still without electrical power. The relief efforts in New Orleans and surrounding areas are just beginning, with areas outside the city’s vaunted new flood protection system faring considerably worse than those in the city. Waiting to see if the authorities will mount a belated evacuation effort, the residents who chose to stay—or were unable to leave—are doing their best to survive with no power grid, no cooling, no safe tap water, and no access to gasoline for cars or generators. Many people lost roofs to the 150 mile per hour winds.
We spoke with Sasha, an anarchist nurse in New Orleans, about the situation.
“Coastal cities are home to a large portion of the country’s population and some of its most beloved culture—and they’re probably going to become uninhabitable.”
Stay tuned for a follow-up article exploring the structural elements that contribute to exacerbating disasters in the region, how they relate to the crises people are experiencing elsewhere around the world, and what we can do about it.
To directly support autonomous relief efforts in and around New Orleans, you can donate to New Orleans Mutual Aid Group and Lobelia Commons via Venmo: @NolaMutualAid and @LobeliaCommons. If you don’t want your transaction to be publicly visible, please follow these instructions to make your Venmo private.
Tell us a little about yourself and your relationship to New Orleans?
I moved to New Orleans eight years ago after spending my first two decades in the northeast. I work full-time as a night shift Registered Nurse in an acute care medical/surgical floor at a level-one trauma center close to downtown. In my spare time, I try to support various mutual aid efforts as well as labor struggles and abolitionist efforts. You can call me Sasha.
What is going on right now in the city?
It’s difficult for me to speak comprehensively about what things are like in the city right now. I have been working overnight and sleeping during the day since three days before Hurricane Ida struck, and I haven’t left the premises of the hospital since the night before the storm. So a lot of what I know is based on a synthesis of what I’ve seen on the local news, what I’ve learned on social media, and what I’ve heard from friends and coworkers.
Electricity for the entire metropolitan area went out on Sunday during the peak of the storm due to a major transmission tower coming down. Cell phone and data service has been a little spotty. The only buildings that have electricity and climate control are the ones with personal generators and mega-resourced institutions like the hospital where I work, which also have massive generator systems. Every night, I look out over the surrounding residential downtown neighborhood from an upper floor of the hospital and see nothing but darkness and an occasional lone car headlight coming down the interstate. Hardly any stores are open and there is no way to get gasoline to power vehicles or generators. It’s pretty hot and humid and no one has air conditioning or fans.
The storm hit on the sixteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, so it has been triggering PTSD symptoms for many people. The emergency department seems to be full of people going through psychiatric crises.
How did people prepare for the storm? What have the losses and damages been like so far?
The storm formed quickly and strengthened rapidly as well, offering very little time to prepare or evacuate. I got back from visiting New York on Tuesday (August 24), which had just faced a smaller hurricane of its own, and I don’t remember being aware of Ida until the next day or so. By Friday (August 27), many had already made the decision to evacuate, as the predictions regarding the storm’s intensity were getting more and more dire every day. I have no way of knowing for sure, but it seems like about half the population of the metropolitan area decided to evacuate. Many had to drive for up to thirteen hours to find accommodations.
On Friday, the mayor announced that there was simply not enough time to carry out a real evacuation, as happened before Katrina, since that requires coordinating transportation and lodging for the significant minority of the population that lacks means of transit or money for hotels in places where they don’t know anyone. Evacuating requires a lot of resources and expenses that many people in this city don’t have.
Among the people I know personally, there seem to be a lot of people who are relatively new to the city who didn’t realize what living through a storm of this magnitude would entail. I’m concerned that a lot of people were unprepared in terms of having supplies of non-perishable food. People with alcohol or drug dependencies will be going into withdrawal, many people lack stable supplies of essential medication, and we’ll start seeing the effects of that soon.
Inside the city, the most significant damage was to the electric grid. The utilities company says it will be days before they even know how long power will be out for, but they estimate that the average customer will be without power for three weeks. Otherwise, most of the damage was to roofs, some water damage from leaks inside homes, fallen trees, and some street flooding that receded pretty quickly. Several hospitals lost large chunks of their roofs and were forced to transfer patients to other hospitals that already have very little vacancy due to COVID-19 and staff shortages.
Sewage and water services seem relatively unaffected in the city of New Orleans proper, but the neighboring metro area of Jefferson Parish has no water at all and hospitals in that area are also being compelled to transfer their patients to hospitals in the city. You go a little further out into the areas about 30 minutes west and south of here and there are towns where many homes have been leveled and the floodwaters reached up to some people’s roofs due to the levees being overtopped. The damage in these areas still hasn’t been fully assessed or relayed to the public.
You’re a nurse at one of the major hospitals in New Orleans during the worst storm in sixteen years and a massive COVID-19 resurgence. What do the medical and emergency systems there look like right now?
Many area hospitals have been pretty stressed for the past six weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak among a heavily unvaccinated population—our fourth such wave of the disease since the pandemic began. Many hospitals have been relying on contract staff from far away, who are not familiar with the city and with these facilities. The Emergency Medical Services workers I know are pretty stressed out all the time and many nurses are working way more shifts than they’d like to be.
It bears mentioning that hospitals are one of the most capital-intensive, corporate, and authoritarian enterprises in this country right now. There is no labor shortage, if you look at the number of licensed medical professionals compared to the number of open jobs—at last count, there were 6000 open nursing positions in Louisiana. Rather, there is a shortage of people willing to put up with the low pay and unmanageable patient ratios that put the patients’ safety at risk as well as the workers’ licensure. You look at the richest top ten people in the New Orleans metro area and they’re mostly hospital CEOs.
Unfortunately, I think that’s the reason that they are the one of the best resourced places to be right now in the city, because so much money is at stake in making sure these operations run smoothly. Other than being at my job around the clock either working or sleeping, I feel pretty insulated from the outside world due to having uninterrupted electricity, internet, climate control, protection from the elements, and access to food and a community of several hundred others in the same boat, all of which are lacking for most people in the city right now.
Can you talk a little about how the city and state governments prepared for the storm and their responses to its effects?
It appears that the local governments and hospital systems learned some things after Katrina. Hospitals lost power during Katrina because their generators were located on the ground floor and consequently got flooded. I have only heard of one hospital in the area temporarily losing power, forcing staff to have to manually ventilate—like, to squeeze big plastic bags full of oxygen with their hands to help critically ill patients on ventilators. The levee system within the city did not fail the way it did last time, and this prevented catastrophic flooding, but the same can’t be said for the surrounding areas.
It seems that they were caught off guard by the suddenness of the storm, based on the announcement that there wasn’t enough time to evacuate people. But there was enough time for them to deploy “anti-looting” officers.
What grassroots responses to the storm are you seeing, and from whom?
Fortunately, New Orleans has a pretty solid grassroots mutual aid network that grew out of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the activity right now seems to be focused on getting money to people who need it to evacuate and communicating what needs there are in the city to people who are returning from evacuating—although there seems to be a consensus that more people in the city is not what is needed right now, due to the strained infrastructure, so both local governments and mutual aid networks are asking those who evacuated to stay away for the moment.
I haven’t heard of any of these urban groups venturing out on boats to rescue people in the areas that got flooded the worst, or anything like that.
For a long time now, people have talked about the possibility of “another Katrina” and the inevitability of worsening natural disasters striking south Louisiana due to climate change. Are these inevitable?
I do think these repeated catastrophic storms are inevitable. But I also believe that they can be mitigated with better preparation and by changing the way we interact with the water and the land. I don’t know exactly what that looks like right now. The zine “Desert” comes to mind.
I can also tell you that many folks—everyone from people who were born and raised here going several generations back to people who moved here in the past couple years—they’re all talking about moving away due to the inevitability of continued disasters like this.
What might these events tell us about the future we are all facing and how we might prepare for it?
What’s going on in New Orleans is a warning to the rest of the country for sure. Coastal cities are home to a large portion of the country’s population and some of its most beloved culture—and they’re probably all going to become uninhabitable. It’s inescapably tragic. I don’t have any insights into how we will prepare for it because we’re figuring it out as we do it. A lot of very smart people I know have been thinking about this question for a long time, but there haven’t really been any actionable plans that have come out of that. It just sucks.
What do people in New Orleans need most right now, and how can people who aren’t there help?
The most pressing need I’ve seen is to help those who can’t afford to get out of here, who are asking for individual donations to do so.