Drawing on interviews with local anarchists, we explore the colonial roots of the ongoing catastrophes Hurricane Ida has exacerbated in Louisiana and discuss how communities can create truly resilient infrastructure for all.
It has been four days since Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on New Orleans and the surrounding areas. As hundreds of thousands of people come to grips with how to survive for weeks with vastly reduced access to necessities, many are left asking the same questions they confronted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, in a climate—and a world—that become less stable with each passing day. In south Louisiana, anticipating another disaster like this has been a question of when, not if.
The city of New Orleans and the rich multicultural patchwork that comprises its soul are both unique, and they face unique challenges. But as we have seen around the globe over the past few years, extreme weather events and associated social crises caused by climate change are accelerating and intensifying across the map. For those who have not yet felt the brunt of a changing climate, the situation in southeast Louisiana compels us to confront a future of looming disasters.
The world we live in has been constructed according to the imperatives of political and economic power, not according to the needs of human beings. We have to implement our own strategies now to prepare for the catastrophes ahead in order build new worlds in the midst of them.
Destruction and Scarcity
The vast majority of New Orleans residents are without electricity and expect to remain without it for weeks. So are those in the surrounding areas, many of which Ida hit harder. Many people also lack access to safe tap water and there are reports of growing difficulty accessing bottled water. Trees have fallen across roads and houses; roofs have blown off.
Gasoline is scarce. This makes it difficult for those who did not evacuate before the storm to do so now, even if they have a vehicle. In an interview we conducted on August 31, 2021, “M—,” an anarchist who lived in New Orleans’ South 7th Ward for years and recently moved out of the city to work on regional food autonomy infrastructure, described the situation: “A tank of gas out in New Orleans East is selling for $200-400. It’s being sold in the streets by people carrying weapons.”
The government has done little to help. “Preparation seemed minimal,” a New Orleans paramedic who preferred to remain anonymous told us on August 31. “The city provided extremely minimal public sheltering before the storm hit. They’re currently scrambling to provide services to folks and are just now putting shelters together to accommodate folks three days later. The hospitals have been on the edge of collapse with COVID-19 patients and this may have been the breaking point. A lot of people are relying on Emergency Medical Services and the hospital in an attempt to find basic comforts and shelter.”
On the other hand, he continued, the “deployment of NOPD [New Orleans Police Department] and the National Guard to storefronts—Walgreens, etc.—seemed to be an extremely high priority.” Less than 24 hours after Ida hit, the police had deployed anti-looting teams.
An Engineered City, An Engineered Disaster
For several interconnected reasons, this part of Louisiana is a series of “natural” disasters waiting to happen. All of these stem from colonization, capitalism, and the hubris of believing that economic forces trump natural forces.
What is now southern Louisiana—the entire area south of Lafayette and Baton Rouge—was formed over the last 7000 years through sediment deposition and river flooding. The Mississippi River carries billions of tons of sediment from the interior of North America, which was deposited at the river’s mouth to form the delta as the Mississippi changed course and meandered over the last few millennia. Spring flooding brought new sediment with it, depositing new land on either side of the riverbanks, creating natural levees. In river deltas, as opposed to river valleys, the river level is typically higher than the surrounding land, with the bank serving as a buffer.
At various points across the last 7000 years, roughly, the Mississippi River has flowed out into the Gulf of Mexico through several different channels, each one creating a different lobe of the delta.
The lower Mississippi River area is one of the most intensely hydrologically engineered regions in the world. Bulbancha—the Choctaw name for the area that is now called New Orleans—was already a multilingual Indigenous hub for trade and other activities before European colonization. Yet due to seasonal flooding, it was not a permanent settlement.
The city of New Orleans was created by the French in 1718 as a colonial outpost. They chose this location because there seemed to be enough dry land to build on, it afforded them a six-mile, unobstructed cannon shot downriver at competing colonial powers, and it gave them strategic control over the mouth of the Mississippi—and therefore all interior North American trade. In the 1720s, the colonizers began constructing earthen levees to control the spring floods, which were inconvenient to their aspirations to build a European-style city.
M— is familiar with the region’s complex history and hydrology as a consequence of his years as an ecological tour guide in the Louisiana swamps. He explained how the same engineering that enables the city to continue to function as a year-round settlement is also responsible for its increased vulnerability to storms like Ida.
“As you get closer to Lake Pontchartrain, prior to human engineering, that would have been a sea level swamp and marsh. In order to have houses with dry land, you can’t have a saturated marshy soil, so a series of pump systems and canals was installed to ‘drain the swamp.’ Every time they turn on the pumps to keep the streets dry, it continues to suck water out of the soils.” This exacerbates the natural process of soil subsidence, wherein new land formed by flooding—soft and saturated with water—sinks over the years as it slowly compresses to form sedimentary rock. When human-made levees drastically curtailed and then stopped river flooding, the rivers could no longer bring in new sediment. Consequently, there is no longer anything to counteract the tendency to sink.
“So the ground continues to subside underneath the buildings and the city, creating a bowl effect where you have the levee wall on the Mississippi River. And then on the lake, which is prone to storm surge, you have the Army Corps flood wall. The two main forces of flooding are the Mississippi River, which experiences storm surge that they call backsurge, and Lake Pontchartrain, which is again prone to storm surge coming in through the Mississippi Sound and Lake Borgne.”
That’s why about half of the area, which was all at or above sea level in 1718, is now below sea level. The city also frequently experiences minor flooding due to heavy rains and old drainage infrastructure.
Flood control expanded in intensity and geographical reach throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, especially after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. After catastrophic damage, the state initiated the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, which “basically straitjacketed the river,” said M—.
“The river, prehistorically, is a living thing; it moves, ebbs, floods, and so on. The levees were created to prevent the river from topping its banks ever again. By doing so, they create the most dangerous river possible by ensuring that all of the water that enters the river can no longer leave the river. When the river would overtop its banks and enter its floodplain, it would deposit sediment into the floodplain. Now the sediment builds up on the sides of the levees and the bottom of the channel.”
Although the US Army Corps of Engineers dredges the river to maintain the shipping channel, “not only does all of that water stay in the levee, but there’s actually less channel for the water to take up,” says M—. Even if climate change weren’t making the Mississippi watershed wetter with each passing year—which it is—“the river would get higher every single year just as a result of the sediment being deposited inside of the channel. The only way out of that is to continue building the levees higher and higher.”
Over the decades following the flood of 1927, the US Army Corps of Engineers built massive projects such as the Bonnet Carre and Morganza Spillways, the Old River Control Structure (ORCS), and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal (MRGO). The sugarcane, shipping, oil, gas, and petrochemical industries couldn’t handle the seasonal ebbs and flows of natural patterns, so those who held political and economic power sought to impose control over one of the most powerful forces on the continent.
If the Old River Control Structure were to fail, the main flow of the Mississippi would suddenly and catastrophically redirect down the Atchafalaya, obliterating Morgan City and leaving New Orleans low and dry.
The Old River Control Structure, which has been described as “America’s Achilles Heel,” is located in between Natchez, Mississippi and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers meet. It was completed in 1963, designed to “prevent the Mississippi River from going where it wants to go,” as M— explained. “Prior to the creation of that spillway,” he said, “the river was slowly going down the Atchafalaya River more and more every year. The Control Structure keeps 30% of the Mississippi’s flow going into the Atchafalaya River and the remaining 70% down the Mississippi River.”
If it were to fail—which is a distinct possibility as climate change brings more and more rain to the Upper Midwest—the resulting flood would be unimaginable.
“In 1973, there was a massive Mississippi River flood that caused all kind of problems upriver from Louisiana. This was the first flood that really challenged the ORCS. The floodwaters formed gyres that started ripping concrete out of the floodgate. It was so damaged that they weren’t able to repair it and they just made another one called the Auxiliary Control Structure. Something like 50 feet of concrete was holding the river where it is, and if it had failed, which it was very close to doing, the Mississippi River would have gone down the Atchafalaya River, causing a catastrophic flood down the Atchafalaya River Basin. Everything from the Mississippi River to Morgan City would have been decimated, and the Mississippi River would have never gone back its current channel. What you would see at New Orleans, had that happened, would have been a riverine estuary, almost no water in the river. It wouldn’t be a shipping channel anymore, and New Orleans as a city would probably cease to function because New Orleans and all the surrounding areas get their water from the Mississippi River.”
At the same time that the land is sinking and river flooding is becoming a greater risk, Louisiana is also losing land at an unparalleled rate, mostly from the coast, due to a combination of vegetation loss from invasive species, oil and gas industry canals that chop up the coastline and expose more area to the ravages of wave action, intensifying storms, and rising sea levels. The coastal marshes and the swamps—the cypress and tupelo forests that historically insulated the region from the worst effects of hurricanes—have largely been destroyed. “Through centuries of creating canals, logging, and other engineering, the forests were decimated,” said M—.
“After the entire scandal and Army Corps catastrophe of Katrina, levees were raised, more rigorously tested, and are more likely to succeed now and not be breached,” he continued. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), the poorly designed canal responsible for delivering Katrina’s storm surge directly into New Orleans, “was closed some years ago, which was critical in terms of desalinating the waters that were entering Lake Pontchartrain. That allows the forests in the area to bounce back a little bit.” These advances have led some to mistakenly conclude that the fix worked. Unfortunately, much of this is too little too late, and as explained above, the continual raising of the levees around New Orleans, while essential to protect residents of the city, is only a stopgap.
As much as the residents of New Orleans are in constant danger, those on the periphery and beyond are left even more at the mercy of the elements. The further downriver you go, the worse things get, but upriver isn’t good either: the area of the Mississippi from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, known as “cancer alley,” is home to roughly 200 petrochemical plants and 25 oil and gas refineries, not to mention the highest cancer rates in the country. Most of the communities in this area are primarily occupied by the descendants of enslaved Black people, many of whom work in these industries because there is little other work available, exposing them to high levels of carcinogens.
It is chilling to imagine the potential toxic waste disaster that would result from even one petrochemical plant being damaged in a catastrophic storm.
A Calculated Risk—but for Whom?
With so much hazard and hardship, an outsider might ask why people continue to live in the region.
First, as many born and raised Louisianans will proudly say, because it’s home. The flat, hot swampland that is more water than soil, the rich cuisine and music, and the syncretic mix of cultures over the years—involving more than 30 Indigenous peoples, West African survivors of the slave trade, European colonizers and immigrants, regular exchange with Haiti, Cuba, and other Caribbean countries, and more recent influxes of people from Vietnam, Honduras, and Mexico—have created a place unlike anywhere else on Earth. The unique and vibrant culture sustains the people and the people sustain the culture.
Second, for many people, it would be very difficult to leave. “With New Orleans specifically,” said M—, “the people impacted are people who live in tenuous circumstances. The people who can’t leave: people who are housing insecure, who don’t have a car, who maybe have some historic trauma related to Katrina, or may not want to leave.” Ida intensified so rapidly that there wasn’t enough time to take the necessary steps to organize a full mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, which crucially involves arranging transport for those without personal vehicles. Even if there had been, evacuation bus routes were already sorely lacking.
“The people who suffer are typically the people marginalized and treated as surplus by capitalism: Indigenous peoples, people of color, queer people, and poor, working class people,” M— stated. This is as true now as it was in 2005. “This disaster puts a magnifying glass to pre-existing conditions. People had said this a million times about the pandemic, but the hurricane really does show that. People are now paying attention to electrical power, but there are people in my neighborhood who’ve been without power and water for many years on and off. Once power comes back in the city of New Orleans it may not come back on for everyone. How do we not let the state dictate the terms of return?”
Since it became a colonial holding, southeast Louisiana has been an area of crucial strategic importance—but, at the same time, of brutal death and exclusion. The French displaced Indigenous people, waged colonial wars against them while pitting different peoples against one another, and enslaved thousands, primarily from the Senegambia region of Africa. Early colonizers, recruited from Europe’s underclass, died of disease in massive numbers. The city flooded constantly and could not be reliably drained, leading to the public sanitation problems that still plague it to this day.
When enslaved Africans were brought over, they too died in massive numbers, many before they reached the auction block. After lackluster attempts at cultivating indigo and tobacco as cash crops, the enslaver class struck it rich with sugarcane in the late 1700s. Enslaved people in the region suffered the worst death rate of any enslaved people in the United States, enduring forced sugarcane harvesting in the brutal Louisiana heat. In 1811, approximately 500 enslaved Africans rose up in the largest slave insurrection in the history of the US, marching towards New Orleans from plantations upriver, killing two white men, and laying waste to the plantations along their path. Backed by Federal troops, the local militia violently repressed the uprising.
Today, the towns upriver of New Orleans are inhabited by the descendants of the people who worked here as slaves. They labor in the refineries and chemical plants that have outpaced but not entirely replaced the sugar cane plantations. Grain barges and container ships have replaced the Mississippi flatboats that drove the vast majority of interior trade in the 1800s. “Around 60% of all US grain going to export uses the Mississippi River as its main logistical flow,” M— told us. “Should that stop for some reason, that would have enormous consequences not only for the US economy but the world economy.”
Louisiana has the highest per capita prison population in the world. Prisoners are still routinely sentenced to hard labor at an institution that seamlessly transitioned from a slave plantation to a prison. The legacy of slavery continues: for many rural parishes in Louisiana, prison is the main industry. In many ways, the state still represents a penal slave colony within the prison system of the United States.
Yellow fever epidemics, first brought to the region by the slave trade, killed 40,000 people here in the 19th century. The same city is now experiencing its fourth wave of COVID-19, pushing an under-resourced medical system to the brink. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of people have lost access to electrical power or drinking water in the wake of Hurricane Ida—in the sweltering heat of summer.
Structurally, little has changed in the region in terms of who suffers and who benefits. The current situation represents a modernized version of centuries-old injustices.
The fact that disasters disproportionately impact the most marginalized has already been demonstrated many times over. But this is not simply a matter of needing better state policy. Disasters like this are not just the result of incompetence or a lack of proper technocratic planning; they are the inevitable result of processes that concentrate decision-making power in the hands of the few and reward them for not concerning themselves with the consequences for others. We live in a society of perpetual disasters not so much because life is nasty, brutish, and short outside the comfort zone secured by state power and capitalist technology, but because the priorities driving the development and application of that power and those technologies have very little to do with making life sustainable for most people.
In New Orleans—as elsewhere around the world—the profit imperative that guides transnational oil, chemical, and shipping capital dictates what gets protected from worsening storms, how this short-term protection is enacted, and who is excluded from protection. There is little incentive for those who control this capital to look out for the people or culture of New Orleans. Even members of the local wealthy class, who can and do leave well in advance of a storm and who received a disproportionate share of the storm relief funds after Katrina, are at best an afterthought in the cold calculations of multi-billion dollar corporations. The poor don’t even factor in—and the further downriver from New Orleans you go, the more people are left to their own defenses.
So—if we can’t count on the systems that administer and distribute power for solutions, what can we do ourselves?
Taking Action in the Age of Disaster
Extreme weather events, coupled with other forms of crisis, are now so commonplace that they are outstripping the media’s ability to report on them and generating compassion fatigue. Before the damages from one hurricane, flood, or fire can be accounted for, the news cycle has moved on to the next. Meanwhile, life for those affected moves at a snail’s pace as they try to pick up the pieces. For many around the world, it is already impossible to imagine what life might look like without constant crises. Over the years to come, these crises will impact more and more of us.
It is a mistake to assume that when ecological crises get “bad enough,” the state will eventually be forced to do something to help. From a capitalist perspective, unevenly distributed risks and consequences have always been essential to the market. In a colonial society like the US, people of all social classes take it for granted that there will be casualties. Any approach that remains within the logic of capitalism will only produce symptomatic solutions, while the problems remain systemic.
This means two things for grassroots responses to catastrophic climate change. First, fighting against capitalism and its premises is an essential element of disaster relief. To protect ourselves and each other, we have to fight against the political and economic systems that produce the conditions that make disasters inevitable. Second, as we organize to confront these crises, we must not rely on or reproduce the kind of authoritarian structures that produced these problems in the first place.
Looking back on the aftermath of Katrina, we can see how both the state and the nonprofit sector often make things worse rather than better. The federal government did next to nothing for the poor of New Orleans while turning the city into a militarized occupation and shamelessly mishandling funds; afterwards, developers used the opportunity to displace people and accelerate gentrification. Many people who lived through the consequences were left with a profound distrust in the state.
In hopes of transcending the failures of the state and the nonprofit sector, many people have been experimenting with grassroots models. The pandemic and the climate disasters of recent years have spurred an explosion of mutual aid groups across the US. “Mutual aid,” an anarchist watchword for over a century and a common-sense concept shared by untold millions for much longer, has become a buzzword. The idea is simple: people help each other and everyone benefits. In practice, some people have begun to use this label to describe precisely the sort of charity frameworks and moves for political clout that the framework of mutual aid originally provided an alternative to. The real differences in power and access to resources between people acting toward a similar goal or in similar conditions can create challenges when the goal is to arrive at genuinely horizontal relations.
M— spoke about how to improve on previous grassroots solidarity efforts. In some cases, “the relationship is so built on dependency that when the activist leaves, the people who are receiving that aid suffer. It’s something that’s been repeated in every disaster zone that I’ve been in.”
“Instead of doing that, we are asking—how can we use our skills, access to resources, and the infrastructure we’ve been slowly working on in the region in a way that doesn’t make everything depend on us personally, that doesn’t require the role of the activist or any kind of specialization? How can we give up the keys to that kind of access? It’s simultaneously more practical and more in line with our ethic.”
In New Orleans, people set up several political mutual aid groups at the beginning of the pandemic or even earlier, including the New Orleans Mutual Aid Group (NOMAG), New Orleans Mutual Aid Society (NOMAS), and Southern Solidarity, all of which are distributing food and other resources. On the first day after the storm, NOMAG distributed hundreds of gallons of free gasoline—a move not without risks under such desperate conditions.
Alongside these overtly political organizing efforts, countless acts of solidarity and resistance take place in less visible or recognizable ways. By nature, these are difficult to catalog, but such organic forms of organization are arguably at least as effective and sustainable as many of the more visible, politicized gestures. People are grilling non-stop to feed their neighbors, tarping roofs and fixing houses for each other. Anarchists are engaging in these activities as well as more overtly political frameworks.
The Lobelia Commons is working towards creating a network to establish long-term food autonomy in the area, including autonomous supply lines that can get produce and other necessities to neighborhood kitchens in the face of disruptions like Ida.
Some people are employing more confrontational approaches, as well. In a logical response to the situation, “looting started happening as soon as the winds stopped from Ida,” M— reported. “New Orleans didn’t pop off last year during the uprising that swept the rest of the country. In view of the crisis from COVID-19 and the general state of poverty in New Orleans, this is the first gasp for breath that was possible. There is a lot of pent up energy and direct need that is definitely going to unfold in the future.” While New Orleans is awash in tragic horizontal violence that contributes to a prevalent negative attitude towards anything considered “crime,” it’s important to distinguish between the different forms of activity that are sometimes lumped together under this label. Looting is often a simple and sensible act of survival and redistribution in a society in which massive numbers of poor people are blocked from accessing basic necessities. It is even more justifiable in situations like this one.
In this era of disaster, one of the most difficult tasks will be to move beyond continuously reacting to one crisis after another in order to plan more ambitiously for an uncertain future. This already feels overwhelming, and it is not going to get easier. But even in the midst of mayhem, we know that the bonds, skills, and new—or timeless—ways of thinking that emerge when everyday life is disrupted can be lasting and transformative. The powerful cannot dictate the terms of the return to normality; there will be no return to normality, even if we want one. The forecast is uncertainty from here on out.
We will have to devise creative ways to survive and thrive in this unpredictable world. We can draw on many past and present examples of people living in resilient ways and accommodating themselves to ever-changing natural patterns. What is now called New Orleans has always been called Bulbancha, “The Land of Many Tongues” in Choctaw, in reference to the number of languages spoken by those crisscrossing this turbulent region, coming and going with the seasonal changes. Indigenous cultures the world over, imperiled by climate change and other colonially-imposed tragedies, suggest some of the ways that we can step away from manufactured disasters towards more holistic relations.