Hurricane Ida blows away illusions

Nurses who worked inside a warehouse where more than 800 nursing home residents were housed amid squalid conditions say they are haunted by the scenes they witnessed during Hurricane Ida, as seniors called out for help, the air conditioning quit and toilets overflowed. At least four people died. “It was a warehouse of death … hot, stuffy, smelly, scary, and dangerous,” resident Wade Heaton told a reporter. “We only got fed once a day if we were lucky.”

I am from a small town in Louisiana’s Tangipahoa Parish, now living in New Orleans. Professionally, I am a cook and am training to be a biological lab technician.

When I first began to understand that Hurricane Ida was going to be bad, I was afraid. But to some extent I had been lulled into complacency by the fact that New Orleans has largely been spared from major hurricane damage for several years. On the other hand, the 2020 season was devastating for the western part of the state, which has still not fully recovered from those shocks.

Mentally, I was still unprepared as Ida made landfall as a category 4 storm near marshy Port Fourchon — the concept of “land” here is tenuous, and partly explains why the storm was able to maintain its strength. 

I thought that by going 80 miles north of New Orleans I would be safe. After all, the biggest concern for us is always water. Parts of New Orleans are 8 feet below sea level, and the city now floods during regular rainstorms. I wanted to get out, and thought I would be safe as long as I was away from typical flood zones.

My assumptions were too optimistic. Based on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale, Ida was a Category 5 when it made landfall, with winds right at 157 mph. Unsurprisingly, when it barrelled through northern Tangipahoa Parish, where I was staying with family, the destruction was immense.

The problem here is the trees. Within one acre (43,560 square feet) of where I am writing, I have counted 10 fallen trees. Visually, the rest of the town looks similar. Trees have blocked roads and fallen onto houses. They have ripped down power lines, or else the electrical poles themselves have uprooted — sometimes twisted into splintered segments.

As in New Orleans and other parts of the state, people here are without power. Gasoline and groceries are in short supply.

This has been hard on my family, as one family member fell and broke his hip during the storm, and many of us had to be outside during the worst of it in order to help him. First responders were unable to come until the next day.

Takeaway messages

  1. Climate change means that nowhere is completely safe. My plan of travelling 80 miles north was laughable, considering that at least 25 people were killed by the storm in distant New Jersey as of Sept. 4. Eighteen have died in New York. We cannot behave as if hurricanes are just a Southern problem, or even a coastal problem. This storm crossed a long stretch of the country, far inland.
  1. Capitalist society — especially in this period of profound crisis and long-term decline — is completely unable to deal with stress of this, or really any, magnitude. On paper, this is the richest country in the world, but that wealth is hoarded by a few, while virtually all social and material infrastructure is deteriorating. Because of socialist planning, tiny Cuba is able to deal with storms far better than the U.S.

The whole of Cuban society is mobilized to deal with hurricanes, and the aftermath is about recovery, not greed. Regular preparedness drills are conducted everywhere. The focus is on risk-reduction with an integrated response from local fire departments, health, transportation and other public services. 

Before storms occur, Cuban government officials, police and military personnel help people move their belongings to safer locations. The government also guarantees replacement of all lost property. Most impressively, they have a 100-year plan to move towns further inland in response to climate change.

Meanwhile, here, horror story after horror story is emerging in the aftermath of Ida. In New Orleans, the government — city, state and federal — did not provide transportation that would have allowed working-class residents without vehicles to evacuate. This is despite the fact that the city issued mandatory evacuation orders for areas outside the levees, and strongly advised other residents to evacuate. Some 35% of Black households do not own an auto, and about 20% of white households don’t own autos.

In Independence, La., over 800 nursing home residents from facilities owned by Baton Rouge businessman Bob J. Dean Jr. were thrown into a warehouse. These people were left in their own filth. At least four of them have died. This is all too similar to Hurricane Katrina.  

The working class has no stake in this rotten society. Overthrowing capitalist rule is truly a matter of life and death.