More than two weeks after hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana, residents in New Orleans and in smaller coastal communities are still suffering.
Down in the bayou, a couple of hours south of New Orleans, homes have been entirely pushed off their stilts and residents are in full survival mode. Instead of waiting on state or federal help in New Orleans, which locals say is often too slow, citizens have decided to help themselves by supplying each other with money, food, water, accommodation, and even homemade wontons and daiquiris.
The approach is known as mutual aid. In this case, it’s not an initiative that merely occurs after a hurricane rolls through, but rather a year-round response to the glaring gaps left by state and federal help and the stark realities of climate change.
Alaina Comeaux, 32, an indigenous person of Cajun Creole descent, runs a food security program in the Lower Ninth Ward and volunteers at Common Ground Relief, a New Orleans-based community-led volunteer organization established after Hurricane Katrina to create environmentally sustainable communities.
Comeaux, who uses they/them pronouns, talked to Reckon about mutual aid efforts in New Orleans and how their ancestral homeland and cultural life down on Louisiana’s coast is affected by climate change.
It’s been a couple of weeks since the hurricane hit. How have things been on the ground in New Orleans?
It’s just been really rough. The heat is brutal and there’s a lot of people in dire need.
But I also want to make sure people know there’s a lot of strength and happiness as well. There’s been widespread reports of neighbors coming together and doing really beautiful things. My friends, Lex and Gabby, are running this amazing charging and cooling station and giving out insane amounts of supplies. They’ve been cooking food, like beautiful homemade comfort food. Gabby has been making wontons by candlelight every night and preparing mojitos. They also have a friend who has been giving free massages to people.
That sounds wonderful. How else have you and the groups you work for been helping people and who are you helping, exactly?
Through donations. We had people fill out a list of needs right after the storm hit. Common Ground Relief started helping with fundraising and making sure the money got in the right hands. We’ve raised about $70,000 and immediately redistributed all of it directly to 300 impacted families. At first, we were able to raise money rapidly before the storm hit. We managed to give out about $15,000 so folks could evacuate.
We prioritize families and individuals from the Gulf Coast, especially BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) families and particularly Black families from New Orleans. It’s because it’s so expensive to evacuate. People need money for gas, food, and accommodation. That’s one reason my family never left when hurricanes hit the coast when I was growing up.
I was also able to help distribute over 1,000 pounds of food from the food security program I help run in the Lower Ninth Ward. Within 48 hours, we had generators delivered to certain families and set up charging stations, and food and water distribution.
It sounds like mutual aid groups were able to mobilize very quickly after the hurricane hit. Is that preparedness a reaction to Katrina?
I think that’s always been the case, but what happened during Katrina made people more determined and mindful that we have to help each other. A lot of people ask me how we stay prepared. I think that’s just part of growing up in places like Houma, where you’re very much on the frontlines of climate change. All we’re seeing is catastrophic climate events and we know from experience no one is coming to help. Certainly not the government. Out of state people come for a minute or two, but they’re also gonna leave eventually.
We grow up knowing that we must be self-sufficient and that has to be reciprocal if we’re going to get through these climate events. Everyone just contributes. And I feel like that’s what mutual aid really is. Helping each other.
I didn’t see FEMA in New Orleans or in some of the smaller coastal communities further south. Where is FEMA and should people still rely on them?
It’s typical bureaucracy. The response times of the state and federal government are awful, which is why mutual aid is so important. FEMA isn’t going to feed you or pull you out of a collapsed house. The New Orleans city government did not require mandatory evacuation, in part because the storm developed so quickly, but also so they didn’t have to do anything to help people get out.
FEMA works more like a reimbursement process, which can be really problematic because people need help today, not weeks or months later. FEMA is definitely designed for white middle class families who can sustain the hardship and then make a claim later. BIPOC people don’t have that luxury and it’s not getting better.
You mentioned growing up with hurricanes in an indigenous community that relies on the land and water for food and income. What was that like and how have things changed over the years?
My family didn’t really leave for storms when I was young because a lot of my dad’s job was tied to electrical work that’s usually needed after a storm. So I’ve been through almost every storm to hit Louisiana over the last 30 years and they are getting worse. And coming from a marginalized indigenous community on the coast we’ve always been impacted by these storms in ways people don’t always understand. Our entire way of life is at risk every time a hurricane comes through or a flood happens.
Climate scientists have reported that stronger and more frequent hurricanes are now part of climate change. I’ve heard people describe these catastrophic events as manmade. What do you think of that?
It’s unequivocally true. My parents, who spent their entire life on the Gulf Coast, have never seen something like last year, where we had seven [major] storms in the Gulf, I think. Louisiana alone took three or four direct hits. We exhausted the entire alphabet and started on a new one. We’ve not seen that before.
We have these 100 year rain events that are happening all the time now. You know, in areas that have never traditionally flooded, but they are flooding now because the number of storms and intensity is just increasing every year. I’m watching land actively disappear that was there when I was a kid.
I partially grew up in Lake Charles and it has been obliterated. My childhood home is gone as of last year. Destroyed by climate change.
Do you feel that your culture is disappearing as climate change progresses?
My culture is absolutely disappearing. These are traditionally fishing and farming communities. Coastal erosion from storms and nutria, an invasive species, are stealing land. And I think there was something like 350 oil spills, mostly in the Gulf, because of Ida. That has a huge impact on community fishing and shrimping. One bad year means the end for some families. Then they leave and the community shrinks more and more.
Aside from the increased strength and frequency of hurricanes, have catastrophic climate events exposed the inequalities of survival and recovery?
I think so, especially when you look at New Orleans and consider gentrification as an indicator of the growing wealth gap. It’s becoming untenable to live here if you’re a person of color. If you can get out before a hurricane hits, sometimes getting back in is also just as hard. It’s all about money and equality. We’ve got trust fund kids coming in taking advantage of that chaos. It’s predatory behavior and climate change is making it much worse.
You can donate to Common Ground Relief here.