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,” she said. “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.
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, the technological savvy needed to apply online can be a hurdle.
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 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.”