Resiliency Politics & Mutual Aid in the Wake of Hurricane Ida

Credit: “The coast of Louisiana” by NASA Johnson is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Resilient, /r??zily?nt/, adjective 1. (of a person or animal) able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.

The word resilient is one that has been oft-used to describe those of us in Louisiana who survived Hurricane Katrina. A description one finds in media spectacles, political assurances, and academic studies. However, this notion of resiliency overlooks all those who lost homes and lives, those who did not make it and those who could not return, those who could not withstand or recovery quickly, and those who don’t get recognized at all despite their resilience.

The issue is, as some, like Ashley Shelton, executive director of the Power Coalition for Equality and Justice, have begun to point out, that describing us as resilient quickly becomes a demand and not a compliment. In Shelton’s words, “Not everything has been built back better.” She’s right, and – despite the assurances of the Biden Administration and local officials – this statement shines a light on the failures of governmental response strategies in the wake of major storms.

Before I dive into that, however, I’d like to address a critique of those who have critiqued disaster response in the wake of Ida. An argument I’ve heard takes the form of, “It’s not as bad as Katrina for [insert reason here], so complaining right now is privileged or weak or unfounded or historically misaligned, etc.” This is an is/ought fallacy, driven by resiliency politics, that is New Orleans-centric and not based in demonstrable evidence.

Just because something is some way, does not mean it ought to be that way. Just because the aftermath of Ida (for New Orleans, in particular) was not as bad as Katrina, does not mean the aftermath is good. At all.

It’s also unclear how one so precisely measures the badness of these aftermaths. The levees didn’t break and we should be grateful of that – billions of dollars in infrastructure investment worked and that’s a good take-away – but many, especially the bayou and river parishes, face untold losses. This isn’t to say New Orleans isn’t suffering right now, this is my point – it definitely still is, we see it everywhere from a rusted Entergy transmission tower in the Mississippi River to those dying of heat exhaustion. It shouldn’t take a broken levee to say that.

This is the issue of resiliency politics, it trains us to unwittingly accept unacceptable conditions under the guise of our own strength. That is to say, it conditions us to appreciate our own trauma, or – at least – it frames us like we do. Ironically, this logic affects those who must be the most resilient under these conditions, it in no way awards them except with empty gestures. What calling us ‘resilient’ forgets is that it valorizes our suffering, which is easy to do when you’re not the one suffering.

This attitude helps us explain the massive disconnect in relief aid we see in the wake of Hurricane Ida. Now that the national news cycle has distractedly passed over us, we get to see the real national response or lack thereof. What we really see is something more like an ambitious state-wide GoFundMe, as if we need a major surgery and have no health insurance.

This is a story that those of Southern Louisiana are all too familiar with. We see it still in Lake Charles where hotel mattresses fill dumpsters along I-10 and tattered signs tell a story of federal neglect a year after Hurricane Laura. Ironically, the Cajun Navy and Ford Bolton just held a concert there to benefit Ida victims.

Is this what resiliency looks like? Community-run organizations, largely run and staffed by those affected by these disasters, raising money to give us the relief we need with the backdrop of our last, unfinished disaster? Insofar as resiliency is really just a reflection of how we manage to persist despite governmental inadequacy, perhaps so.

We see this everywhere in Louisiana, community organizations and mutual aid groups having to pick up the slack of the lack of comprehensive governmental response. Often times, it’s organizations not purposed towards disaster relief having to pivot in the face of widespread need. In New Orleans, OPPRC, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, who usually raises money for prison reform work has turned their donation platform into a needs-based fund for those affected by Ida. To OPPRC, this isn’t so much of a pivot as it is an extension of their fight against criminalizing poverty and need. They said to me:

“People with the greatest need are often those most adversely affected by natural disasters like Hurricane Ida. OPPRC believes that the best way to improve public safety is to help people meet their basic needs.

To OPPRC, this isn’t so much of a pivot as it is an extension of their fight against criminalizing poverty and need, “Over 50 people were arrested and thrown in OPP for looting after the hurricane. Most, if not all, of those people were doing it for survival. The media promotes a false narrative to make us fear looting and violence, but we can prevent much of this by providing people with necessities.”

That’s why we decided to launch our Hurricane Ida Relief Fund. As a result, we were able to distribute over $25,000 to nearly 300 families. Necessities like food, water, and gas become scarce in times like these. Knowing we could help folks access the resources they need is what we mean by promoting a caring community with alternatives to incarceration. We’re so grateful for the support we received from our community members, who allowed us to relaunch the fund once we exhausted initial resources.”

If anyone actually appreciates the resiliency of our communities, it’s those who extend a helping hand to those in need in the wake of great difficulty, not those who extend handcuffs.

Right now, however, the true test lies outside of New Orleans, in the river and bayou parishes forgotten by the nation. The Descendants Project, a St. John the Baptist Parish-based community organization that has been fighting the construction of a grain elevator atop slave burial sites in Wallace, has pivoted towards rebuilding their community.

Joy Banner, a leader of The Descendants Project, spoke to me about it:

“The Descendants Project is collecting donations and supplies to help the victims of Hurricane Ida who reside on the West Bank of St. John the Baptist parish. The small communities of Wallace, Edgard, and Lucy have found it particularly difficult to get immediate aid and resources. While areas like LaPlace and even New Orleans have received national attention, these smaller areas were hit just as hard but have received very little attention and assistance. The Descendants Project is distributing generators, financial assistance, hot food, water, tools and supplies directly to these communities. Last week, a community of volunteers in the New Orleans area, with coordination from the Descendants Project tarped roofs in Wallace, Edgard, Lucy and Vacherie.  In the upcoming weeks, The Descendants Project will distribute more resources in the upcoming weeks and will begin discussions around disaster planning and preparation for the mobilization of local mutual aid.”

This is especially hard for those, like Banner, whose communities reside in “Cancer Alley” and already face the tremendous challenge of state-sponsored environmental racism. Other organizations in the river parishes founded to oppose predatory industrial projects, like RISE St. James, have also had to shift gears towards community aid out of necessity.

This points to a massive issue with leaving so much of immediate post-storm relief to mutual aid organizations. What’s at stake in the river parishes has everything to do with climate change and how we adapt for more frequent, more dangerous storms in the future. The previously planned petrochemical plant from Formosa Plastics Group, described by a federal judge as a “serial polluter,” in St. James Parish was estimated to be the largest new pollution source in the United States. It was the work of RISE St. James and the community that got the Army Corp of Engineers to do a full environmental review of the project. However, if storms continue to batter these communities and officials fail to respond comprehensively, there will be no one left to stop these developments.

Mutual aid alone is not enough to stop this. If Biden wants to “build back better” that means fundamentally rethinking emergency response. It means rapidly building back the communities who are doing the hard work to protect our coast and fight corporate interest. It means having a comprehensive strategy at every level of government – federal, state, local – that goes above and beyond to support the community in anticipation of and in response to major storms. Too little, too late is just not enough.

The current model of response we have needs to be problematized. It overfocuses on economic hubs and overlooks the periphery, which is especially problematic considering that the periphery is affected the worst and is doing much of the hard work in regards to climate change. In this sense, our model of emergency relief ignores the root cause of disasters and, in doing so, implicitly fuels them.

The paradox of resiliency politics is that it carries a fallacious truth at its core – we are resilient, but for all the wrong reasons. We’ve shown resiliency because we’ve been forced to, not because it’s what we ought to be called to do. The tremendous and honorable work of mutual aid organizations in Southern Louisiana should be valorized, but it should also serve as a reminder of our political shortcomings. Images of the burdens we need not carry.

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