Disaster Relief

What Happened after Hurricane Ida

October 26, 2021 by

On September 23rd I traveled to Louisiana to help the Red Cross with disaster relief from Hurricane Ida. The storm struck on August 29th just south of Houma. As the storm passed the town was battered by greater than 120-mile-per-hour winds for over five hours. The resulting damage is hard to describe.

Houma, population 33,000, is the largest town in the bayou region and seat of Terrebonne Parish. South of Houma is predominantly uninhabited swamps and sawgrass edging the Gulf of Mexico. The town is a mix of shrimp fishermen, cane fields, oil rig workers, pipeline maintenance people, and the support staff that keep them going.

Destruction from Hurricane Ida Hurricane damage at Grand Isle, Louisiana. Photo by the author. 

Because of the extended high winds, much of the power grid was destroyed. Even four weeks after the storm there are areas south of Houma which have no electricity.

I arrived on September 24th and came to the municipal auditorium, a large building which can shelter up to one hundred people using the pre-COVID spacing of sixty square feet per cot. We were still setting up cots when coach busses arrived with the occupants of two shelters in nearby Amelia and Morgan City, where lack of electricity had forced Houma residents to flee. Of the ninety-three people who arrived that day, about sixty were former residents of Bayou Towers, an eleven-story building for low-income elderly and people with disabilities. I was to be the night supervisor for the shelter.

Among our residents were four double amputees, fifteen others who required wheelchairs or mobility assistance, six people dependent on supplemental oxygen, one blind man, a deaf woman, and a woman with advanced cancer. Due to the stress of living in a shelter, uncertainty about the future, and the lack of food variety, many of our residents were experiencing diabetic crises. For the first week the ambulance came nearly every day or night for people whose blood sugar was out of control. We hardly had a night when we were not calling the ambulance to take someone to the hospital from diabetes or panic, but since the hospital had no room due to the number of COVID cases and staff members out from the storm, our residents would be treated in the ER and brought back to the shelter for the night. One older man suffered a diabetic episode and when he returned to the shelter all he had was a paper hospital gown. He was unable to get himself up in the night and before morning it was soaked. We had to find something that would fit to keep him warm and dry.

The next evening when I came back to the shelter I heard that John, an older man who had slept about twenty-five feet from my desk, had passed away. He had been on oxygen but at some point stopped breathing. My memory of him was that in spite of all the problems he was experiencing, he never complained. He sat quietly on his walker with his mask on and watched everything going on around him. I never spoke more than a few words with him and now he is gone. How many others will have to die before we can find peace and safety in this world?

Disaster relief worker with baby Even in a disaster, life continues. One of the women who had been in the shelter in Amelia, had a baby the day they moved from Amelia back to Houma. The next day she brought her son to show everyone. (Author holding the baby)

The combination of stress and substance abuse led to a number of angry outbreaks. We had a steady police presence; working together with the officers, many of whom were locals that knew the folks in our shelter, we were mostly able to defuse the situations.

Every three days all the residents in the shelter had to be tested for COVID, and one day one lady tested positive. She was whisked away and a couple of hours later two people arrived in Tyvek suits and respirators to take away her belongings and sanitize the area. That created some consternation among those whose cots were adjacent.

But after about four days we began to grow into a relationship of fellowship and forced community. Partway into the second week, most everyone was acquainted and we had a routine to our life. At that point, the daytime manager completed his two-week term and I was asked to be the new manager. I was also asked to participate in closing and combining our shelter with the two other shelters in town, since the Red Cross had located a larger building. We were finally able to give each person the 120 square feet of floor space the current COVID recommendations require. A truckload of storage totes were delivered to our shelter and residents were given totes to hold their belongings. The planning team created a master list of all the shelter residents in Houma’s three shelters, combining all the special needs, medical issues, accessibility, and other requirements. They created a floor plan to accommodate all these issues, including large tarps stretched across areas of the new shelter to create privacy between the different groups.

As I return home to a warm, dry, safe home with family and friends I cannot help but think of all those still sleeping on cots covered with the stiff white blankets – marked with the cross. Moving day came and the busses arrived, including three wheelchair lift busses for those who couldn’t walk. We loaded the residents in wheelchairs first, then those with special needs, then all the others. At the same time, a crew loaded the belongings in box trucks to transport to the new shelter. When everyone was gone we had a team of four staff left behind to clean and pack everything for transfer to the warehouse or the next shelter.

Then I finally had a day off after thirteen days of work, so I went down to Grand Isle on the gulf, visited a wildlife sanctuary, and walked along the beach. The sawgrass swamps were almost completely recovered, green and flourishing with all the dead grass swept away, but when I got to Grand Isle there was hardly a house left standing. For the last twenty-five miles along my drive, every single power pole was down. Even a month after the storm, crews had not begun to replace them.

There were areas where the highway had been washed through. The beach had been scoured free of sand and was washed down to the packed clay below. Even though there was a levee along the shore between the beach and the houses, it had been washed clean of cover and the geotextile which had been put down after Hurricane Katrina to hold the levee in place was all exposed, or torn and washed away, and the buildings beyond were totally shredded.

After a few hours watching shore birds along the beach I returned to Baton Rouge to hand in the paperwork from our shelter. It was time to go home.

Field hospital in Louisiana after Hurricane Ida Red Cross shelter at Houma municipal auditorium. Photo by the author.

Some of my lasting memories from this trip are of the many people who selflessly and generously helped to make our shelter as safe and comfortable as possible. The parish hired personal care assistants to provide care for all our elderly and infirm residents. The leader of the night crew was a young lady named Taiesha, who told me that she had also lost her home. She was living in her car for two weeks. In spite of the problems in her own home she worked twelve hour shifts providing care to our residents. She told me that if she were not helping others she would go crazy thinking about all the problems she had to deal with. Helping others gave her the strength to go home and keep trying to put her life back together.

There were so many examples of tireless service to our residents by volunteers from near and far. Many times when I did not know what would happen next, I listened to the chorus from Bach’s B Minor Mass, “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord, have mercy). As I return home to a warm, dry, safe home with family and friends I cannot help but think of all those still sleeping on cots covered with the stiff white blankets – marked with the cross.

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