Nearly two years after Hurricane Ida gutted her home, Maria Populis cries every day because she’s lost everything – and fears she’ll be homeless.
“I’m not supposed to be living on nobody’s street,” the 60-year-old grandmother says. “I feel like a failure.”
The record-breaking storm destroyed her Edgard, Louisiana, home – which had been in her family for nearly a century. And the federal and state government’s recovery process is taking her dignity, she says.
Populis is among the dozens of residents across the gulf coastline who say the hurricane recovery system makes it nearly impossible for Black and low-income communities to swiftly and justly recover from devastating storms. As more storms inevitably pass through the state, the inability of Black communities to recover from past storms threatens the future of dozens of enclaves, some of which date back to U.S. slavery, and the history that encompasses them.
For two weeks, Capital B traveled across the state, interviewing more than two dozen people in seven counties impacted by hurricanes Laura, Delta, Zeta, Ida, and six other major storm events in 2020 and 2021 to understand why, years later, thousands of the state’s Black population remain living in damaged homes, trailers, and hotels.
Ida swept across the Caribbean toward New York, hitting the Gulf Coast just one year after hurricanes Laura and Delta. Hurricane Ida and Laura were the two strongest storms to hit Louisiana since 1856, with the storms taking more than 65 lives and causing more than $75 billion in damage.
Interviews with Black residents highlighted a bureaucratic recovery process favoring white, wealthy, and internet-savvy victims, only worsened by the storm’s convergence with the coronavirus pandemic. The Federal Emergency Management Agency did not physically enter most homes when assessing damage from four hurricanes that hit the state in 2020 and 2021 due to coronavirus precautions.
It’s hard for Populis to talk about the last few years. Just a few months before Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana in August 2021, she had a heart attack, requiring three surgeries. In the years since, life-threatening stress has accumulated: from the hurricane wrecking her home to hopelessly observing how her displacement and couch-surfing between family members’ houses destroyed relationships.
At the same time, FEMA and a state-run recovery program called Restore Louisiana have run her in “circles,” requiring her to submit and re-submit certain documents as much as three times as they contested the results of her damage inspections from private contractors.
Populis has lived in a one-bedroom trailer with her youngest daughter since early 2022. However, FEMA recently announced that the agency will begin charging victims a “market-rate” rent in May. She fears she won’t be able to afford the rent while trying to finance her home rebuild.
The $9,000 settlement she received from the agency wasn’t enough to cover the complete gutting of her home, let alone solidifying its structural integrity, replacing its roof, installing new floors, and moving the house back to its original location after Ida moved it 2 feet.
As of April 2023, FEMA has provided roughly $1.4 billion to hurricane victims in Louisiana since 2020. However, according to publicly available data, FEMA’s average payout for Hurricane Ida victims is just $1,060 per claim.
In a statement to Capital B, a spokesperson said, “FEMA continues its work of distributing aid equitably, helping to house survivors, and assisting in infrastructure recovery across the disaster-declared parishes,” noting that the agency provided temporary housing to 6,000 hurricane victims.
Most claims in Louisiana over the years have been centered on roof repairs, which typically cost upward of $12,000. An analysis found that FEMA’s payout for hurricane damage in Louisiana comes in between 3,000 and $8,000, requiring residents in the country’s second-poorest state to rely on non-existent savings.
FEMA has worked in tandem with Restore Louisiana, a $1.6 billion pool of money dished out by the state via the federal government’s housing agency, but the application process is far from simple, discouraging thousands of residents from applying. While Restore Louisiana’s average payout is much larger than FEMA’s at nearly $80,000, just 15,000 homeowners have initiated the process, with fewer than 900 homeowners having received money from the program as of April 3.
The Restore program is a follow-up to the state’s Road Home program from Hurricane Katrina, which a recent ProPublica investigation found disproportionately shortchanged Black communities.
The recovery process is all about the money in your bank account, the ability to spend hours of your day on the phone or internet with the government, and your knowledge about your rights, says Lake Charles community advocate Tasha Guidry. She has spent the past several years connecting residents with recovery resources and tracking the federal government’s response.
At one point, being insured proved to be a saving grace in the recovery process; however, since 2020, two dozen insurance companies serving Louisiana have either gone bankrupt or elected to stop insuring residents, leaving folks either footing the bill or going through the drawn-out legal process of recouping the value of their policies. And in the case where government or private assistance did provide enough money, there are ample cases of contractors taking advantage of residents, sometimes overcharging or even abandoning projects after payment.
Residents say the recovery process fails to consider the human element of disaster restoration: the physical and mental health toll of displacement, disaster, and death; the severance and disruption of relationships; and the cultural aspect of a home.
Cancer Alley’s ghost towns take a toll
Like Populis, Jamaica Hawkins is prideful and lives in “Cancer Alley,” where the world’s largest concentration of petrochemical plants are found. It is deemed a human rights violation by the United Nations.
Just a few years before Ida hit, Hawkins was happy to be able to purchase a mobile home that stood tall on the same lot where her ancestors lived. Nearly 200 years ago, her great-great-grandfather – St. Charles Parish’s first Black elected official – built a home on the same lot where her grandmother remains today.
Hurricane Ida’s wrath, however, crushed that pride, as both of their homes were severely damaged and FEMA’s support failed to come.
“[FEMA] doesn’t understand the toll this has on your health,” said Hawkins, who lives in a trailer outside her destroyed mobile home in Norco, Louisiana, about 25 miles outside New Orleans. She was uninsured.
Hawkins, who works at one of the two high schools in Norco, could not be present when FEMA finally came to inspect her home weeks after Hurricane Ida hit. Her mother tried her best to answer the inspector’s questions, but ultimately FEMA gave her just a $95 check for the contents of her house.
Her grandmother’s home was rebuilt only with the support of an environmental justice group called the Louisiana Just Recovery Network, which has fundraised to rebuild dozens of homes throughout Cancer Alley.
For Hawkins, the tiny payoff forced her to take out multiple loans and run up credit card debt. Adding to the financial stress, living out of a 250-square-foot trailer has severely altered her vegan diet, and thus her health, as she has been unable to cook full meals and grow her own food like she once did.
“If something happens again, my family is gonna call and check on me, and I will be in Mississippi or wherever my car takes me,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to leave because [my home] is on family land. My family has been in the same place for over 200 years, but I couldn’t stay because I wouldn’t be able to do this again.”
While Hawkins is thankful no major storm hit the area in 2022, she knows another big one is inevitable: Cancer Alley has been hit by 21 major storms since 2000, and recent studies have shown that drastic sea level rise across the Gulf is making storms more likely and more intense.
It’s not if, it’s when, Melissa Bright, another Cancer Alley resident, explained.
Standing outside the home she grew up in Convent, Louisiana, Bright was giddy about recently having spent her grandson Jace’s first birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.
“I even got in one of those little cars,” she said, holding him outside the home, which was made unlivable by Hurricane Ida. As she talked, a plume of steam from the chemical plant across the street filled the air as black smoke from a Shell refinery a couple of miles down the road drifted toward her. During Hurricane Ida, the same refinery dumped hundreds of pounds of illegal emissions into the air.
In all, the dozen plants operating in the parish she lives in were responsible for 71 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions between 2010 and 2021. Bright herself had spent years working in the chemical plants surrounding her home. She says it was the only way to make money in the area.
But in the aftermath of Ida, which turned the street she grew up on into a ghost town, she learned how the plants have worked to erase her community and make the storms that hit her area worse through their greenhouse gas emissions. The ocean absorbs about 90% of the warming effect caused by heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, which fuels a storm’s intensity and powers stronger winds.
Bright has since stopped working at the chemical plants. She’s now a community organizer with the Louisiana Just Recovery Network. Over the last couple of years, she’s helped rebuild five damaged homes, including her parent’s, throughout Cancer Alley. She’s encouraged her 25-year-old son to go to trade school, where he’s learning carpentry skills and how to weatherize homes in the region.
“I want something to come to this community, so then we can take baby steps and adventure outside of chemicals,” she said. “FEMA will only give you $9,000 after a storm comes through, so that’s why I like to see people go to trade school here to help people get through the troubled times.”
After retiring in June 2021 from a chemical plant outside of Houston, Alonzo Daniels moved back to his birthplace, a majority Black neighborhood of 2,100 in St. Gabriel, Louisiana less than three months before Hurricane Ida hit. He’s been living out of a camper ever since.
He says he’s living comfortably in his camper, but because he was not awarded a settlement from FEMA, he’s struggled to rebuild his home in a timely manner.
“I didn’t get nothing from FEMA because they said [the home’s top floor] was livable,” the 57-year-old said. “Since it takes me so long since I’m rebuilding this by myself … the house has got more messed up, a lot of my flooring, more of my stuff getting wet.”
But ultimately, Daniels is not expecting nor wants any more support.
“I’ve done everything by myself, and knowing me, I’m gonna finish my house regardless,” he said.
Realistically, the extensive damage makes that an almost impossible task for those who aren’t extremely wealthy. He needs a new roof, flooring, electrical rewiring, and to rework his foundation. Without paying for labor, that’s still pushing a $40,000 price tag.
With their homes and communities in disarray, residents say, joy can be hard to hold onto. Roughly half of the people Capital B interviewed expressed experiencing regular depressive symptoms.
The stress trickles down through all the generations, Hawkins said. “The stress is affecting all areas of my life at this point,” she said, “but think about the kids.”
Hawkins said that because of Hurricane Ida damage in September 2021, students at her school went to classes inside a converted warehouse until February 2023.
“I work in a high school, do you know how hard that has been? Because the kids are coming in broken, and you’re trying to be there for them when you also need someone to be there for you,” she said. “They need you to tell them it’s gonna be OK. And you don’t even know if it’s gonna be OK for you.”
The feeling resonates with Populis, who spends her days wondering if she’ll ever get back into the home her grandparents had lived in nearly a century ago. “I’m stuck in hell right now,” she said. “Ida tore my family apart.”
“I feel so helpless because there’s nothing I can do to fix this alone.”
Neglect in New Orleans
Hurricane Katrina gutted New Orleans’ 7th Ward, Michael Dejoie says, but Ida’s surge leveled a knockout blow. While the area flooded more during Katrina, with nearly 3 feet of water rising in his house, Ida’s 150-mile-per-hour winds eviscerated roofs across his neighborhood.
The ward’s damage from Katrina and Ida exemplifies how disasters build on each other, exacerbating community-level crime and neglect issues that linger after storms. Hundreds of the ward’s residents never returned after Katrina, leaving their homes to be consumed by shrubbery as the schools and streets in the community crumbled and drainage systems backed up.
Standing on his porch, Dejoie pointed out the empty homes and lots on his street and the untamed trees and shrubbery that sent wood, bricks, and branches flying throughout the neighborhood — and into people’s homes and roofs — during Ida.
“You see that side of the house with a piece of tin and that house with the tarp?” he said. “That damage is from that tree that is now actually sitting in the post of that house.” The tree, he explained, sat on the empty lot of a home that was left abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, only to be burnt down a few years ago by squatters.
Dejoie’s house has a blue tarp of its own. He says FEMA didn’t offer him a settlement, despite a hole in the roof, because he “didn’t have any structure damage” in what they called his “living area.” The agency, he says, never stepped inside his home due to COVID-19.
The retiree, relying on Social Security, doesn’t have funds to fix the roof on his own.
“The roof is a key portion of the structure itself; I don’t understand,” he said. “Without a sealed roof, I’ll eventually have floor damage, so everything inside will be wrong because of a bad roof. So why are they saying I gotta get that out of pocket?”
Dejoie said he was unaware of the existence of the Restore Louisiana recovery program.
The abandonment of the neighborhood by government agencies and residents has opened the community up to private investment, Dejoie says, and facilitated a substantial decrease in Black residents. Since Katrina, the ward’s Black population has decreased by 20% while the share of white residents has increased by 466%.
Since Ida’s destruction, he says, at least four private investors have bought properties in his block, many attempting to flip the houses or turn the properties into Airbnbs. A recent investigation found more Airbnbs in New Orleans than buildings for long-term rent.
“Basically, since Katrina, a lot of this turned into rental property. I think I’m the only property owner living in the actual property. The lady [across the street] was just recently bought out,” he said. “They don’t care who’s coming through here or how things are going.”
‘Hard truths’ in Lake Charles
On a seasonably hot March morning, Darryl Chapman and his niece, Ashely Chapman, stood etching measurements into a wood panel. The Lake Charles resident of more than 60 years has run a family-employed contractor business in the area for more than four decades.
Chapman has lived through 40 or so hurricanes and tropical storms in the city roughly 50 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, but he contends, “Hurricane Laura was like nothing we’ve seen.”
Since 2000, the majority Black city has been struck by 16 major storms, which, much like Cancer Alley, have been aided by the convergence of the city’s location and industrial companies. There are 30 large-scale industrial plants in the Lake Charles area, which have been responsible for 240 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions between 2010 and 2021. That’s six times the amount from all the residents in New Orleans, the state’s largest city, over that period.
Hearing of Laura’s impending doom, Chapman’s family evacuated to New Orleans. As they left the city, Ashely remembers her uncle telling her, “Make sure you get a look at Lake Charles, because everything you know won’t be the same when we come back.”
He was right, she says.
However, Chapman’s stay in the Big Easy didn’t last too long. Within two days, he was heading west on the Interstate 10 freeway back toward Lake Charles because there were people to help and money to be made. More than 31 months later, he’s still getting new projects, but most of his work has come from the city’s majority white neighborhoods in South Lake Charles.
“I got a lot of calls from older white residents,” he said, estimating that most of them had flood and wind insurance.
But for many residents, solid insurance coverage did not equal any useful or easily received windfalls. Hurricane Laura moved George and Wanda Orphrey’s home nearly 2 feet, destroying their back porch and damaging their roof. But it took the Orphreys nearly two years to receive a payout from the insurance company, which has since stopped insuring homes in the state.
“This is what the insurance companies did to the people here. They tried to leave us,” he said. “At the end, the only thing that worked was threatening them with a lawsuit.”
Even after the lawsuit threat, the Orphreys said their $85,000 payout was a drop in the bucket. Redoing the home’s foundation alone took up nearly half the payout, not to mention more than $20,000 on the roof, plus a new floor, electrical wiring, and HVAC system.
“Independent insurance companies didn’t care. They were trying to get as much money as they could and then want to say they’re ‘bankrupt,’” said George Orphrey. ”They call it bankrupt, but you can go to other states and they’re still operating.”
Hearing horror stories about FEMA and private insurance payouts from Hurricane Ike in 2008, Jeremy Shelton, a barbershop owner, decided to “self-insure” his property. Every month, he put aside a few hundred dollars in case of a disaster. Ultimately, it allowed him to fix his damaged roof — costing him $18,000 — in a much more timely manner.
“I had to protect myself,” said Shelton. “There are a lot of underlying circumstances when navigating the process, and it’s very scary.”
However, he says his barbershop, located in the heart of a residential neighborhood, has lost customers since the storms hit. With many homes in the area still unlivable and Lake Charles hemorrhaging thousands of residents because of the damage, his customer base has dwindled. Still, he remains hopeful about the city’s rebound.
So much has changed about the city, Brittany Manuel says, making it hard for the area’s most vulnerable to rebound. “Rent is just expensive,” the community organizer says, “too expensive for any of these low-income families to even be able to afford it.”
Before working with the environmental group Healthy Gulf, Manuel worked with an independent recovery company that helped FEMA grantees connect with housing resources. There she saw “middle-class” people shorted by the system, let alone low-income residents, some relegated to living out of their cars.
“These are people who have good jobs. They don’t get food stamps, they don’t get Medicaid, and they don’t get any assistance from the government, but they still don’t make enough money to be able to live within our community.”
Despite her institutional knowledge, she struggled to quickly rebound from the hurricanes that struck the city in 2020, made worse by her insurance company canceling coverage in the state. While her home was recently fully repaired, it has been difficult to see how the hurricane impacted important community elements, especially in ways her pre-teen son has noticed.
The recovery process has left her to explain some hard truths, namely racism and economic inequality. “Coming back to see blue tarps everywhere, the kids are curious,” she explained. “They want to know what’s going on and why maybe one roof is fixed, but our neighbor’s roof is not fixed.”
Watching the recovery discrepancies within her city, particularly the quickness in which the city’s predominantly white area has recovered, has shown her that the groundwork for recovery inequities is laid long before a storm hits.
“You can’t get a salad in North Lake Charles, go to a grocery store, or make more than $35,000,” she said. “The mayor is aware, the council members are aware, but we have elderly African American people here, so we don’t see any progression.”
“Then we’re washed away.”