When you’re in southeast Louisiana under a hurricane watch, you start doing calculus. How many days until landfall? When’s the best time to go to the store? Should I board up the windows? How much gas is in the car? Where’s the nearest ATM?
But everyone isn’t doing the same math — factoring whether to stay or go is a gut-wrenching choice for some, and a financial impasse for many others. And virtually all of the steps of hurricane prep cost money. Nearly 1 in 5 New Orleans households lack access to a car, according to 2020 findings from the Data Center. And just about that same amount live in poverty statewide.
Indeed, history has proved that the calculus is unequal. In the aftermath of Katrina, a storm that made landfall precisely 16 years before Ida and reshaped disaster preparedness efforts in the region and nation, many women and LGBTQ people highlighted the particular burden on their shoulders when it comes to preparation and recovery.
A 2017 survey of New Orleans residents found that women were almost two times more likely to perceive flood risk than men, and Black people were more than two times more likely to perceive flood risk compared with White people.
Even once the storm passes, the labor of both long- and short-term recovery disproportionately falls to women — though it often goes uncredited. This became increasingly clear in the aftermath of Katrina, as women reported they had to find solutions for finding a place to live or finding new schools for their kids. And with many Louisiana schools out of commission “indefinitely” after Ida, child care amid power outages that could last weeks will also largely fall to family matriarchs.
“Additionally, some women felt that activism following the storm was too often framed in gender neutral terms, and consequently failed to meet the gendered needs of certain marginalized populations,” reads a 2020 report on gender and climate change.
The same report said in the wake of evacuations after Katrina, trans and intersex people reported being denied access to aid because of staunch gender binaries around forms of identification, which also made shelters and bathroom access another barrier, as well as breeding grounds for harassment.
The most recent U.S. Trans Survey from 2015, the largest survey examining the experiences of transgender people in the United States, found that approximately one-third of trans people in Louisiana reported being homeless at some point in their lives, and the same proportion lived in poverty. The report comes out every five years, but with the pandemic, the organization conducting the research had to delay its work. Considering the economic fallout of the past year and a half, things could be much more dire, making evacuation and recovery much harder.
Reportedly, dozens of people also remained in harder-hit coastal areas like LaPlace, Houma and Grand Isle, which have experienced expedited land erosion that would normally keep them and further inland communities safe from storm surge, flooding and extreme winds. The fossil fuel industry has contributed to land erosion for decades as it dug up marshland for pipelines and infiltrated neighboring communities to staff a workforce with few protections and deadly risks. Barrier islands that would have protected coastal communities from storm surge are mostly gone.
The hot waters of the Gulf of Mexico also left the coast with less time to prepare for the “rapid intensification” of Ida. City officials quickly resorted to post-storm aid such as shelters. Days after the storm, officials are still assessing the extent to the citywide power outage, as transmitters crumbled or descended into the Mississippi River. It could be weeks before electricity flows into homes again. It will take far longer for decimated communities outside of the city limits to rebuild.
During New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s first news conference after Ida finally blew over, she said upward of 200,000 remained, about half the city’s population; although officials encouraged people to leave, evacuation was not mandatory in New Orleans, only for low-lying communities outside the levee systems.
“Many of our residents who did stay … it’s not all because they didn’t have the means to evacuate,” she said. “Those were choices that were made.”
There’s a slight judgment in Cantrell’s remarks that echoes something I hear a lot as a Southerner, whether we’re facing climate disasters, political fraught, economic strain or just going about our lives: Why don’t people just leave?
Displacement, even in the short term, can be costly. Hotels, already out of reach for many, require credit cards, and during other recent disasters, like the freeze in Texas, room prices skyrocketed. Then there are those who would rather stay and witness instead of leave and wonder.
I had the means to get out, but I had to do some calculus about leaving, too. I bought a house last year in New Orleans. It’s where I rode out Hurricane Zeta, which made landfall in October 2020 as a Category 3 storm, after a last-minute rapid intensification. I found myself alone, crouching near a couch, holding my dog as the wind ripped the siding off my neighbor’s house, dropped nearby trees and toppled part of my fence.
Before my power went out in that storm and cell service got spotty, my stepdad, a retired member of the U.S. Coast Guard who was once stationed in New Orleans, sent me a text.
“Why are you not here? Keep me posted,” he wrote.
“It intensified all of a sudden!! Next time I will leave,” I replied.
“I know you will be OK, but you don’t have to be there by yourself. Love you,” he said back. It’s the isolation part of the equation that persuaded me to go this time.
My relationship with the Deep South is one of coming and going, of guilt and pride, of privilege and loss. As Ida churned in the Gulf of Mexico, and I took a highway north to Mississippi, these feelings stirred, too. My great-grandparents fled Mississippi in the 1880s because of a white supremacist disaster that claimed an uncle’s life. They went north somehow, rebuilt a life in Washington, D.C., and most of my family has been based out of the South ever since. A decade ago, my mother and I returned to live in Mississippi.
The South is a region often credited for its resilience, a focus on the stressors, emergencies and inequities here. There’s not nearly enough focus on Southerners’ resistance. Black and Indigenous people have been fighting many forms of displacement from colonization to gentrification to land erosion. And they are the ones, women and LGBTQ people in particular, still resisting, leading mutual aid efforts across the region and finding ways to multiply resources and care.
The beauty of southeastern Louisiana is that even if you live alone like I do, deep community care infrastructure rarely leaves you lonely. It is why so many of my friends who also left town feel a deep urge to return. But city officials are asking the hundreds of thousands of us who left to stay put until further notice.
Whenever we can, we’ll survey any damage to our homes, and then get busy helping people who need it, especially as rent and mortgages are coming due this week, and federal eviction protections have disappeared.
You do the math for yourself, but you always factor in others.