On Hurricane Ida, COVID-19, and trauma: Resilience cannot be a permanent state

By Ashley K. Shelton, Founder and President

OPINION: It is imperative that groups seeking to offer humanitarian relief direct funds to grassroots groups who are closest to the pain of marginalization

By Ashley K. Shelton

Originally published in The Grio: https://thegrio.com/2021/08/30/hurricane-ida-covid-19-resilience-permanent-state/

Today, one day after the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I cannot help but reflect as Ida ravishes our state. This storm comes as our region faces the worst impacts of a fourth surge of COVID-19, the Delta variant, exacerbating joblessness, food, and housing insecurity. 

I have always been struck by the inhumanity of these storms; they always hit at the end of the month when working class folks are forced to choose between evacuating and paying bills. The utter destruction of all that they have worked to build is cruel, but the storm is the first slight. The rebuilding process is the next, and given the strained supply chain, rebuilding is always more difficult than it looks .

I have had the pleasure of serving the people of Louisiana through Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike and supported the community through the BP Oil Spill. Our work in disaster recovery has taught me many things and, if you know me, then you know the countless people I have helped and that remain on my heart.

There are not adequate words to describe what it is like to listen and hold the stories of so many–their loss and heartbreak becomes my own. I reconcile it by working tirelessly to respond, but for those of us that do this work we know even if we work night and day, we won’t be able to help them all. It is that grief that I carry with me, that settles over me as each storm passes through our state. 

A man takes pictures of high waves along the shore of Lake Pontchartrain as Hurricane Ida nears, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

A grief steeped in doing the same thing over and over to help people and feeling like we aren’t learning the lessons! Lessons that always point to the fact that we must center people in every recovery. Otherwise, we risk perpetual rebuilding and having the future of our state built on shaky ground. No one can be resilient in the face of multiplier disasters. 

I want to remind people that yes, Louisiana is full of beautiful, resourceful people. But folks cannot continue to expect us to be resilient. Resilience is a short-term condition where one stretches themselves until problems can be resolved. The idea that resilience is a permanent state is false. If we do not address the problems causing people to be resilient, it is simply oppression.

Government, at all levels, must respond differently. We must absorb the lessons that we have  learned time and time again. Our recovery and changes must center communities that have been left behind in previous efforts. Communities of color, low- income areas, and rural communities must be prioritized. We must also invest in a climate change workforce that can respond when we must rebuild, which, due to climate change, is annually as we face storms, hurricanes, flooding and more.

We have gotten some things right. In 2005, in the aftermath of Katrina, fighting for equity was not a popular idea. The work of many that have stayed and fought for a more equitable New Orleans and Louisiana can see the impacts of our work. However, we still have work to do. Lake Charles still languishes after the impacts of Hurricanes Laura and Delta, as well as the ongoing impacts of COVID-19. 

A young girl blocks her face from the wind and rain produced by Hurricane Ida, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, in New Orleans, La. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Policymakers must direct federal resources to directly impacted people. They must center communities and get resources to the ground. They must remove barriers to getting resources to people and families by doing the following:

1. Stop erecting endless bureaucracies to funding due to a perceived  fear of “fraud” that hardly exists. Move with the urgency the nation saw when policymakers moved PPP dollars and help move resources. For example, Louisiana has $500 million in housing COVID-19 recovery dollars, but has only distributed $57 million. We can use a process like PPP to get dollars moving to help those with the greatest need. 

2. Address contractor fraud and enforce laws already on the books so that people do not get taken advantage of in the process of rebuilding.

3. Invest in and use local workers to rebuild. Storm after storm elected leaders fail to invest in local workers to support the rebuilding process. It does not make sense to have high unemployment during the reconstruction phase and not train and engage a local workforce that can rebuild. There is no need to bring workers in from other states. Train and build a local workforce. This could have lasting impacts on the lives of Louisianans and our economy for years to come. 

4. Climate change and its impacts are here to stay so we must address the issues it causes, such as bills due on the first of the month at the same time a storm is hitting. We must also work with hotels to provide ongoing relief and emergency housing following a catastrophic storm. These storms also hit during preparing for election administration, we need a plan so that we don’t stop folks from being able to access their vote as they rebuild.

A collapsed historical building is seen on S. Rampart St. in New Orleans, La., early Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (Max Becherer/The Advocate via AP)

Long before the COVID-19 global health crisis shuttered schools and companies, communities of color were victimized by over-policing, mass incarceration, under-resourced schools, aging infrastructure, lack of good paying jobs, and unaffordable or inaccessible health insurance. This has created a sea of suffering, particularly among groups long impacted by systemic racism and social exclusion.

But now, with toll of Hurricane Ida yet to be tallied, we appear to be moving from trauma to trauma. Many people are being displaced and they must navigate fallout of yet another crisis at the same time they are recovering from one of the worst pandemics in a generation.

During this time of instability and uncertainty, we must remember that communities of color are at heightened risk. It is imperative that groups seeking to offer humanitarian relief direct funds to grassroots groups who are closest to the pain of marginalization. 

It is also critical that the media center the voices and perspectives of the local community, particularly Black women and women of color who are more likely to head households, more likely to be raising children and youth, and more likely to have a pulse on what is needed in this moment.

This is indeed a crisis, but doing what is outlined above will not only help, but support the community for years to come.

Ashley K. Shelton is the Executive Director of the Power Coalition, a statewide 501c3 table in Louisiana. She is also a founding member of the Black Southern Women’s Collective. Shelton was the former Vice President of Programs at the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation (LDRF), now the Foundation for Louisiana. In her role at the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, Ms. Shelton managed a system of integrated, value-added programs in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. 

In her role at LDRF, she designed, initiated and coordinated a comprehensive policy strategy, which led to a systemic, multi-pronged approach to equitable policy development on a local, state and national level. She utilized a participatory model that engaged local, state, and national partnerships to develop and nurture civic engagement throughout the state.