First, Esperanza Marie Delgado was hit with a COVID-19 case so bad it required a month-long hospital stay. Then came Hurricane Ida.
The Category 4 hurricane walloped southern Louisiana Sunday with 150-mph winds, leaving more than a million people without power, and many communities underwater with catastrophic damage.
Now, Delgado, a 30-year-old single mom and bartender in New Orleans’ historic French Quarter, finds herself stuck between two disasters—a global pandemic and the aftermath of a hurricane fueled by climate change—that are made worse for those with precarious incomes. While Delgado usually has savings, that all dried up when she was sick with the coronavirus and unable to work. She believes she caught the virus on the job.
“It was not in my cards to spend what little I had to fill up on gas to go somewhere where I didn’t know if I was going to have money to stay with my kids,” Delgado told VICE News.
Now, like many others across the southern part of the state, Delgado finds herself facing an unknown period of time without electricity—and that means no air conditioning in the sweltering heat.
Nearly a million Louisianans still didn’t have power as of Thursday. Phone service remains spotty in some parts of the state. And, while New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said during a press conference Wednesday that she was hopeful power restoration wouldn’t drag on for weeks, as previously feared, Delgado has been stuck in miserable conditions with her children, ages 11 and 6.
“I can’t make it here for three weeks,” Delgado said, referencing an earlier power restoration estimate given by electric company Entergy.
With newly-built levees, New Orleans had it easy, comparatively. Officials in Terrebonne Parish, one of the southernmost parts of the state, warned on Twitter Wednesday that there are “no shelters, no electricity, very limited resources for food, gasoline and supplies and absolutely no medical services,” saying it was up to residents to assess those risks and reenter town. It could take four to five weeks for the power to come back on, Houma Today reported.
Similarly, St. Charles Parish, home to more than 53,000 residents and part of the greater New Orleans area, said on its official Facebook page that “residents should prepare to be without power for at least a month.”
And on Tuesday, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said while reviewing the wreckage in LaPlace, just up the Mississippi from New Orleans: “If you have already evacuated, do not return here or elsewhere in southeast Louisiana until the Office of Emergency Preparedness tells you it is ready to receive you.”
Cajun Navy Relief president Colleen Udell, who was in the St. Charles Parish town of Luling Tuesday, told VICE News that her disaster response organization was seeing scattered roof debris, downed power lines, and many homes without generators. Temperatures there were expected to climb up to 89 degrees Thursday.
“With the heat warnings that are coming, it is hot, humid, and sticky,” Udell said.
For those who stayed, “they obviously didn’t have the resources to be able to get out,” she added. One 27-year-old in Baton Rouge, for example, told the Associated Press he tried taking out a payday loan to afford evacuation; he was denied due to his lack of credit history.
“A lot of the hotels that are outside of the area book up really, really fast,” Udell said. “You’ll see a rate hike when you’re trying to get a room. And for some who did evacuate, they were sitting in traffic for hours just trying to get out of the way.”
Chanell Fisher, a 46-year-old living in New Orleans East, said she had been sitting in her car to try and stay cool before her power was restored Wednesday night. She was among the crowd that couldn’t afford to leave before the storm hit.
Without electricity for days, her family struggled in the high temperatures. Her husband had a stroke and an aneurysm back in February, she said. And her daughter is eight months pregnant. Fisher didn’t want to move too far away from the hospital where her daughter is soon set to deliver a child.
“I have to make sure everything is good,” said Fisher, who works as a psych tech. “Even with this disaster, I’m still trying to maintain [my husband’s] health, I take his pressure, I take his sugar.”
Her neighborhood has been overrun with crime since the storm, she added. She’s been unable to sleep because of it.
“I was just telling my husband today that I really don’t want to be here anymore,” Fisher said, citing looting and other offenses.
Some of those who couldn’t afford to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Ida had relocated to the southeastern side of the state after they were made homeless by last year’s massive hurricane in Lake Charles, said Jasmine Araujo, the New York-based founder of Southern Solidarity, a group of organizers that assists some 250 unhoused people in New Orleans.
That storm, Hurricane Laura, was also able to rapidly intensify as a result of climate change. Hotter ocean water helps storms grow more powerful.
“There are some people who are used to it, unfortunately,” Araujo said.
Right before Hurricane Ida hit, Araujo said, many homeless people in New Orleans did not want to go to local shelters because they didn’t want to be split up from loved ones or pets or face ultra-strict rules. Her organization gave out 150 meals Saturday night—several hours before the storm made landfall—meaning it was likely that some folks stayed outside for the duration of the hurricane.
On Monday, her organization cashed out around $1,000 so organizers could go around passing out money and snacks to unhoused people. Organizers also offered clean clothes, since some people were still wet.
“It is just out of this world that people are on the street experiencing a hurricane. That means they were out for hours just getting hit by strong winds,” Araujo said. “It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not humane at all.”
President Joe Biden is expected to visit Louisiana on Friday to meet with state and local officials. Already, his administration has deployed more than 3,600 Federal Emergency Management Agency employees to Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas to assist in the aftermath, according to Politico.