CHALMETTE, Louisiana (AP) – Darkness set in for Natasha Blunt long before Hurricane Ida cut power across Louisiana.

Months after the start of the pandemic, she was kicked out from his apartment in New Orleans. She lost her job in a banquet hall. She suffered two strokes. And she struggled to help her 5 year old grandson with her homework.

Like nearly a fifth of the state’s population – disproportionately represented by black residents and women – Blunt, 51, lives below the poverty line and economic fallout from the pandemic sent her to the brink of the abyss. With the help of a legal aid group and local donors, she moved to Chalmette, a few miles from New Orleans, and tried to move into a two-bedroom apartment. Using a cane and taking a multitude of medications since her stroke, she was unable to return to work. But federal benefits kept most foods in the refrigerator.

Then came hurricane Ida.

The storm ravaged Louisiana as the fifth strongest hurricane to hit the American continent, destroying the electricity grid before moving up the coast and causing devastating flooding in the northeast. Among survivors of the deadly storm, the toll has been heaviest in many ways for people like Blunt – those who have already lost their livelihoods due to the COVID-19 pandemic in a region of racial inequality and long-standing social. Advocates say the small victories they had won for marginalized communities and people of color since the start of the pandemic were quickly wiped out.

“The government is really out of touch with what it is for people with little or no safety net,” said Maggie Harris, a popular documentary maker and organizer who started a fundraiser last year. for Blunt and other women economically devastated by the pandemic. “You marginalize people, you don’t pay them enough, they have health problems and are uninsured, you offer little cash or rent assistance, and you allow them to be evicted.

“The message people get is that their lives are expendable. “

As Ida neared Louisiana, Blunt knew it was escalating rapidly. She was evacuated to a hotel in Lafayette, over two hours west of her new home, a day before landing. But she could only afford a short stay, and the hotel was booked with other evacuees. She had to return to Chalmette, despite warnings from authorities not to return to hot, humid towns with boil water advisories and no electricity.

Her apartment was dark. Ida’s Category 4 winds had blown through the windows of her upstairs bedroom. His few possessions – beds, clothes, furniture – were soggy. She had spent her last dollars to get to the hotel, with no federal help to evacuate.

“It’s like I have to start all over again,” Blunt said, sobbing as she inspected the first floor of her apartment, where she sleeps now that the bedroom is uninhabitable. “Anytime I’m one step ahead, I get pushed back. And I am tired. I don’t see any way out.

Now Blunt is at risk of deportation for the second time in a year. Her only hope, she said, is Social Security and other disability benefits. She applied before the storm, she said, but has yet to receive a response – social safety net programs are often shut down following disasters.

Blunt wants to find a new home, preferably away from the storm-battered Gulf Coast – a place where grandson Kamille can resume school without worrying about blackouts and internet. But she is far from optimistic.

“This is the end of the road; I can’t go on any longer, ”she said. Kamille put down her kindergarten card to gently rub her grandmother’s leg.

“Don’t cry,” he told her. She pulled off a tender response: “Do your ABCs, baby.”

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Poverty and housing advocates in Louisiana lament the links between being black or brown, living in impoverished areas, and being underserved by the government’s disaster response. Aid available from poverty reduction programs often fails to meet the increased needs of storm victims in states of emergency.

And that is, advocates say, what happened during Ida. In Louisiana, where 17 storms that have caused at least $ 1 billion in damage have struck since 2000, nonprofits are seeing some of the most pressing needs and divisions most stark by socio-economic yardstick.

“One of the things that really frustrates us, in terms of the narrative, is that people say, ‘Ugh, Louisiana is so resilient,’ said Ashley Shelton of the Power Coalition for Equality and Justice, an organization at State-wide nonprofit that provides resources and encourages civic participation in underserved communities of color.

“We don’t want to be resilient forever,” she said. “Yes, we are beautiful and resourceful people. But when you force people to live in a constant state of resilience, it is only oppression. Repair systems that are structurally broken.

It doesn’t help that Louisiana’s poverty rate is higher than the national average, according to the Census Bureau American community survey. The great poverty makes the prospect of temporary or permanent relocation precarious for people who were already on the brink before the disaster, said Andreanecia Morris of HousingNOLA, a program of the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance.

“Housing is a fundamental issue for all of these disasters, be it COVID, economic crisis, criminal justice or education,” Morris said. “Our inability to tackle racial prejudice, gender prejudice and the prejudices associated with poverty in housing hinders all of these things. Nowhere is it clearer than in our government’s response to disasters. And this one is no different.

Less than a week after Ida’s coup, Morris has spent a day prospecting areas of New Orleans where his organization is helping those most in need. In the lower quarter of the ninth, a neighborhood in New Orleans that suffered greatly after Hurricane Katrina, Laationa Kemp, 57, found herself cut off from most helpers.

Kemp said she relied on neighbors with cars for ice, hot meals and bottled water. To stay cool, Kemp left his front door open for some fresh air. She had spent days without electricity and Ida had caused roof leaks and damage to the fences.

For Morris, the situation was urgent. Kemp had disputes with his landlord over the condition of the house and the threat of eviction was looming. The owner listed on his eviction notice did not respond to AP’s calls for comment.

Morris wants Kemp and his 25-year-old son Alvin to move elsewhere for good. In the meantime, Morris has suggested a cooling center.

“Thanks, baby, but I’m fine,” Kemp told her, explaining that she preferred to stay in a dilapidated house – past experiences make her fearful of the shelter system. “I have already said to the Lord, I pray that when I leave here, I will go to a better house. I will have a better income so I won’t have to go through this anymore.

Biden administration set aside nearly $ 50 billion for rent assistance during pandemic, but money was slow to come out. Louisiana Lawyers say they were hoping those COVID-19 funds could be transferred for storm relief as well, but it hasn’t been that easy. And, for people like Blunt and Kemp, the technological knowledge needed to apply online can be a barrier.

Eventually the Kemps will likely get the help they need, but it takes time, said Cynthia Wiggins, tenant and property manager at New Orleans Public Housing Development Guste Homes, one of the few management companies. resident in the United States, where tenants share the responsibilities that landlords typically assume.

“There is nothing we can do to get around the process,” Wiggins said. “We have the units available, but we put the processing on hold when the storm hit. “

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Like many in Louisiana, Blunt survived its fair share of storms – starting with birth, during the fallout from Hurricane Camille in 1969. As she relates, her pregnant mother was transferred to a naval medical vessel to give birth. Today, Blunt can laugh at the coincidence of his grandson’s name, Kamille.

“It’s like the storms keep coming for me,” she said with a laugh.

The memory of Katrina is more frightening. Blunt evacuated to Alabama then to Chicago. When she was safe, she and Kamille’s grandfather returned to their home in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward to see flood damage. But even with Katrina’s horror stories, Blunt said, Ida was worse for her.

“It was the worst experience of my life here, to come back to this, to come back to the dark,” she said. “I’m pretty crazy, I’m sick and scared like that. Now I turn and turn at night.

Perhaps it would be enough for the longtime Louisiana resident to leave for good. As she finds herself ransacking her storm-damaged property, she said she sees no way to find peace in the state.

She is not alone. Many people have fled the state after major storms, data shows. In the New Orleans subway, and even in Chalmette in particular, the US Census Bureau recorded a significant population loss between its counts from 2000 to 2020. After Katrina, in 2006, nearly 160,000 residents of Louisiana in total have moved to Texas, Georgia and Mississippi. Louisiana’s population rebounded as people returned to rebuild, but it has been declining again since 2016.

For the families who remain despite natural disasters, it seems like each new generation is learning new survival lessons, said Toya Lewis of Project Hustle, a New Orleans nonprofit that organizes black street vendors and brown men who work in informal economies.

“No one was ready to be powerless in New Orleans for over eight days, ”Lewis said. “We take advantage of all this lived experience and this organization to prosper. We need to start organizing around our survival.

And Blunt knows that no matter where she ends up, she will survive. Even in the dark, she finds light by helping her community – trying to get a power source for a neighbor’s respiratory system, sharing her car so people can charge their cell phones. She said to herself: “It’s going to be okay. … I do good. I’m not hurting anyone. I’m still standing. “

There is solace in the gleams of light, but she wants more, not just for herself, but for her grandson. “I want us to be somewhere better,” said Blunt, helping Kamille with the TV remote, power finally restored to their apartment.

“Somewhere I can be stable. I just want to be stable.

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AP writers Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland, and Michael Schneider in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.

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Morrison is a member of the AP Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.



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