In August 2005, Moe Haghighi was in the water.
Hurricane Katrina had finished making landfall and the rain had stopped. As Haghighi and his neighbors in New Orleans struggled to get their hands on supplies, emergency officials in airboats called through megaphones. They were telling people to get to higher ground because they were going to open up the levees. Within two hours, the water level rose.
When Hurricane Ida hit exactly 16 years later, Haghighi expected the worst. As he prepared for the storm, he eyed the bridge at the corner of his temporary shelter, mapping a mental route in case he needed to swim to safety.
“As the day went by, [there was] more and more desperation,” he said.
Haghighi is a member of Southern Solidarity, a grassroots, community-based group working to provide food, medical resources, and basic needs for unhoused people in New Orleans—a demographic severely impacted by both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ida. In the days following Ida, he got to work clearing debris, checking in on his neighbors, and distributing necessities to those displaced by the storm.
Like many people in New Orleans, Haghighi still lives with the trauma from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. And while he was able to reach safety 16 years ago, many were not as fortunate. 1,836 Americans across Louisiana and Mississippi died as a result of the storm.
“A lot of people didn’t have the means to evacuate,” he said. “A lot of people were trapped in their attics. A lot of them were handicapped, a lot of them didn’t know how to swim, a lot of them had health issues and a lot of them were elderly.”
Back in 2005, parked busses that could have been used to transport people out of the city were left unused. Levees created for Category 3 hurricanes didn’t stand a chance against the Category 5 Katrina. Government assistance didn’t arrive until days later.
“It was a lot of unnecessary, preventable loss of life,” said Haghighi.
Hurricane Ida has left some communities that were already underserved in crisis. Since the storm hit last week, Black, brown and Indigenous communities have been slow to see local or state government recovery responses, and they aren’t expecting much help either, according to Lafayette, Louisiana-based journalist Kezia Setyawan.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards warned evacuees to stay away for now, saying that basic services like emergency response and everyday amenities like water, sewage, and passable roadways could not be guaranteed in many places.
For the Black community, which makes up nearly 60% of the New Orleans population, the aftermath of Hurricane Ida feels eerily similar to 16 years ago. The Black community still hasn’t recovered from Hurricane Katrina, and in 2019 accounted for 61% of unhoused people in the city. Many are concerned poverty levels could get even worse this time around.
Southern Solidarity Founder Jasmine Araujo attributes the number of unhoused people to the lack of aid during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She saw neighborhoods that were left unattended, and as the years passed, residents who lost their homes received no help with housing insurance or funds.
Before Katrina, more than 2,000 people were unhoused in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. After the storm, that number rose to 11,619. Residents are concerned that the number will rise dramatically once again.
“What we saw were entire swaths of neighborhoods where you could see the damage of Hurricane Katrina,” Araujo said.
Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath disproportionately displaced Black communities in New Orleans. Before the storm, Black people made up 67% of New Orleans’ population. Many of them lived in impoverished neighborhoods surrounded by levees that collapsed when the hurricane swept through.
Though Ida did not bring the level of flooding that Katrina had, the damage was still severe. Nearly 1 million residents went days without power. More than 530,000 customers in rural communities on the outskirts of New Orleans won’t have access to it until later in the month. Trees and power lines collapsed. Roofs of homes and businesses had caved in.
Black, brown, and Indigenous communities are providing mutual aid to one another through word-of-mouth and social media, according to Setyawan. Local businesses handed out free or heavily discounted food. Some residents set up stopping points to gather supplies. Some have been driving around town to distribute supplies to those who don’t have access to vehicles.
Since the storm, Setyawan has been running mutual aid for affected communities, collecting donations that go toward items families have requested, such as tarps, food, and water.
The day after the storm, members of Southern Solidarity checked in on unhoused residents and distributed food, clothing, and other supplies. They also set up a community drop-box for people to donate supplies.
“They were traumatized, they were hungry,” Araujo said. “We’re serving a lot of people who have experienced multiple hurricanes and have been displaced from them.”
She said the community needs Americans to fight for fair housing to be made accessible and affordable. People should also stay informed about local grassroots organizations and spread the word about what’s going on and how to support.
“We don’t make an appeal to the government because we know that the government is working exactly as it wants to work, which is neglecting poor communities,” Araujo said. “There shouldn’t have been any unhoused person on the street during a hurricane; they should have been accommodated for. It’s just inhumane.”
In addition to financial support, Haghighi stressed the importance of mental support for communities impacted by the hurricanes.
“A lot of us still suffer from the effects of Katrina,” he said. “Even if this is someone’s first time going through something like this, I’m pretty sure that they’re going to be traumatized.”
Other organizations providing mutual aid include the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, Committee for a Better New Orleans, Culture Aid Nola, and more. They are taking donations to help provide relief for residents and travelers affected by the storm.