It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
All of the texts and emails begin the same way:
"Hi, hope you're doing OK after Ida…"
"I hope you and your loved ones are safe during this time…"
Then comes the "but"—and there is always a but—closely followed by a "need" to schedule a meeting, send an update, meet an arbitrary deadline, or some other audacious work-related inquiry that even a novice gambler would bet on being ill-timed.
Those emails tend to stop at the first mention of a tree on the roof. That's the bar to pass, apparently.
From the looks of our inboxes alone, it is clear that a lot of employers do not get what it means to live through and recover from climate disaster, or how to support those of us who are. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that y'all do not care. That's a bold stance to take as climate change makes it clearer, every waking day, that it's coming for every single one of us—even those who act like Gmail will survive the rapture.
Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana, there are still downed power lines in the streets, roofs with giant holes covered by tarps, broken traffic lights, and barren grocery stores and pharmacies with impossibly long lines and 7 p.m. closing times. Many restaurants and service industry employers are unable to pay their employees. Tap water in some areas is unsafe or completely unavailable. Power in the smaller communities outside of New Orleans is either spotty or not on at all.
Think about that the next time you send a post-storm request.
The calm after the storm is a literary myth, especially under capitalism. Once the rain and wind stop, people have to get to work—both on recovery, and to make ends meet. Many don't evacuate for fear of missing work that cannot be done remotely in the event that the storm isn't as strong as forecast, or so that when business resumes, there's no delay to clocking in.
As people who both work remotely, it is incredible to see how many of our counterparts outside of the disaster zone (for now, anyway) remain inflexible a year-and-a-half into a once-in-a-century pandemic that has heightened isolation, killed our communities, and thinned out already disappearing safety nets. Most of us are not actually as essential as we've told ourselves. We've been made to expect that intangible work will—and must—continue, feeding the same capitalist machines that accelerate the climate change we're living through. We'd argue that the lion's share of urgent workplace "demands" are about feeding self-fulfilling (and self-important) prophecies. This ain't The Matrix.
Perhaps the most astute imagery of where we're at is the photo of an alligator swimming through a Walgreens parking lot, navigating past debris from damaged trees and homes still in the street, as the remnants of a tropical storm brought flash floods this week. (Don't tell us it's photoshopped, please let us have this one.)
Y'all seem to not realize that it got damn hot immediately after the storm, too. At least 10 people in their 60s and 70s died due to extreme heat within the first 10 days following Ida. Plenty more lost access to lifesaving medical devices. Our elected officials keep telling us that FEMA—yes, that FEMA—will be our ticket to relief. We don't have to look farther than Lake Charles, Louisiana, which is still recovering from hurricane Laura and waiting on federal aid to come through more than a year later, to know that's a lie.
See also: Too heartbreaking to leave, too expensive to stay. More than 802,000 homes are at risk of climate disaster—mostly in the South.
Meanwhile, it's Gulf Coast mutual aid efforts that have raised and disbursed millions in the wake of Hurricane Ida, and that come through during other disasters, too. There's a theory circulating on social media that "the New Orleans collective is passing the same $20 around all the time." How many of y'all outside of this region could count on your neighbor to give you a dime? We know that no one—not the government, and not that white-led NGO that posted a black square on Instagram last summer—is coming to save us. That's part of why so many of us who left ahead of Ida couldn't wait to get back.
The list of overlooked annoyances and complicating factors goes on:
- New Orleans is hosting a housefly convention right now: Many areas haven't had trash pick up in weeks, and residents are hauling their own trash to a dumpsite. This really stinks. As photographer Virginia Hanusik put it, "We are one sponsored 'Back That Trash Up' Juvenile remix away from the entire city of New Orleans rioting."
- People who evacuated are paying the costs of that decision: hundreds of dollars on gas, flights, lodging, food, all of the above. A lot of people didn't pack enough medications in their "go-bags"—because a lot of us expected to be home sooner.
- Households are struggling to replace the entire contents of their fridges. Long power outages mean we are starting from scratch.
- Few people are qualifying for the $500 FEMA was supposed to be handing out, and Indigenous tribes on the coast that are not federally recognized don't qualify for aid they desperately need.
Most of us also give a damn about our neighbors, too, and have spent time checking in on them and their needs. People here know that your recovery is intertwined with your community's.
But there's something else that gets churned up in the wake of storms like Ida. So, as some of our people would say, let us "learn you something."
Every hurricane season, but especially after a major storm like Ida, people—both randoms on the Internet and whole ass journalists—ask: "Why don't people on the Gulf Coast just move?" Folks throughout the greater South probably get this quite a bit, too—ongoing disaster or not.
A home is not a house, a highway, or a grid system. It is a community, a resting place, a complicated and fraught reality, a passing phase, a source of fear, and a sense of belonging. It is not a decision on a piece of paper that can be crossed out and rewritten overnight. Home is an ever-changing experience facing even more uncertainty as our climate changes faster than we can keep up with. We are (un)fortunately all in this together, no matter where we live.
To question why someone lives where they do is to assume there is a better place for them to go instead of believing that a home is worth fighting for because people are worth fighting for. People in Los Angeles or Chicago don't live there because those cities are objectively "better." They live there for a million different reasons: reasons that change along race and class lines as often as they stay static, reasons that can change in a year, and reasons that could still force them to move or stay there forever.
Y'all are asking the wrong questions. And so many of y'all have much to learn from regions of the South like ours, where we engage in disaster prep and community solidarity by default. A lot of northerners looking down their noses at us might find it more worth your time to look over to thy neighbor instead—and maybe start by learning their names.
There is nothing that separates worsening storms in the Gulf of Mexico from the increasing size and frequency of wildfires on the west coast. We are all stuck with the consequences of climate change brought on by corporate greed and negligence, and it has nothing to do with where someone "chose" to live or what they should "expect" as a result of those "choices."
But wealthy New Yorkers or Bay Area residents will never be seriously questioned about why they live where they do, even as the sky turns orange and the subway floods, because there is enough money and power to ensure that the most privileged people and places remain untouchable, unquestionable.
In some ways, a wealthy New Orleanian won't be questioned either, because their choice is protected by power and a federal levee system. The reality is starkly different for people in the river parishes and bayou communities that were nearly demolished by Ida, and for New Orleans residents who are still struggling to find work, drinkable water, or a livable home.
In a place like Louisiana, the proof of all the ways that capitalism is trying to kill us is literally in the air—Black and brown folks are exposed to toxins at disproportionate levels. Decades of leniency given to Big Oil companies allows them to set up along the Mississippi River, in the same sites formerly occupied by plantations, giving companies like Exxon and BP permission to pollute and sicken the Black neighborhoods that surround their plants. Meanwhile, their output has eroded thousands of miles of coastland and barrier islands that nature set up to protect us from hurricanes.
Climate change is coming for everybody, whether you live on a coast or not. Ida made that clear as the storm's remnants traveled north, killing 43 people across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. Never before had The National Weather Service declared a flash flood emergency in New York City. The week prior, 17 inches of rain in Tennessee killed at least 22 others.
Capitalism's death march is made even more clear when out-of-state (and out-of-touch) employers "check in" about our capacity to work in the days and hours after Ida knocked New Orleans' power infrastructure into the river, flooded the parishes outside of levee protection, and destroyed entire Indigenous communities on the coast.
This level of exhaustion and stress is unfortunately something the Gulf Coast has been through before. And that makes it harder, not easier. We are not interested in growing our "resiliency," or being told that we'll get through it somehow. We know how strong our community is. But time and time again, our good will and lauded hospitality is turned against us as a replacement for real help and support.
The impact on individuals is intense and long-lasting, and as climate change worsens, we will one day just be one of many places to intimately understand this feeling.
New Orleans, like every city, has a responsibility to address the changing needs of our world and protect each other. Louisiana has decades of historical corruption and poor governance on the local and federal levels, but what is striking in the aftermath of a disaster like Ida isn't the flaws in our city and state—we face those every day—but rather how easily we are made to feel alone on the front lines of the climate crisis, ignored en masse because of politicians who we already know have had ruinous effects on our environment and home. We are here, doing the work, only to be told that there's no hope and no point, reminded by a stranger of why this happened, and why we shouldn't get upset that things are the way they are.
So, perhaps, the next time you find yourself drafting an email to a colleague living through any number of disasters, you might be better suited to just open your purse, and think about how you can trade in ignorance for actual solidarity.
We can "circle back" after our people are good.