In 1856, a horrific storm ravaged a resort island off the Louisiana coast, killing hundreds of people in its path. Now, more people die in the aftermaths of hurricanes, and most of these deaths are preventable.
- by Bethany Ewald Bultman
Last year, as Ida approached New Orleans, I ignored everything I had ever learned about Louisiana’s evolving relationship with hurricanes. This included what I gleaned from spending half my adult life researching the causes and impact of the Isle Derniere hurricane.
That no-name storm killed hundreds of people – including 13 members of my family, who were at the resort the family owned – on a barrier island off the coast Louisiana on August 10, 1856. The only survivor in my family was a newborn, too sickly to have made the journey from St. Mary Parish with her family that summer. She was Margaret Mackey Muggah, the mother of my grandmother Cecile. Until my grandmother died in the mid-1950s, August 10 continued as a day of strict mourning in my family. Even though I was just a toddler when she passed, that hurricane was already embedded in my DNA.
In 1998, I was one of the co-founders of the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, a non-profit focused on preventing cultural extinction in the city. After Katrina in 2005, my storm DNA kicked in with a gnarly concern: If New Orleans culture is to survive, shouldn’t we focus on preventing environmental racism and climate change before hurricanes to lessen the catastrophe in the aftermath? Since then, I have found myself drawn to many more public health conferences examining the impact of climate reality than music festivals.
A tropical depression began its trajectory on August 23, 2021 in the Caribbean Sea. It would quickly grow into Hurricane Ida, the fourth hurricane and ninth named storm of the 2021 season – but who’s counting, right? On August 27, the preseason Saints game against the Arizona Cardinals that was scheduled for the next day at the Superdome was first moved to noon Sunday CDT (from 7 p.m., prime time) and then was cancelled.
Ida was a tiny bleep on my radar, but not as persistent as the looming Katrina anniversary commemorations on August 28-29. I don’t like to admit it publicly, but my PTSD around Katrina has grown worse with time. The wave of violence centered around Katrina’s children, now grown up, is a harbinger of the generational trauma that is the legacy of the hurricane’s aftermath.
By Saturday, August 28, 2021, Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a mandatory evacuation for all parts of the city outside of its flood protections area. President Biden signed an emergency declaration for Louisiana ahead of Ida’s landfall. Meanwhile, most French Quarter hotels were packed with folks in town for destination weddings, the Saints-Arizona game, or to drop their kids off for college.
Overheard snippets of tourist conversation indicated that many of these visitors had non-refundable airline tickets for Monday, August 30, and they were here to party! Hurricanes were an inconvenience to them, but Wow, there is a drink called the hurricane especially created for hurricane parties!
Meanwhile, for those of us in coastal Louisiana, June through October is a season of vulnerability, especially mid-August to mid-September. Many of the 2500+ patients at New Orleans Musicians Clinic could not evacuate. They lacked transportation, financial resources, a safe destination outside of the city, or the physical stamina to leave the confines of their homes. Some were recently post-op; others were caring for elderly or disabled loved ones or pets. Most of them knew – many from experience – what happened to New Orleanians who relied on the state or federal government for help after Katrina.
I wanted to be out of harm’s way, yet in place to access resources and communication for any in our community who needed it. After endless conversations, several of my French Quarter and Tremé neighbors and I determined that an hours-long evacuation attempt through bumper-to-bumper traffic was not our best option. We came up with a plan. We cleaned off our balconies, battened down our courtyards, bolted our shutters and wheeled our luggage down the street to a French Quarter hotel.
Our group of FQ and Tremé neighbors had booked more than a dozen rooms. Since one of my ancestors at Isle Derniere had been decapitated by a piece of flying plate glass, I passed on one with a balcony. Instead, I chose a first-floor room with no view near a fire escape, the one that looked out on the air shaft between two buildings.
No sooner had I gotten my computer, chargers, backup power and my one set of clothes unpacked than I discovered why the hotel manager urged me to take a room on a higher floor closer to my friends. The hotel was hosting a destination wedding. With the hurricane lurking in the Gulf, the hotel manager made the happy couple begin their reception four hours early so it could end by 7 p.m.
At Isle Derniere in 1856, a cotillion was held the night before the hurricane. According to Lafcadio Hearn in his 1886 book Chita (U. Press of Mississippi), the guests “danced their fears away.” By the following day, almost all of them had drowned in the subsequent tidal wave. In my room without a view, I listened to wedding band versions of “My Girl,” “Get Lucky,” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” What if these were the last three songs I ever heard?
Mercifully, at 6:45 p.m. a second line band deposited the wedding party on Bourbon Street. Silence. My mood lifted. So did my shield of hurricane denial. My pack of friends and I gathered for dinner where the topic was “worst evacuation stories.” More New Orleans’ guests joined our table of cackling women. One of our party had just celebrated her 100th birthday, so we told a couple at the next table, Arizona fans in for the game, that it was her bachelorette party. Champagne flowed and we felt safe, together in a sturdy French Quarter hotel.
Sunday morning, August 29, dawned – the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Some of us walked along the Mississippi River watching the “stars” from the Weather Channel broadcast live. The sun was shining and wind was brisk, providing a delightful break from the oppressive, long hot summer heat of late August.
It was a day of reading, sipping Bloody Marys, enjoying a leisurely brunch, napping, and catching up on emails. By mid-afternoon, the hotel cut food service so all but a handful of their staff could go home to their families. Our server told us that some of the staff volunteered to stay - like our group, they felt safer in the hotel.
Around 7:30 p.m. Sunday night, the lights went out in my room. No elevators for my 100-year-old friend to get downstairs. Emergency lights in the hallways gave off an eerie glow. Sounds of wedding guests continuing their party in the halls competed with police radio conversations of first responders who were also staying on the floor. My cell service was kaput, my phone battery depleted. Some of the guests and I had installed a walkie-talkie app. It didn’t work.
I turned on my battery-operated headlight and read the back issues of The New Yorker I had brought. Experience – that would soon prove to be unreliable – told me that power in the French Quarter never stayed out for long. I kept reading.
The wind picked up. Pieces of the building swirled and slammed into the air shaft. I took the cushions out of the easy chair to stuff against the window. Remembering the saying “Mother Nature bats last,” my hurricane DNA kicked into full protection mode.
Monday, August 30, 2021 dawned. The hotel notified all guests to leave by noon. A bus would take everyone to the nearest airport with flights out. Homeland Security and FEMA needed our rooms. My neighbors with ancient pets carried them down sweltering stairwells to the garage entrance to do their business.
Outside, the French Quarter was sunny and dead calm, without power. Most shops were boarded up. As I walked around, there was significant damage, including destroyed roofs and building collapses. Sections of the Central Grocery on Decatur Street were caved in. There were a few signs of life on Bourbon Street as “discount” drinks were sold to wandering tourists looking for coffee. My block was deserted but my house was okay. Even being inside for a few minutes made me uneasy.
Back at the hotel, I joined the line in front of the reception desk to beg for one more night in my room. I didn’t have a plan, but knew I wanted to be in a secure location. The desk had been manned all night by one of New Orleans’ Katrina generation. I heard her tell someone that her people had lived in the Lower Nine in 2005 when the levees failed. She had been in middle school. Her family, her home, her school and her life had been destroyed. Now they all lived in Texas and she was back living with her aunt who was a teacher.
The guest in front of me had a lot to say about the incompetency of the hotel staff. Dressed in a jersey, matching baseball cap, hot pink leggings and rhinestone flip-flops, she compared the “half-assed” hotel staff (who had been on duty all night during the storm) to the “professional gentleman” on Bourbon Street establishment where she procured the lukewarm novelty beverage she was slurping. (The words “professional” and “Bourbon Street” conjured a far different picture in my mind.) It gave me pleasure to contemplate that this lady had paid full retail for the water, food coloring, sugar and grain alcohol beverage that would later give her a massive hangover.
The line moved slowly. It was hot and dark. The lady in front of me took every minute of the wait to complain to her captive audience, and drank enough liquor to fuel her privilege “as a tax paying American” to let us know what was wrong with New Orleans. Figuring that she was enjoying performing her monologue, I didn’t share the comment that to most of us who live in the French Quarter the worst thing about our city is tourists like her. There was a lot I could have said about how fortunate we were to be safe in a hotel when thousands were suffering from the heat and hunger. I held my tongue.
At last, it was her turn. “Rent me a car!” she demanded, with no prelude. “Do you have any idea how f’in long I have been waiting in this line?” The young woman at the desk maintained her professionalism. “I am so sorry, ma’am,” she calmly replied. “I won’t be able to rent you a car because we don’t have electricity or a working phone in the hotel at this time.”
The guest, never once letting go of her drink, turned to look at the rest of us in the lobby with that “can you believe this” look on her face. Then, after failing to recruit the indignation she sought, she delivered her coup de gras. “My husband has to play in a golf tournament in Tucson tomorrow with some of the NLF team owners!”
Really, I thought, if only Entergy had known that, problem solved! While that hotel guest threatened to complain to the media about her awful stay in New Orleans, the entire city remained in the dark. As I soon learned from one of the Homeland Security advance team who was checking in, all of Orleans Parish lost electricity, as well as a significant portion of Jefferson Parish, after Entergy’s 400-foot tower on the West Bank collapsed under its own weight. All eight transmission lines powering the city were knocked out of service by the hurricane, which had made landfall Sunday morning near Port Fourchon where an anemometer recorded a gust of 172 mph (277 km/h) when Ida came ashore.
But let’s be clear: New Orleans did not get a direct hit from Ida.
Hurricane Ida was a Category 4, Louisiana’s second-most damaging hurricane after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In terms of maximum sustained winds at landfall (150 mph (240 km/h)), Ida tied 2020's Hurricane Laura and the 1856 Isle Derniere hurricane as the strongest on record to hit the state.
One important difference is that the Isle Derniere hurricane killed its victims immediately. Deaths from the 21st-century storms are mostly preventable, man-made, and come in the aftermath: levee and power failures, intense heat, and carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.
The first hints at the region-wide fallout from a night of destruction began to come in by Monday afternoon. LaPlace, a New Orleans suburb made up of subdivisions where many evacuees from the Lower Ninth Ward settled after Katrina, was still badly flooded in areas. Desperate calls for boat rescues had gone out over social media all night. People venturing out to the hardest-hit parts of the state found smashed buildings in Houma, mangled infrastructure in Bridge City and severe damage across the coastal areas of Louisiana, including in Golden Meadow, Houma, Galliano and Lockport. Grand Isle sustained such severe damage that parts of it would still be uninhabitable a year later.
A week after Hurricane Ida, “catastrophic transmission damage” caused more than a million people in southeast Louisiana to remain without power in the sweltering heat. Without garbage collection, the city of New Orleans smelled like a dead rat. It wasn’t until the end of September 2021 that approximately 90% of the state's power was restored, with the exception of heavily damaged grids from areas closest to the Gulf of Mexico.
Federal, state and local officials were quick to pat themselves on the back because the system of levees, barriers and pumps protecting New Orleans passed “the hurricane test.” To me, it was a bit like asking, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”
Now that you have read this far, you have caught on that I am violating one of the key rules of journalism, “Don’t bury the lede.” Here I need to confess it is intentional. Louisianans die from ignoring what happens in the aftermath of hurricanes.
News began to come in that more than 800 elderly nursing home patients were evacuated to a warehouse used to garage a car collection before Hurricane Ida. Fifteen patients died due to horrific conditions and neglect. Where were elder services? How can these facilities continue to operate without oversight to protect the residents?
There were also a remarkable number of hospitalizations and deaths as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning from the use of portable gas generators with inadequate ventilation. On August 31, a 24-year-old man died in Uptown New Orleans from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.
The following day, 12 people, including seven children, were hospitalized due to CO poisoning. Three additional CO poisoning deaths were reported on September 2 in Jefferson Parish. Nearby in St. Tammany Parish, nine people were hospitalized from the same cause. Wouldn’t you think the city and state would hand out free carbon monoxide detectors to anyone with a generator? Or host free classes on safe operation? Produce a YouTube video?
There is a housing equity slogan, “You can’t replace what you displace.” If you follow the money, who benefits from the destruction of a hurricane, and who loses? Ida was the fourth-costliest Atlantic hurricane in the United States, causing damages of at least $75.25 billion (2021 USD). Of this total, at least $18 billion was in insured losses in Louisiana.
The result was that many insurers have pulled out to the state and other companies have failed. Today, on August 10, 2022, 166 years after the Isle Derniere hurricane and almost one year since Ida, there are still blue roofs in the French Quarter and many other parts of the city. Why? Because insurance companies have not paid for the repairs.
Many of our culture bearers with home mortgages are caught in the Louisiana conundrum. Lenders demand homeowners carry insurance. With fewer insurance companies in the state and more frequent storms, insurance rates are becoming unaffordable for those living on fixed incomes. Developers looking for houses to flip or turn into short-term rentals are very willing to make low-ball offers to strapped homeowners.
One year later, as I walk the same French Quarter route I did the day after Ida, look at the blue roofs still in the neighborhood, and I think back to the parting words from the desk clerk at the hotel. The disgruntled hotel guest threatened the long-suffering young women with retribution. “I am going to have my husband complain about you to your boss,” she blustered. “We know lots of very important people!”
The young woman flashed her a defiant smile and replied, “My name is D-E-S-T-I-N-Y.”
Bethany Bultman's proud pink hair represents her staunch advocacy for universal health care. As a cultural anthropologist, author, journalist, and documentary filmmaker, Bultman is known for her vibrant insights and historical commentary. She and her husband, Johann, are social justice and health equity activists who founded the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic in 1998 and subsequently the New Orleans Musicians’ Assistance Foundation in 2005.