It’s been a busy two days! After spending the night in Jackson, Mississippi, we woke up early and headed straight for New Orleans. As we drove into the city, it occurred to me that New Orleans and Miami have taken very different journeys into the ocean.
Back in 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, leaving New Orleans and many other places underwater. Almost 2,000 people died because of Katrina and many more were displaced or otherwise had their lives disrupted. There was chaos for weeks, months, maybe even years if you count all the displaced people, the low-income neighborhoods, the city never fully repaired. The water went down in most places, but some say that the city was never really the same after Katrina. It would recover for a while, but never fully, and never for everyone.
One of the most shocking things to some people was how Bastion (which was called Blackwater back then) sent in a bunch of mercenaries with black body armor, assault rifles, black SUVs, and so on to patrol the city. That type of behavior had been going on in other countries for years, but here they were in an American city, in broad daylight, just running around harassing and even shooting American citizens with no one to answer to but themselves. That’s happened a lot more since then, but it was new back then. And like most of the bad things caused by global warming, it had the worst effect on the people who were already disempowered. How much money you made, and the color of your skin, could determine whether you had your property protected by mercenaries or the mercenaries were pointing their weapons at you.
Since global warming and sea level rise takes place over the course of decades and centuries, it’s hard to say when it really started becoming noticeable. But for a lot of people who weren’t scientists or activists, Katrina was the first sign. So New Orleans started its journey into the ocean with a big splash. The eyes of the whole world were on New Orleans as the streets were filled with water, mercenaries, and soldiers. It made a big splash and got everyone talking about flooding, storms, sea level rise, crazy government responses to so-called natural disasters. But then for the past 25 years, the rest of it has been more of a slow creeping. There have been some terrible storms since then, especially in 2019 and 2022. But for the most part, it started very dramatically, then slowly sank into the ocean.
Miami has been the opposite. For as long as I can remember, we’ve known that Miami was sinking into the ocean. But it was happening so gradually that most people didn’t seem to take it seriously. “Oh, we’ll think of something,” the politicians said. “We’ll improve the sewers. We’ll add some more pumps. We’ll tweak the building codes. But we can’t retreat from the shore. That’s unthinkable.”
So slowly but surely, the ocean crept into Miami. The beaches that people from around the world came to visit started washing into the sea. Flooding after storms got worse and worse. You just came to accept that certain parts of the city would be wet whenever it had rained recently. You could still drive through it, so it was no big deal, right?
And then finally, it came. The big one. Hurricane Florence. The destruction, the flooding, the storm surge so big and bad that the city would never fully be dry again.
It’s different in every place. Every place has a different story, but the destination is always similar. With New Orleans, it started with a bang. In Miami, it ended with a bang. Either way, every place in the world that is on the ocean is slipping beneath the waves.
As we came into New Orleans, I felt a wave of empathy wash over me. The flooding is actually worse on the coastline around the city than it is in the heart of the city. Even so, seeing flooded areas in and around such a lively and historic city filled me with a great sadness. I felt a tightness in my chest that I haven’t felt since my last day in Miami. I’ve watched my own city go underwater, so I could imagine what it felt like for these people, seeing that everything they had ever known was slipping beneath the waves, knowing that it was too late to stop it, stubbornly staying anyway because this was their city, the city that they grew up in, the city that they loved, and the only option for many people who had no way out.
When we arrived, we were welcomed by a large group of local community organizers. Some were local climate activists and others were social workers and social activists who dealt with different aspects of the complex challenges facing the people of “The Big Easy”. They all dealt with most of the same problems, so they didn’t seem to care too much if you saw yourself as a climate activist dealing with social issues or a social activist dealing with climate change. As long as you were there to help, you were welcome.
And they gave us quite a welcome! Everyone clapped and cheered and happily accepted the meager amounts of non-perishable food, electronics, medical supplies, and other supplies we had to offer. Most of that first day was spent enjoying their hospitality — the right blend of Cajun cooking, music, drinking, and dancing. Jess and I went to visit Bourbon Street, which is fortunately on high ground and has weathered many storms because of it. Ermete went to meet up with a technology collective that shared low-tech and high tech resources, including some community solar installations. Harold went to visit family and Ten went to visit a permaculture collective that was working on planting marsh grasses, trees, and other plants along the coasts to help slow down the encroaching water and wind.
The real work happened all day today. We helped distribute the food and other supplies, then we split up and worked on various projects throughout the city. Jess, Ermete, and I went to the Lower Ninth Ward, which was one of the areas hardest hit by Katrina back in 2005. For years, the area really struggled to recover, both because of the amount of damage and because they didn’t really have the money to rebuild. Eventually, though, community members and allies worked together to rebuild it as a sustainable community. They have some houses with green designs, restored wetlands, and some incredible groups working on meeting people’s needs and responding to the flooding and other problems. Really, what they did was turn the crisis into an opportunity to create their own new community support systems and forms of self-governance. There are still problems, of course, but it was interesting to see people working together in a variety of collectives to meet all of their needs. It gives me new ideas for what we can work on in Miami.
Ah, Miami. We will get there eventually. In the meantime, I need to sleep. It was great working side by side with these hard-working people, but it was also exhausting. We partied hard yesterday and worked hard today. Maybe that’s what life is like around here. Hopefully we can bring some of that spirit with us as we get back on the road. In the meantime, sleep!