Plugged In

Mutual aid groups and networks step up in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, residents in New Orleans banded together to form mutual aid groups that provided food, water, ice, and other essential supplies to their communities after local, state, and federal governments failed to adequately provide for people’s basic needs.

On August 29, Hurricane Ida struck the Louisiana coast as a category 4 hurricane with 150 mile-per-hour winds, causing widespread structural damage, flooding, and leaving more than 1 million people without power. It was the fifth-strongest hurricane to ever hit the mainland U.S., and the eye of the storm passed about 45 miles northwest of New Orleans.

Ida’s approach felt particularly ominous and foreboding. It made landfall 16 years to the day of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana was (and still is) grappling with the fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic as the delta variant spreads faster than any of the previous waves, and days before the storm, when City officials finally reacted, they said it was already too late to issue a mandatory evacuation and implement measures such as using all highway lanes for travel away from the area, which would have made it easier for people to leave. Instead, residents were told to hunker down and shelter in place as the storm drew near.

People chose to stay and ride out the storm for a variety of reasons. Many didn’t have the resources or capabilities to evacuate, some felt safe in their homes, others felt compelled to stick around and look after their friends and neighbors. Once Ida hit, their reasons were irrelevant. There was nothing to do but wait for the storm to pass and deal with the aftermath.

While New Orleans fared better than many of the surrounding parishes and didn’t experience catastrophic flooding or wind damage, the entire city was without electricity after the storm knocked aging transmission lines into the Mississippi River. Residents were told it could be up to three weeks before power was restored, leaving anyone who didn’t have a generator without the ability to charge their electronic devices, keep what food they had from spoiling, or use air conditioning in the sweltering late summer heat.

Public officials were quick to point out that the damage wasn’t as severe as it was after Katrina. The levees did indeed hold and pumping stations never lost power, relying on backup generators that allowed them to prevent serious flooding in the city. In the days after the storm, while a few grocery stores were able to open with generator power, and the City set up cooling stations and distribution sites for supplies like food and water, they weren’t accessible to people who couldn’t drive to them, leaving many residents without the ability to access basic necessities. Rather than wait for City and federal agencies like FEMA to get to them, some locals took matters into their own hands.

“The first morning started by cooking breakfast and tarping roofs,” said Stormy Daniels, former adult film star and director, New York Times bestselling author, paranormal investigator and medium, and self-described “all-around pain in the ass.” Daniels said she and a few of her friends, including Irin Sarx and her husband Jaysen Craves, immediately got to work helping their neighbors. Craves is a bartender at Bar Redux in the Bywater. “The owner donated all of the food. So the first seven days, we just cooked out on the neutral ground and served anybody who was hungry,” Daniels said.

What started as essentially a daily barbecue and helping a few friends put up tarps turned into a ragtag mutual aid group, thanks to Daniels’ high profile. “Well, we can’t say who I am without addressing the big, orange elephant in the room,” Daniels said in reference to former president Donald Trump, with whom she famously had an affair. “My part in this is that I have 1.2 million followers on Twitter and over 400,000 on Instagram, and since I’m verified, my stuff gets pushed up. So I used my resources to reach out to see if anybody needed help that wasn’t getting helped.”

Daniels said she posted online asking if anyone needed assistance or knew of anyone in the city who did. “I wanted to really focus on people who could have been forgotten or overlooked or left behind.” She said the messages she received were mostly about people who “fell through the cracks.” “Many were elderly but didn’t have caretakers, and because the evacuation wasn’t mandatory, a lot of people weren’t on any kind of a list,” she said. The requests varied wildly. An exchange student living in Spain reached out saying she’d lost contact with her mother and was worried that she needed food and water. Once, while delivering food to an elevated house in Gentilly, Daniels found a disabled elderly woman whose wheelchair had stopped working. “She hadn’t been able to use the restroom in two days,” Daniels said. “I showed up to deliver food and then I’m helping with other things.”

Daniels believes the City needs better ways to monitor vulnerable residents, and should create a list or a database that people can add themselves and their loved ones to, so they can be checked on after a large storm. She said it took far too long for City officials to respond to people who needed help. “Why did it take so long to get ice? Where was Cantrell?” Daniels asked. “We were the ones checking the tents under the bridges and dropping off water. We were literally freezing cake pans and chiseling out ice.”

Daniels and her “Apocalypse Crew,” as the group of 20 or so friends and neighbors came to call themselves, personally responded to every request. “There was a sober living house that needed food so I delivered food there and then there was a young mother who needed diapers. The stuff that we did was very personal. We cut out the middleman until the big organizations like FEMA got into town.”

For some areas, such as the city’s Seventh Ward, it took more than a week after the storm for federal agencies to arrive to distribute desperately needed supplies.

“They failed to respond,” said SusiQ Beck, a therapeutic and whole foods chef and one of the founders of Dirty South Disaster Relief, another group of friends and neighbors who banded together to care for their community. “We were 10 days without power and they showed up on day eight.” Beck said that even when supplies did arrive, they weren’t accessible to people without vehicles. “My community never had access to National Guard ice. Everywhere the ice was, we had to drive to and load our vehicles up.”

Adding to their frustration, when they could access ice, they were limited to just two 5-pound bags per person. “They said we couldn’t have more than two because otherwise we would get held up at gunpoint for ice. That’s what the National Guard told somebody getting ice for their neighborhood. They wouldn’t give it to them because they were afraid the person was going to get held up for ice. They would ration ice and at the end of the day it would be sitting there melting.”

For Beck, the support efforts started before Ida even hit. “I put a call out to any friends who would be staying so we could help each other. I set up my generator the day before the storm having no idea what I was doing,” they said. The day after the storm, Beck opened their home as a charging station for neighbors to use for their electronic devices. Then, they heard that the Mid-City restaurant Mopho was giving away food from their walk-in freezer. “I thought, if I have that I can make food for people who come to the charging station.”

Beck’s home became a hub for people to bring food, ice, gasoline, and other supplies to distribute to people in need. Like Daniels, Beck also took to social media, putting out calls for assistance. “Resources were coming to our little text network because we’re white and we have privilege and we have contacts and people who had evacuated who had resources and who also had networks. As all of that flowed to us, we redistributed into our neighborhood.” Beck said they had over $10,000 flow through their Venmo in 10 days. “We ordered over 3,000 pounds of ice for our community, we bought thousands and thousands of dollars worth of gas.”

The group took its name from Dirty South Corner Store, Beck’s plant-based, Southern-style culinary business. As word spread, Beck says hundreds of people contributed time, effort, and resources to help. “We had people with cars running food, ice, and supplies all around the city.” As they grew in size and as requests for aid poured in, the group quickly realized they needed a way to organize and coordinate their efforts. So they set up a channel on the push-to-talk app Zello and brought in a friend who worked as a delivery driver coordinator for a local restaurant. “That really transformed our game completely,” Beck said. “Our team members and the dispatcher got on a channel and we would just be chirping on the channel all day and all night about what our plan was.”

Beck believes that had mutual aid groups like Dirty South Disaster Relief not managed to scrape together supplies for people, the situation could have been much worse. “Our government wasn’t even taking care of people’s very basic needs,” said Beck. “The community had to do that and if we hadn’t stepped in, people would have really gotten wild. Desperation was right there all the time and we were fending it back.” Beck’s district is represented by Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer. They said they didn’t receive any support from their public officials and were left to fend for themselves. “I never heard anything from our City Council. The only reason our community had access to anything is because we had cars and we were committed to taking care of everyone. We had the energy, we had the team, we had the ability to set up the distribution channel. We just threw all of our value into serving our community.”

But Beck doesn’t fault City leaders for failing to respond. To them and volunteers with Dirty South, the hurricane was only a symptom of a larger disaster: capitalism. “I don’t blame public officials and the military for not being here for the people. We can expect them to continue to loot our resources and then fail us in our time of need.”

They said the storm made them realize that there was an opportunity to build the networks, structures, skills, and communities that they believe will be needed as capitalism and the environment continue to decline. “There’s a training that we can give to community members about how we can set up structures that can flip into disaster resources when the time comes.” One of their ideas is to create a map of all of the city’s restaurants that have walk-in freezers powered by generators so the food can be used to feed people in need during a disaster situation. Beck plans to create pamphlets and infographics that people can use. “I hope to put out info to help people take what we’ve done and duplicate it.”

Dirty South Disaster Relief dispatch operator Cyndi Cramer (photo courtesy of SusiQ Beck)

Across the river in Algiers, residents faced similar issues accessing vital supplies like food, water, and ice. Just like the Apocalypse Crew and Dirty South Disaster Relief, community members came together to get people the aid they needed.

Jordan Bridges was actively running a campaign for state representative of District 102, which encompasses Algiers, before the storm hit. In the aftermath, he converted tools he’d built for his campaign, setting up a hotline that people could use to reach out for help. “We had a tool where people could text us directly and it would allow us to gather information, whether they were interested in donating or volunteering or whatever, and creating these lists that allowed us to manage our campaign. So when Ida hit, we spun together the Algiers Proud hotline and put the number out just saying, if you have any needs let us know.”

Bridges and his campaign posted the number online and he said it went viral. “We were flooded with thousands of messages from people in need.” Algiers Proud, which Bridges calls a decentralized community care organization, began accepting donations and supplies for people impacted by the storm. “We were able to get more than $50,000 directly into people’s hands through the hotline,” Bridges said. “We distributed over 15,000 meals, thousands of cases of water, thousands of tarps to people right here in Algiers.”

Like Beck and Dirty South Disaster Relief, Algiers Proud and its dozens of volunteers had to quickly find a way to organize incoming requests and coordinate to get people what they needed. The texts coming through the hotline would come directly to Bridges’ and volunteers’ phones. They collected the requests, building a database and logging the information. “We’d build lists and connect the requests to mutual aid groups that were disbursing the resources that they needed,” Bridges said. “Long before our politicians and government agencies made it out here, community members were doing the good work of looking out for each other. It was a very decentralized effort, we just introduced a tool and helped the people that we could.”

For Bridges, the lack of support from public officials felt like déjà vu. “Having gone through Katrina, I saw a lot of the same failed responses from leadership.” He said that vulnerable people, especially the elderly, weren’t properly cared for and felt the effects of those failed responses even more. He points to Boyd Manor, a low-income senior living facility in Algiers that went 11 days without power following the storm. The facility didn’t have a backup generator to provide power for the elderly residents living there, which Bridges said was “absolutely egregious.” “We were at Boyd Manor every day after the power went out, and the first three to four days, they were in standing water. I didn’t see any government officials there. We saw in the news around the state about our senior homes, abandoning our elders, but it happened right here in this district.”

Bridges’ frustrations echo those of Daniels, Beck, and almost every other local mutual aid group and their volunteers. They believe the city failed to properly respond to the storm and care for residents, especially vulnerable residents without the means to access any of the supplies that were being distributed. But they also believe there are lessons to be learned and tools that can be developed to help communities when future storms and disasters impact the area. Bridges says the Algiers Proud hotline they set up on the fly could be a model for city officials. “We have to stay abreast of the [latest] tools. Our leaders need access to things like this so they can do a better job,” he said.

Without the assistance of public funding, infrastructure, planning, or formal training, residents like Stormy Daniels, SusiQ Beck, Jordan Bridges, and the volunteers who gave their time, energy, and resources, were able to develop systems and networks, gather and organize supplies, and successfully distribute them. Using electricity produced by generators and car batteries, and without air conditioning, they used DMs, text messages, and a walkie-talkie app to bridge the gap between available resources and the people who needed them the most.

And they aren’t done working. Beck and Dirty South have already turned their attention to helping people in other areas that were devastated by the storm, heading down to places like the small town of Golden Meadow in Lafourche Parish to set up propane burners and a tent to cook food for anybody that needed it. Daniels’ Apocalypse Crew and their friends, like Scott Wood, owner of Courtyard Brewery, are making supply runs to the devastated communities of Houma, Lafourche, and Larose, bringing food, water, shampoo, cleaning supplies, diapers, clothes, and anything else that people desperately need. “They’re going out to these areas that still don’t have aid and are in far worse conditions than we were,” Daniels said. Algiers Proud plans to continue connecting Algiers residents with resources as well. “The future is exactly like the present—we don’t plan to stop doing what we’re doing,” Bridges said.

Another common theme they share is a love for their community. Daniels, Beck, Bridges, and the countless others who volunteered didn’t think twice about helping anybody who needed it, without judgment or condition. Daniels mentioned churches in her neighborhood being closed while her group of “punks, goths, and witches” were taking care of people’s needs, expressing what she called “the most Christian of values,” namely: charity and love for one’s neighbor. “I’ve lived in many places across the country and my friends will ask me, ‘Why the fuck are you still in New Orleans?’” Daniels said. “And it’s because of the way people react and help each other. I know that the people we helped really needed it and some of them might not have made it, honestly.”

Top photo, left to right: Longtime community activist Malik Rahim receives supplies from Jordan Bridges, David Jones II, and John Preston of Algiers Proud (photo courtesy of David Jones II)