Hurricane Ida’s capacity for disaster is exceeded only by the compassion of the Cajun heart.
In New Orleans, they keep time a little differently.
There is Before Katrina, B.K., and After Katrina, A.K.
Before Katrina hit, the citizens of New Orleans were living in a dreamer’s paradise of government competence and levee impermeability. Katrina cruelly stripped the scales from many an eye in 2005.
From August 24, 2005 onward A.K., from the Bayou to the Big Easy, people- organizations, churches, neighbors and communities- vowed to be better prepared the next time a catastrophic storm surge threatened the area.
They had learned a painful lesson: The government can’t always be counted upon to save everyone. The government is comprised of human beings, who are fallible. They are also comprised of committees- many many committees- which, as any group project participant in the history of the world can attest, are fallible compounded. Anyone counting on the government to save them, should remember it took 5 days to get water to the SuperDome.
Five whole days.
FEMA was able to immediately send a couple of 18-wheeler trucks to the Dome though, meant to act as a makeshift morgue for all the dead bodies authorities expected to find. Luckily for the 15,000 thousands of living people then sheltering inside, that plan was angrily shouted down by more sensitive, and sensible, local planners charged with organizing, as best they could, chaotic life inside the Dome.
Essentially, keeping the lights on- by a Herculean effort- keeping the place from devolving into a violent riot- another Herculean effort- and writing long lists of necessary supplies that never came. 15,000 people sheltering inside the SuperDome became 30,000.
Many things have changed in the years since Katrina hit.
The media tends to ballyhoo weather systems to an higher degree these days. “Sky is falling” headlines make for excellent clickbait. More traffic drives up ad revenue, and it’s as simple as that. In 2005, clickbait wasn’t yet the entire model of the news entertainment complex.
In fact, newspapers historically made the wrong call in 2005. “New Orleans Spared!” was a headline some U.S. news editors went for, under the deadline to print. True enough, at that time, storm forecasters were predicting a shift.
But of course, New Orleans was not spared.
What happened next revealed a great deal about local, state and federal government ill-preparedness.
All told, 1833 people died during Hurricane Katrina, nearly sixteen years ago to the day from the day Ida made landfall this week.
This time, authorities responded far better. As of today, people remain stranded by the storm, there is flooding in many areas. One person has been confirmed dead so far. The new federal levees sort of worked and sort of didn’t. The storm wasn’t as bad as news stations predicted but it still caused widespread destruction and displaced many residents.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards released a statement this morning. While the casualty count currently stands at one, he warned residents to brace for more in the days to come.
Though Ida turned out to be less intense and dangerous than weather reporting led Louisiana to believe, the storm still did considerable damage. There are some outlying coastal areas which officials haven’t been able to contact, leaving as many as 40 people unaccounted for, and there is still extensive flooding in many areas.
Search and rescue operations are ongoing. Now that the official efforts are well and truly underway, trapped and frightened residents are being evacuated apace.
But rescue efforts in New Orleans didn’t start once the storm ended, and they certainly didn’t wait until it was considered safe to do so. Authorities may be bound by labor laws, employment contract and insurance considerations.
The Cajun Navy is under so such obligations.
When conditions are the worst, at the height of the storm, is the most deadly and dangerous time; it is also the time when many people need help the most.
Part Eagle Scouts, part Coast Guard, pure Cajun spirit of neighbor helping neighbor, the Cajun Navy rose to the occasion of Ida magnificently. Aided by technology, following reports from the community and pleas for aid and rescue, a group of volunteers has been working around the clock to make sure everyone gets out safely.
Not everything in New Orleans and its environs after Katrina deteriorated into a dystopian nightmare. From Katrina also came harrowing tales of heroism and escape, of the mercy, compassion and bravery of ordinary citizens who rose to the occasion.
They did as all would want to, but few actually do. During a time of crisis, as we have learned all too well over the past 18 months, many people have a natural tendency to put themselves, and their own families, first. Nations in the EU put their own citizens first.
They can hardly blamed. Plenty of people need saving all around the world, all the time. There are dangerous criminals, natural disasters, acts of war, man made catastrophes, and evils to heinous to contemplate everywhere, unfortunately. Not everyone is a fireman or a police officer or a solider or a Peace Corp worker or a Doctors Without Borders.
Not everyone is in Haiti right now helping the wounded, housing the homeless, treating children injured during the earthquake which recently hit that nation.
But some people are.
The people who usually do these things do so at a certain personal risk to themselves. They travel into dangerous areas, throw themselves into crisis situations, endure hardship and hazards most of us don’t dare.
For instance, a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan was attacked by terrorists in 2017. Gunmen disguised as doctors entered the building and killed 49 people, wounding 93 others, including many doctors. In 2020, terrorists chose a nearby hospital maternity ward.
Certain ancient philosophers, the original click-bait doomsayers, were fond of pointing out that there is no such thing as human altruism, not really. There’s always a payoff in there somewhere for do-gooders, they argue. Altruism doesn’t exist.
Maybe not for them.
While it may be true that helping others gives most people good feelings in the end, while it's going on, the going can often be pretty rough.
Members of the Cajun Navy, like other volunteer rescue organizations, endured cold, wet, dangerous conditions for hours on end for nothing more than a thank you. They put their own safety on the line to help complete strangers, people they’d never seen before and never will again.
People of that quality help others, even when it doesn’t give them good feelings. Without the volunteer brigade of the Cajun Navy, the death toll might have been far worse from Ida.
Come what may in future years for the citizens of New Orleans, the Cajun Navy will be there.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)