Why 'resilience' became a 4-letter word in Louisiana after Hurricane Ida

Todd A. Price Andrew J. Yawn
The American South

Resilience has come to define Louisiana.

In 2014, almost ten years after 80% of New Orleans was flooded by Hurricane Katrina, the rebuilt city used funds from The Rockefeller Foundation to hire its first “chief resilience officer.” A 2019 effort to incubate ideas to combat coastal erosion was dubbed the Resilience Lab. Last year, to celebrate the anniversary of Louisiana's statehood, Governor John Bel Edwards tweeted, “the resilient spirit of Louisiana continues to live on inside each one of us.”

After Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc and destroyed homes and businesses throughout the state’s southeastern river parishes, the word “resilience” once again sprouted from headlines, public statements, insurance commercials, and social media well wishes.

But in the aftermath of Ida, tied for the strongest hurricane to ever hit the state, Louisianians are tired of enduring damage. And many are tired of being called resilient.

“I’ve hated that word for 16 years,” said Victor Pizarro, a New Orleans resident who lost his belongings and his family home in Hurricane Katrina. “It carries an expectation that you have to take some kind of abuse.”

Victor Pizzaro, a native New Orleanian, has rejected the term "resilience" since Hurricane Katrina. The photo was taken in 2019 at restaurant Gabrielle, where he was a waiter at the time. (Courtesy Southern Foodways Alliance)

Those living in historically hurricane-prone parts of Louisiana do not oppose the word entirely. Within communities, resilience can be a promise made between neighbors to do what they can to push through a crisis.

When resilience means a promise, other times it means emptiness

Amanda Toups runs the New Orleans restaurant Toups’ Meatery with her husband, chef Isaac Toups. After Ida the pair, like many local chefs, worked tirelessly to feed anyone who showed up without charging a penny.

“We're New Orleanians,” Toups said. “We know no one is going to save our ass."

Chef Isaac Toups and Amanda Toups have fed fellow New Orleanians since the pandemic began from their restaurant Toups' Meatery.

Related:How mutual aid groups mobilized aid during a pandemic and destructive hurricane season

But for some, the word has begun to ring hollow like a hurricane-specific cousin to “thoughts and prayers.” For others, it carries an assumption that south Louisiana will bounce back because it always has or because it’s always needed to.

“The problem with resilience is you assume I had another option,” Pizarro said.

Lex Lindell has worked since the pandemic to build resilience, if you want to call it that. She turned her porch in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood into a free pantry when the city was experiencing high unemployment during the pandemic. After Ida, she turned those efforts into supply runs to the state’s hard-hit coastal parishes, which were without power for weeks after the storm. 

Lindell was one of several mutual aid organizers who took to social media to decry being labeled resilient by outsiders after Ida. She said many residents she’s spoken with share a similar view.

A shrimp boat remains flipped over in Bayou Lafourche near Cut Off on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2021, after Hurricane Ida caused widespread damage in the area.

“This is a conversation everyone's having right now, especially for people who are from here or are Katrina survivors,” Lindell said. “Resilience isn’t born out of character or innate goodness. It’s born out of struggle.”

At the core of the argument against the term “resilience” is the idea that it places the burden of recovery on community members instead of amplifying calls for government aid or outside assistance. 

It’s a stance Ashley Shelton, executive director of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice in New Orleans, has vocally held for years. Her opposition to the word began festering in the late 2000s when, as vice president of programs at the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, she aided in recovery plans after hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav.

“We've been through enough storms to know that it becomes the buzzword for why no one has to be accountable to us,” she said. “Yes I'm going to help my neighbors recover, but it shouldn't be in place of the government.”

A history of neighbors helping neighbors

Neighbors helping each other through tragedy is woven into the fabric of Louisiana. In the 19th century, African Americans formed benevolent societies to cover the members’ medical and funeral expenses. Caroline Guidry, a native of Lafourche Parish, said resilience is “almost a part of Cajunhood” in south Louisiana, where residents trace their lineage to French-speaking refugees expelled from Canada in the mid-18th century. 

But the same money and resources can only be passed around a community so long before more is needed. Andy Horowitz, author of “Katrina: A History, 1915–2015” and a Tulane University historian, said, “Nobody can prop up an electric grid by themselves. Nobody can hold back a storm surge by themselves. These are things that we desperately need infrastructure and government for.”

In south Louisiana, the need for government assistance is tempered by “historic mistrust” and questions of how and when aid will arrive, said Guidry, who is now a community organizer with Down the Bayou Mutual Aid Fund. 

“They are the end of the line in Louisiana. They are the tip of the boot. And it is easy to feel forgotten,” Guidry said. 

Guidry sees people asking for help. Many are staying in tents along the bayou or living in still-damaged homes waiting for FEMA trailers to arrive. And yet, she also hears residents talking about how Lake Charles is still waiting for federal block grant assistance more than a year after Hurricane Laura.

Wesley Smith looks over the debris from his destroyed home on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021 in Cocodrie, La. where damage from the destructive path of Hurricane Ida left his house demolished.

Shelters have been set up by the state and parish governments, but not everyone has the means to reach them. A month after Ida, FEMA had approved $660 million in assistance for an estimated 500,000 individuals and households. FEMA also approved hotel reimbursements for those displaced by the storm, but many hotels had no vacancy due to the influx of linemen and other workers from out of state. 

“We’ve reached the point where resilience just won’t cut it,” Guidry said. 

Housing:Temporary shelter has been hard to come by for many Louisianians after Hurricane Ida

Get help:Louisiana opens program for Hurricane Ida temporary housing: Here's how to register

The government's role in disaster relief

Recovery assistance after a natural disaster is a tangled web of responsibilities from local agencies up to FEMA and insurance companies. The 1988 Stafford Act, which amended the 1974 Disaster Relief Act, codified how disasters are declared. But Malka Older, a sociologist who studies disaster response and a former international aid worker, said the extent of the U.S. government’s obligations after a disaster are not clearly defined. 

“We don't know exactly where the line is for what the government's responsibility is and where personal responsibility is,” Older said.

Mike Steele, communications director for the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in Louisiana, said the state deals with a public perception problem in times of a disaster. 

It’s difficult to tout the aid delivered swiftly “when people are suffering,” he said. And FEMA trailers are one piece of federal aid that never arrives swiftly. 

“Public perception is that when the winds die down, a parade of FEMA trailers come rolling in,” Steele said. “The program was never sold as that.”

Debates in academic, nonprofit spheres

Debates about the use of “resilience” to describe damage-stricken communities have lingered in academic and non-profit spaces for at least the past decade, Older said. And Louisiana is not the first place to have citizens begin examining the idea.

Older worked in Japan after the 2011 tsunami and saw a similar resistance to the word “ganbatte” which roughly translates to “do your best.”

“There is a point at which there is the backlash with people saying, ‘Hey, people keep telling us to try hard, but we're already completely in this,’” Older said.

But in post-Ida Louisiana, opposition to the “resilience” label hasn’t stopped community members from taking recovery into their own hands.

The Toups fed residents for free, picking up the expenses themselves, until their restaurant received support from hunger relief organization World Central Kitchen, which often provides food or funding to restaurants after disasters.

The Krewe of Red Beans, a Mardi Gras krewe turned relief group, spent the pandemic feeding hospital workers and paying out-of-work musicians to deliver meals. Now Krewe of Red Beans founder Devin De Wulf is working to raise money to install solar panels and Tesla batteries on neighborhood restaurants, cementing their unofficial role as the first line of disaster relief. 

During the pandemic and the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Devin De Wulf has turned his Carnival group, the Krewe of Red Beans, into a mutual aid organization.

The tagline for De Wulf’s effort is “resilient restaurants for the future of New Orleans.” 

The current lashing out against “resilience” is not just a call for help from an exhausted region. Many also see a future filled with disasters they will be expected to withstand. The state has already seen intense weather events consistent with climate change: stronger hurricanes and slower moving thunderstorms that flood streets outside of hurricane season. 

And there are fewer barriers protecting south Louisiana after decades of oil and gas exploration contributed to the dissolution of the marshy coast. Guidry has seen beaches along the Louisiana coast disappear in her lifetime. Oystermen now work in waters that was once land where they hunted.

Over the next 30 years, annual economic damage from flooding in Louisiana is projected to increase by 245%, from $745 million to $2.5 billion, according to an analysis by flood policy research group First Street Foundation.

Battle against climate change:Climate change-fueled flooding could hit Louisiana the hardest. Can it be stopped?

At its root, “resilience” implies the ability to bounce back from hardship. And Guidry hopes south Louisiana will bounce back. What she doesn’t know yet is who will return to rebuild and who will leave for good. And as each hurricane season brings the potential for another life-altering disaster, she doesn’t know how much more hardship her community can take. 

“It’s an open-ended question of what we do from here,” Guidry said. “I hope we’ll build back better. But what does that entail? Resiliency can only take you so far.”

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at taprice@gannett.com. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.