Rethinking Food Justice After Hurricane Ida

Headlines, August 28, 2021, the day before Ida. Photo: David Beriss

David Beriss

Back toward the end of August, I posted some thoughts here about food justice. That post was meant to serve as an introduction to a series of blog postings from students in the Food Justice seminar I am teaching this semester. It is now several weeks into the semester and although it is later than I expected, the first of those blog postings will roll out shortly.

River Road Electric Army. Photo: David Beriss

Our plans were disrupted by Hurricane Ida, which blew through the region as a category 4 storm on August 29 (the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s arrival here) and went on to inflict major damage in the northeast U.S. as well. The hurricane’s destruction was widespread and, with COVID still raging, temporarily broke the already-fragile food supply system. The power grid was essentially destroyed and, at least initially, restoration was predicted to be delayed for as much as a month. Within New Orleans, that turned out to be more like 8-10 days, which was difficult enough in the heat of summer, but there are, as I write this, still a few areas outside the city without power. Many of us put to use lessons we had learned 16 years earlier and, when the power did not return within 2 days, we threw out everything in our refrigerators. After that, though, we all had to confront the heat and lack of communications. The benefits of modern technology—lights, air conditioning, cell phones, computers, the internet—are all wonderful, but they all need electricity to work. Some people (not me, alas) had generators, which, depending on size, might run anything from a fridge and some fans, to whole houses. The roar of generators provided a very distinct soundscape in the post-hurricane heat. Perhaps more interestingly, some people also had solar panels with battery back-up systems, enabling them to run appliances and charge up phones.

Closed grocery stores and empty fridges were the immediate sign of a collapsed food distribution system. The city opened cooling centers where people could recover from the heat, charge phones, and maybe get some food. There were mobile sites for food distribution as well. It is worth noting that for once the city’s antiquated water system did not break down and potable water was available throughout the hurricane emergency. The same was not true in surrounding areas, where the hurricane’s impact was much more destructive and water systems broke down along with everything else. The other end of the food system—waste collection—also collapsed. Garbage and debris collectors were not able to get back to work very quickly, adding an interesting aroma to the city.

Along with the immediate response from all levels of government, the restaurant industry stepped up quickly. Even while dealing with damage to their restaurants and homes, restaurant workers organized and joined in efforts to cook and distribute meals all over the area. It is especially impressive that restaurants, many of which were really just beginning to recover from the pandemic, were able to quickly turn to supplying food to people dealing with hurricane damage. At the same time, for many in the industry, this disaster was the final straw. The long term consequences of Ida, on top of COVID, are difficult to predict.

People in hurricane zones joke that you never want to see Jim Cantore, from The Weather Channel, head for your town prior to a storm, since he usually shows up where the worst conditions will prevail. Similarly, you never want to see Chef José Andres and the World Central Kitchen arrive in your town, even if they do great work. WCK deployed to the region quickly and began—in collaboration with local food workers—to provide food for people in some of the hardest hit parts of the region. Local activists, like Second Harvest, organized food distribution around the area as well, raised money, cooked, and are still engaged in food distribution and rebuilding. Local efforts to raise money and organize volunteers for food distribution and rebuilding are ongoing and, hopefully, effective.

The grocery situation, post Ida. Photo: David Beriss

After a few weeks of strangely bare grocery store shelves, things are returning to normal as far as food distribution is concerned. But rebuilding will take a long time. For the food system, this is especially evident in the seafood industry. Fishers and oyster farmers were hard hit by Ida. There were harrowing stories of people riding out the storm on their boats. Ida dealt a blow to an industry that was already beleaguered, raising questions about the sustainability of regional fisheries. Agriculture has also taken a big hit. The citrus crops in Plaquemines parish were heavily damaged, both by salt water intrusions and by wind. There are entire communities along the coast and west of New Orleans that are going to be struggling to rebuild for a long time.

All of which raises some questions. The post 2005 flood control system, rebuilt and strengthened at great cost in the last 16 years, worked, protecting the city from flooding. The electrical grid, on the other hand, failed spectacularly. There were, of course, far fewer deaths than after Katrina’s floods, but a significant number of Ida casualties were a result of the heat. A more decentralized power system, with houses equipped with solar panels and batteries, might be better able to provide safe places after a hurricane for people who need to cool off, recharge their devices, and communicate with their loved ones.  Two local activist groups—Feed the Second Line and Glass Half Full NOLA—have partnered to raise funds to pay for installing solar panels and batteries in neighborhood restaurants. These “Stay Lit” restaurants would be able to keep running, providing islands of relief for people in their neighborhoods who might otherwise not survive.

I think this is a great idea. Having a less centralized electrical system around the city and region would make us less dependent on the power company. Restaurants and grocery stores seem like ideal candidates for these systems and it would make sense for governments to provide grants and tax breaks to get them installed. There have been a number of other creative proposals for reconfiguring our approach to disaster preparedness, emphasizing local control and resources that might enable people to get back to their homes more rapidly. Some of my students have suggested that a more robust community garden or urban farming network might also be an answer to making sure food remains available in the event of a hurricane. What other ways are there to build a robust, locally-based, food distribution network that can be up and running after a disaster? Between COVID and Hurricane Ida, the discussions in our Food Justice class are definitely being driven by some unexpected challenges.

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