A bit of background. Landing in Chicago on August 24, 2021 at the start of my Fulbright visit, I was very enthusiastic, curious and impatient. After a prolonged period of lockdowns, isolation and a (research) life in limbo due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I was back in the USA, setting out on a new journey of discoveries, exchanges and collaborations. My research would be about the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance (GNOHA) and its role in the redevelopment of a more egalitarian New Orleans since the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster. Only a few days after my arrival, on what so happened to be the sixteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (August 29, 2021), Hurricane Ida struck Metro New Orleans and the surrounding bayou parishes. As a category 4 hurricane, Ida was one of the strongest hurricanes in the history of the USA and it severely impacted southeast Louisiana. As a result of high winds and flooding, roofs and infrastructure were critically damaged; thousands of people were forced to find temporary housing (in tents, hotels, trailers and campers) and faced prolonged power outages; dozens of people died and hundreds were hospitalized because of poisoning from carbon monoxide due to generator uses or exposure to excessive heat from living in sweltering apartments. What follows is a synopsis of my observations and reflections of GNOHA’s immediate and longer-term efforts to alleviate the hardship of people left without shelter due to the storm.
GNOHA’s post-Ida recovery efforts. I joined GNOHA as a visiting researcher about three weeks after the storm. The impact of Ida on homeowners and renters in New Orleans and across southeast Louisiana redefined the advocacy and policy work of the organization. GNOHA’s homeownership group, which had previously focused on Covid-related homeownership issues, was soon renamed the ‘Louisiana housing disaster recovery group’. This new, statewide housing disaster coalition adopts an expansive scope including any housing (relief) policy and public funding at the State level that relates to disasters (Covid, Ida, 2020 disasters Laura, Delta, Zeta), both for homeowners and renters. The coalition has been quick, active and persistent. They meet on a weekly basis to exchange information and updates on the ground, reach out to partners in the most devastated areas (e.g. Terrebonne parish), offer assistance in strategy making and design next steps and actions. During the first couple of months after Ida struck, the main focus of their advocacy efforts was on the immediate and urgent problem of short-term temporary housing. Many calls and follow-up calls were made to elected officials at State and federal levels to voice concerns over delays in the deployment and delivery of trailers and the challenge of connecting these trailers to water, electricity and sewage in a timely manner. Later on, the coalition started to concentrate its efforts on longer-term solutions for disaster housing. It has advocated for a Louisiana emergency housing program anchored by a fund made readily available to finance emergency housing solutions (hotels rooms, trailers free from formaldehyde) for all future affected Louisianans; provided policy recommendations to the state legislature on insurance and tax relief policies; and continued lobbying at the city level for a rental registry that documents and maps out substandard housing, which increases disaster vulnerability for many renters in the city—especially for seniors and the disabled. GNOHA also partners with the Alliance for Affordable Energy to advocate for a stronger energy grid infrastructure to avoid long power outages in the future, as well as for higher housing standards and investments in weatherized and energy efficient houses. Finally, and importantly, the impact of Hurricane Ida rejuvenated discussions within the organization and with its affiliates as to what “disaster resilience” really means, and how they should redefine and measure resilience in a way that truly protects the most vulnerable, traumatized and devasted individuals and that guarantees housing for all.
My reflections and a final word. I have known of GNOHA’s work since 2014, when I spent a year in New Orleans for my PhD fieldwork. Back then, GNOHA was not at the epicenter of my research but it was, without a doubt, a very interesting actor in my research. In the years that followed, I kept a close eye (be it remotely) on their work; I noticed and admired their growing professionalism, influence and charismatic leadership. GNOHA is the reason I returned to New Orleans with a Fulbright grant: to gain a deeper understanding of this burgeoning and paradigmatic organization that emerged after Katrina and grew ever since; and to transfer lessons on successful disaster recovery advocacy efforts to housing alliances in Europe. Observing the work of GNOHA in the post-Ida housing response, I have drawn one important conclusion: that the work of committed, self-driven and persistent (often invisible) civil society leaders and housing advocates is absolutely invaluable; they battle on a daily basis to raise awareness on issues that matter (like housing), and help shape a more resilient built environment for all—making a difference in cities and nations (in the USA, Europe and everywhere in the world). I don’t make this reflection only from my standpoint as a researcher, but as an ordinary citizen who wants and needs to feel this comfort—that if/when a disaster affects me, my beloved ones and any other fellow citizen, organizations and protection systems are in place to offer everyone shelter from the storm.
I end this blogpost with a quote from the leader of GNOHA, Ms. Andreanecia Morris. During a GNOHA meeting on September 30, 2021, she said something simple but truly inspiring:
“There are people right now who don’t have anywhere to sleep tonight. And it doesn’t matter if it is because of Covid, Ida, or because it’s (just) Thursday! We are going to advocate for housing, to make people safe and secure today, across the region… (and) we want to make sure that everyone has safe, affordable and sustainable housing at any point…be it a hurricane or just a Thursday. And that is the system that we need to be getting to”.
These words were music to my ear, just like Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm”. They present a reminder that housing is not only a core human need. It is also a collective, long-term and transformative process that will hopefully lead to safer, more democratic and egalitarian human environments.
Dr. Angeliki Paidakaki is a Greek 2021-2022 Fulbright Research Scholar to the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Paidakaki is an urban and housing researcher with an expertise in egalitarian urban (re)development, governance innovations and affordable housing in (post-)crisis times. Since 2018, she has been a postdoctoral researcher at KU Leuven, where her 2017 PhD dissertation on the post-Katrina recovery of New Orleans was awarded the University’s highest distinction. Her research focuses on the social and political agency of non-profit housing actors to better realize their housing-for-all vision and shape more egalitarian European cities. She has published in a wide range of peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes and communicated science to non-academic audiences through podcasts, public speeches and web publications.Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.