A Crash Course in Disaster: Common Ground and Community Care After Hurricane Ida 

Despite passing familiarity with Common Ground Relief and their mission (due to my friendship with Director and Conservationist-in-Chief Charlotte Clarke) my first experience volunteering for CGR came in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, in the early Fall of 2021.

By chance, I had been out of town visiting family out west when Hurricane Ida formed with astonishing speed and struck the Southeast coast of Louisiana, temporarily stranding me in Denver while a severely curtailed roster of flights were able to land in New Orleans.

l called my neighbor, who was able to confirm that while our ten-unit apartment building had no power, it did have running water and was structurally sound (when I called my landlord, he was clearly MIA and said the apartment was “probably ok.”). I landed back in New Orleans about ten days after the storm had hit, while Entergy was still giving wide-ranging estimates on when the lights would be back on. The ground-floor apartment that I shared with two roommates was still dark, and I cleaned the fridge and freezer with water, dish soap and vinegar as I waited for one of my roommates to arrive back home with our pets that she had heroically evacuated, gagging at the putrescence and sweating in the heat.

I had returned to town for a few reasons—my cat and dog were with my saintly roommate, who was evacuated in Shreveport and staying in rundown motels there (the first few days she was stuck in a malodorous smoking room), who also wanted to return, and I had spoken with Charlotte, who told me that CGR could use all the assistance it could get as it served as a community hub in the aftermath of Ida. Its normally weekly food pantry (started in 2020) now was operating every day, and the harm reduction group that I volunteer with, Trystereo, was also using CGR’s offices as a distribution and meeting site as many of our members’ homes lacked power.

And so, the day after landing in a near-vacant MSY airport, where all of the restaurants were shuttered (I had foolishly envisioned getting a hot meal when I landed), I awoke early the next morning, walked my overheated and elderly shepard mix around the overheated block, and biked over the St Claude bridge to Deslonde Street and the CGR offices

Temperatures were already at unmerciful levels well before 10 am. Deslonde Street had miraculously had its power restored before much of the city, and had also seen pallets and boxes of donations come in as the need soared in the city. As the city languished without power, as restaurants and bars and offices remained shuttered, New Orleanians went without paychecks, and faced incredibly steep costs for home repairs caused by the hurricane. The river parishes—St. Charles , St. John the Baptist, Ascension, and St. James, had been hit especially hard, and CGR, along with other mutual aid organizations in New Orleans, were coordinating trucks loaded with supplies—including generators and stacks of tarps—to go out each day. We—the volunteers—unloaded and organized mountains of supplies, from dried pasta, pallets of groceries, stacks of tarps and donated foodstuffs, to boxes upon boxes of diapers, which are unflaggingly expensive even as they are indispensable for families with young children. While the heat rose and the city stayed mostly dark, the food pantry was able to supply tarps, pet food, shelf-stable food and produce, diapers and back-to-school supplies to a steady stream of neighbors.

Despite the heat and uncertainty, there was a cheerful camaraderie that arose between the volunteers. Each day I arose early, biked over the bridge and got to work organizing new donations, loading up trucks bound for the river parishes, and signed people in so that they could “shop” at the food pantry, which imposed no income barriers and no threshold on how much people could bring home to their families. It was the honor system, and it worked well, for everyone was honorable. The people coming to the pantry were happy to see us, and the live-in volunteers at the CGR house were there to explain to new volunteers how the pantry worked, and where everything was kept. We joked around, half-delirious in the heat. We worried we were not doing enough. The evenings were brief—we drank a little beer, ate a little (the heat had not broken), took cold showers in darkened apartments and went to bed early, for there was no power and no wi-fi. One evening, I went with my Trystereo comrades to give out what meager supplies we could, as no new deliveries were coming into New Orleans to re-stock our cache of syringes. So instead of syringes, we had cigarettes, and our usual narcan. We drank beers and gave people the supplies we had.

It was an odd pause from the everyday, because while my home remained without power and internet, so too did my office, so I was effectively on unpaid leave. My only “job” was to volunteer at the pantry. And it felt good, that my only job was something that was materially helpful, to people in my neighborhood. It felt good to be interacting with people, and trying to pitch in to hurricane recovery. Restaurants had cooked off their perishable foods and distributed it for free, and opened their grills to cook more food for the people. On the other side of the canal, a coffee shop called St. Coffee opened late to serve free heaping servings of vegan mac ‘n cheese. One afternoon, I joined Charlotte on a trip to the hardware store to buy supplies to send off to the river parishes. We filled two giant shopping carts, and Charlotte fretted that the supplies would never be enough.

Though those days after Ida were the first times that I volunteered with CGR, they would not be my last. It was clear that the work that the little pantry under the little volunteer house was punching well above its weight in distributing food and aid, that it was a resource that people in the neighborhood trusted, and that the staff and volunteers had built trust with the people they were working with and serving. It was a terrible time, and frightening. With the air and water growing warmer and the promise of more hurricanes in the future, New Orleanians were staring into a muddied future. But we gave out backpacks, and notebooks, and fruit and milk and swept the dust from the pantry floor and kept each other company. It was a good place to be.