Damage from Hurricane Ida is seen in Norco, Louisiana, as smoke billows from an oil refinery in the distance.

What a hurricane means when you live in Louisiana's 'Cancer Alley'

Updated 10:52 AM ET, Tue September 7, 2021

(CNN)Milton Cayette Jr. was stuck in his home in St. James Parish after uprooted trees from Hurricane Ida blocked his driveway and damaged his front door. Cayette, who uses a wheelchair, called parish officials for help. They never came.

Parish officials, however, told CNN that they did not receive calls that match Cayette's situation, adding that the government is "by law, not allowed to enter or conduct work on private property unless it is an emergency life saving measure." It wasn't until two days later when a group of volunteers from New Orleans came to saw and remove the trees that he was able to go outside.
"I've seen it all," Cayette, a retired industry worker, told CNN. "After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the chemical plants started building and operating. A lot of them. It all changed."
About 50 miles away in St. John the Baptist Parish, Robert Taylor Jr., executive director of Concerned Citizens of St. John, said many residents were trapped in their attics after the storm while others witnessed their roofs being ripped off by Ida.
The lack of emergency response after the hurricane, Taylor said, is just another example of the neglect the community has long suffered. Residents say the government failed to prepare the community for the storm by not issuing an evacuation order earlier or assisting poor and vulnerable residents who could not manage to flee their homes, like Cayette.
"The government is obviously failing us and not protecting us," said Taylor, who evacuated from St. John before Hurricane Ida hit. "And this just pushed it over the top."
Milton Cayette Jr. was stuck in his home for two days before fallen trees could be cleared.
The predominantly Black community of St. John and the nearly majority Black population of St. James sit at the heart of Louisiana's "Cancer Alley," the 85-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that's home to more than 150 chemical plants and oil refineries. According to the Environmental Protection Agency's 2019 environmental justice data, eight of the nation's top 14 block groups — census areas that typically contain 600 to 3,000 people — with the country's estimated highest cancer risks are in St. John.
Until recently, Cayette, who has lived in the region for 70 years and previously worked at a nearby petrochemical plant, never connected the growth of the chemical industry to the region's suddenly high cancer rates. But then his wife died of breast cancer a few years ago -- and he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer on top of his diabetes. Now, he lives alone with the sight of industrial facilities looming outside his window.