Three months after Hurricane Ida barreled through Louisiana, the town of Jean Lafitte near New Orleans is still pulling itself out of destruction and despair.
“Hurricane Ida was our Hurricane Katrina; it completely devastated our community,” said Jean Lafitte’s Mayor Tim Kerner.
“This was the worst disaster in our history.”
Nonprofits and FEMA have been on the ground for months, but long-term recovery efforts have been slow for the small community. Now, nonprofits including Habitat for Humanity are sending out an appeal for volunteers and donors to help get the area back on track.
A town destroyed
Although Jean Lafitte sits just 22 miles south of downtown New Orleans, Hurricane Ida’s impact on each city was completely different. While New Orleans dealt with flooding and a nearly two-week power outage, many residents in Jean Lafitte lost everything.
“A big portion of Lafitte became homeless overnight,” said Kerner who told CNN the town was placed in a vulnerable position years earlier following Hurricane Katrina “when the federal government decided to build levees around the entire region besides our area.”
“The decision to build levees all around us leaves all the water to fill up here.”
Hurricane Ida brought a little of everything to the town.
“We had the water, we had the wind. So people had significant water damage. Not only that, you had 4 feet of mud in people’s homes,” Kerner explained.
The town, which sits on the Mississippi River Delta, did have a state-run ring levee system built around it, but it wasn’t enough for Hurricane Ida.
Many residents like Benny Alexie bore the brunt of the storm. Alexie’s home was washed onto the nearby highway.
“It took me 40 years to get where I was,” said Alexie. “It only took a matter of hours to lose it all.”
“What this community has endured has been just so unjust,” explained Kerner.
“Our most vulnerable people are priced out of insurance and don’t qualify for FEMA.”
Some residents didn’t qualify for FEMA assistance due to lack of proof of occupancy because of informal inheritance of homes; others had paid insurance claims that were insufficient to repair and protect their homes long-term.
Kerner said that although there’s been some progress in the last few months, recovery for so many Jean Lafitte citizens could take years.
“They need funds; they need people to come to help build the homes and put their roofs back together.”
Habitat for Humanity dedicated to long-term recovery
Habitat for Humanity has been on the ground since the hurricane struck, distributing tarps and other supplies to help the community protect what remains of their homes from further damage.
“That’s not where habitat really shines,” said Marguerite Oestreicher, executive director of the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.
“It’s long-term recovery and helping people figure out a path to rebuilding.”
Oestreicher said Jean Lafitte is the type of community where neighbors are helping neighbors in their time of need.
“Right now, everyone is hurting, and the amount of work to be done is just overwhelming.”
This is why volunteers are essential.
“Those are the extra hands,” Oestreicher explained. “Those are the people who can come in; they can muck and gut, and they don’t have to be skilled carpenters in order to be helpful.”
New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity recently reopened its doors to new volunteers. Since the coronavirus pandemic, only core or long-time volunteers like Dennis Kehoe have been on work sites. Kehoe has volunteered with the nonprofit since 1991. He said the work can be a unifying experience.
“It’s not just building houses, but it’s a ministry to teach people about volunteering and community involvement,” said Kehoe.
“I think it is important for communities to come together and show solidarity.”
Volunteers and donations needed
Volunteers and financial support can help families in the Jean Lafitte area get back on track.
“Every gift of time and every donation that they make is going to be put to good use,” said Oestreicher.
To donate to the Hurricane Ida disaster relief fund, click here.
To find out more about how you can volunteer your time, review the Habitat for Humanity volunteer page.