The Chicago-based school reform group Journey For Justice Alliance got the call from member group Step Up Louisiana, in New Orleans.
Things were bad — really bad — in the wake of Hurricane Ida. Could J4J mobilize member groups from across the country to come help them?
They were on the next plane.
“Once they explained just how desperate the situation was, we put the call out. Soon, our rapid response team was flying into Houston,” said J4J’s National Director Jitu Brown, the longtime organizer with the South Side Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.
Brown chatted Thursday from Houston, where a contingent of his umbrella group of grassroots organizations battling racial inequity in public education had arrived on a relief mission Tuesday.
The call for help came in wake of the Category 4 hurricane that slammed Louisiana last weekend, leaving at least 12 dead, a million without power and 600,000 without water.
President Joe Biden, promising the full might of the federal government toward recovery efforts, on Friday toured the devastation left in the Big Easy and surrounding areas.
After smacking Louisiana, the fifth-strongest hurricane to ever hit the United States had moved up the East Coast to deluge the Northeast and leave another 46 dead in widespread flooding across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and surrounding areas.
Partnering with the Louisiana NAACP to determine what items were most needed besides tons of bottled water, J4J rented three cargo vehicles and loaded them with soap, hand sanitizer, COVID-19 protective equipment, diapers and non-perishable food, and caravanned Wednesday from Houston to Baton Rouge, five hours away.
“Groups from New Orleans and surrounding smaller, mostly Black parishes that put you in mind of Harvey, Ford Heights and Maywood — all severely impacted — drove truckloads of folks to Baton Rouge to pick up the supplies,” said Brown.
“They were so grateful for us doing what we should be doing in the first place: helping our fellow human beings. They kept saying: ‘We appreciate you.’ We kept saying: ‘You’re not alone.’ After hearing more stories of need, we agreed to come back in two weeks,” Brown said.
Returning to Houston from Baton Rouge, J4J learned of the plight of about a dozen New Orleans families who had evacuated before the hurricane, staying at a Houston hotel. Unprepared for a storm that would batter the power grid, the families were facing eviction.
“When we found out about these Louisiana families about to be put out of a hotel on the outskirts of Houston, we reached out to them. Through our own budget, we paid for their rooms through the weekend, and dropped off supplies,” Brown said.
“We learned there are many families in their situation. They say they’ve reached out to FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], and FEMA has not been responsive, that FEMA has just taken their names and information, and they have yet to hear back. I hope we’re not looking at a repeat of the federal lack of response during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina,” he said.
The power outage has created miserable heat and humid conditions. And with the storm forcing refinery shutdowns, residents are stuck in mile-long lines for dwindling fuel.
However, New Orleans residents got hope for relief Friday, when electric utility Entergy announced it expects to have the grid back up in the New Orleans metropolitan area by Sept. 8 — meaning residents will have suffered 10 days without electricity.
John Mills, spokesman with FEMA’s Region VII Incident Management Assistance Team assigned to Hurricane Ida’s impact in Louisiana, said Friday that the agency has put in place exhaustive resources, including Transitional Sheltering Assistance, for residents like those helped by J4J at the hotel — with $93.7 million already paid directly to Hurricane Ida survivors.
“FEMA is working directly with tens of thousands of survivors. We are communicating with them, and have been all week. Many times, people have registered with other agencies they may believe is FEMA, but are really local, state or charitable organizations. We’re encouraging impacted residents to get in touch with FEMA online or by phone,” he said.
Requests for assistance can be made via www.disasterassistance.gov, or 1-800-621-3362.
But some of the families helped by J4J insist they applied for FEMA help via proper venues.
“The night before Ida hit, I got the unction to leave, and you have to let the Holy Spirit lead you,” said Melissa Francis, 52, of New Orleans, who was at the hotel with her husband and three daughters.
“I grabbed our birth certificates, a bunch of food and my hot plate — remembering what I had needed after Katrina — and we left at 5 a.m. Saturday in a caravan of nine cars.”
A fourth daughter and two grandchildren, plus Francis’ mother, grandmother, sister and brother, had refused to evacuate, and now are suffering through the heat and darkness and struggle to find supplies, Francis said.
“The city sent a survey asking our immediate needs. I filled it out. I’ve heard nothing. I’ve filled out a form with FEMA. I’ve heard nothing. I’m living moment to moment, and nobody has reached out. How many days after the storm is this? I’m still waiting for help,” she said.
“All the families here were so grateful to Journey For Justice for paying our hotel bill. Now they asked what we needed, and they brought it — water, medicine, PPE, diapers, snacks, all sorts of supplies. I’ll tell you what — they’ve done us better than any government agency.”
As Brown left Houston Friday for Chicago, he was determined to return next time hauling even more needed supplies.
“In 2005, I along with everybody else watched in horror as New Orleans residents — primarily Black people — stood on roofs crying out, ‘Help! Come get us please!’ I remember just feeling helpless,” he said. “We’re thankful to be able to do what we just did, but the need in Louisiana calls for so much more, and I refuse to feel helpless this time.”
Those wishing to contribute to J4J’s next supply run can do so at j4jalliance.com/donate.